Nikki Giovanni’s ‘Thug Life’
(June column for the Greater Far Northeast Reporter)
Almost five years ago I was in an auditorium in Ithaca, N.Y., where I had the pleasure of seeing poet, professor and author Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni. She is a world-renowned poet best known for her poem “Ego Tripping” (one of my mother’s favorites) and is the Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, the recipient of 19 honorary doctorates and a noted civil rights activist.
That evening Giovanni stood at the front of the room with nearly 1,000 people in attendance and recited a few of her poems. After reading one she began to talk about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and what he would have been like if he were alive today.
“I know Martin would’ve had a tattoo,” I remember her saying. She then rolled up the left sleeve of her white, button-up blouse and revealed to the crowd the two words tattooed on her forearm, “Thug Life.”
“In honor of ‘Pac,” she said.
Giovanni knew Tupac Shakur, the rapper, actor and activist she refers to as “‘Pac,” who was shot and killed in September 1996. When he died she composed a poem for him called “All Eyez on u” as an elegy for the slain artist. Many only know Shakur as a thug, provocateur and gangster rapper who met his end when he was gunned down 16 years ago in Las Vegas. But he was so much more than that. Her poem detailed the complex life of the mercurial and often misunderstood MC.
As I tossed and turned unable to achieve sleep unable to control anxiety unable to comprehend why
2Pac is not with us
if those who live by the sword died by the sword there would be no white men on the earth
if those who lived on hatred died on hatred there would be no KKK
if those who lived by lies died by lies there would be nobody on wall
street in executive suits in academic offices instructing the young
don’t tell me he got what he deserved
As the son of two Black Panthers, Tupac embodied the spirit of revolution and rebellion that made the Panthers one of the most enigmatic, notorious and feared organizations in American history.
His mother, Afeni Shakur, and his father, Billy Garland, were active members of the Panther Party in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Tupac was born just one month after his mother’s acquittal on more than 150 charges of conspiracy against the United States government.
The struggle for freedom, both his own and that of his people, surrounded Tupac for his entire life. His godfather, Geronimo Pratt, a well-known Panther, was convicted of murdering a school teacher during a 1968 robbery, although his sentence was later overturned. His stepfather, Mutulu, spent four years on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in the 1980s, largely for helping his sister Assata Shakur escape from a prison in New Jersey, where she had been incarcerated for allegedly shooting a state trooper to death in 1973. Both insist they are innocent to this day.
This was the struggle that Tupac was born into. He was gestated in prison and born into the free air of East Harlem. When he died, a valiant voice in the struggle for black rights and Black Power died too. He was more than a rapper and certainly more than a gangster. ‘Pac was a poet, a prophet and a philosopher.
“Let me say for the record,” Shakur said in 1995 to the Los Angeles Times. “I am not a gangster and never have been. I’m not the thief who grabs your purse. I’m not the guy who jacks your car. I’m not down with the people who steal and hurt others. I’m just a brother who fights back.”
This was the man Giovanni remembered.
he deserved a chariot and the accolades of a grateful people
he deserved his life
it is as clear as a mountain stream as defining as a lightning strike
as terrifying as sun to vampires
there were those who called it dirty
gansta rap inciting there were those who never wanted to be
angry at conditions but angry at the messenger who reported:
your kitchen has roaches your toilet is over flowing you basement has so much water the rats are in the living room your house is in disorder
and 2Pac told you about it
Tupac’s gift to the world wasn’t his music, it was his message. He spoke to people through his lyrics, his poetry, his prose and his sense of self.
“Though our hands are chained like they are, they haven’t taken music from us yet. So that’s how I’ll fight,” he said in 1993.
But when we hear about Tupac’s legacy we don’t see him speaking to audiences of thousands about the need to control their communities. We don’t see him creating peace treaties between gangs in Compton and putting a stop to gang violence. We aren’t told about the hours he spent mentoring young black boys growing up in the ghetto with no fathers.
We hear about Tupac the Thug or Tupac the Misogynist. We see him spitting into the camera or holding weapons or flashing his middle finger. We hear profanity-laced tirades like, “Hit ‘em Up” or “Hail Mary” and we dismiss the man that Tupac was. We ignor tracks like, “Keep Your Head Up,” “Better Dayz,” “Changes,” and “Dear Mama,” but Nikki Giovanni knew better.
what a beautiful boy graceful carriage melodic voice sharp wit intellectual breadth
what a beautiful boy to lose
I don’t believe east coast west coast
I saw them murder Emmett Till I saw them murder Malcolm X
I saw them murder
Martin Luther King
I witnessed them shooting Rap Brown I saw them beat LeRoi Jones
I saw them fill their jails I see them burning churches
Tupac made music about what he saw, about what was around him and about who he was. That never changed. Things were ugly so he told you they were ugly.
“My music is not for everyone,” he told the world. “It’s only for the strong-willed…It’s not like party music…My music is spiritual. It’s like Negro spirituals, except for the fact that I’m not saying ‘We shall overcome.’ I’m saying that we are overcome.”
He’s no saint. He’s as much of a sinner as there was in this world. He drank, he cursed, he fought and he was arrested multiple times and even convicted. Tupac lived the struggle he rapped about and he died without ever finding solace from it. He was born on June 9, 1971, and he died on at the age of 25 on September 13, 1996. But his legacy lives on through people like Ms. Giovanni who will never forget who he was and what he stood for.
I do not believe this is some sort of mouth action
This is some sort of political action and they picked well
they picked the brightest freshest fruit from the tallest tree
what a beautiful boy
but he will not go away
as Malcolm did not go away
as Emmett Till did not go away
your shooting him will not take him from us
his spirit will fill our hearts