Tupac was always an influential figure in hip hop and has become even more so after his untimely death. His ideas and struggles have been captured on film, through several books, poems, and of course his music. Over the last few years academia has taken an interest in Pac with prestigious schools such as Harvard and Berkeley devoting entire courses to study his life and contributions to pop culture. Georgia Roberts, a graduate student and teaching assistant from the University of Washington, designed one of the most recent courses viewing Pac as a philosopher alongside the texts of luminaries like Machiavelli and Gramsci. Georgia took out some time from her studies to give us a lesson on the ‘Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur.’
Halftime: So tell us about your course. How did it start?
Georgia Roberts: I wanted to get a reading group together. I’m a teaching assistant in the Comparative History of Ideas program and they look at different cultural movements to try to think through issues of identity. It’s like Philosophy and History mixed. You can start reading groups, called focus groups, if you’re interested in a particular subject. The first focus group I did was on the History of Hip Hop. It was really interesting watching Wild Style and just trying to be educated about the culture in general. I did that and it seemed like all the time I wanted to talk about Tupac. Everyone would be arguing about KRS-ONE says this and I’d be like no Pac says this. So I was just trying to figure out why growing up I was more attracted to Tupac than other people. I thought it was deeper than his sex appeal. So I got this focus group together for the Fall Quarter. I think that got attention because Resurrection was coming out so people kept calling me about how I’m teaching this course on Tupac but it really was just a focus group. From all of that attention they actually asked me to teach a class. So this quarter I’m teaching the actual five-credit class and giving students a grade for it. The students are from all different departments.
What are some of the goals you have for people joining the course?
Georgia: The way that I imagine it is there are two sorts of genealogies to Tupac. There’s his biographical history and what that was like and the history of ideas he is working within. They overlap at a lot of points, but at times I think they are separate. I wanted students to be able to understand he is working within an ideology of the Black Panthers, which is working within an ideology of Malcolm X, which is working in an ideology of Dubois and Marcus Garvey and so on. I wanted them to have that side of it along with what specific about growing up in the eighties was going on like crack in the neighborhoods. What does it mean to actually theorize about prisons now? They read selections from Kitwana’s ‘œHip hop Generation’, I had them read the writings of Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and they are reading Machiavelli right now. People say Tupac was a deep dude all the time but nobody can back it up, so I wanted them to be able to back up their theory behind it and be able to converse about the importance of a figure like Tupac. The first day of class a lot of girls are ‘˜it’s because he’s fine,’ but they knew they liked him for other reasons too. I’m just trying to provide a space where they can dialogue about that.
How do you incorporate his lyrics to show off those different aspects?
Georgia: This week we did ‘œMe and My Girlfriend’ and a lot of kids in my class were eleven or twelve when that came out so they have no idea that it was about a gun. Some people could see the gun part but they couldn’t see the relationship between sex, violence and power and why that was such a powerful metaphor to use when he talks about finger fucking. It’s not just that he was a misogynist, he was trying to theorize through violence and sexuality. I wanted them to think about that in terms of what’s going on in the news right now. We see the images of the soldier and all the naked men [in Iraq]. I think those are important for students to try to think through. I think one of the ways to do that is to theorize more broadly about how sex and violence are intimately tied to issues of power. Today we looked at blasphemy and compared it to Nietzsche ‘˜Beyond Good And Evil’ thinking about hell on earth and what it means to theorize that heaven is here and not a place outside of us. It’s thinking about Tupac as a philosopher and what his philosophy looked like. We haven’t come to any major conclusions yet, it’s a process like anything else. We did have a moment today though. The women that I know that are into Tupac have a hard time saying he was a misogynist. They’re intellectual women that are attracted to his intellect. One of the things we talked about today was one of his songs ‘œWonder Why They Call You Bitch’ and really thought about the ways in which Tupac served as a male spy for women saying ‘˜this is what dudes are saying behind your back.’ In a way he was real to the guys but he could also spy on them for the girls and tell stories women wanted to hear too. People always say there are two sides to Tupac and the thing we got in the class was there are more than two sides to everybody. When you can transcend sides, that was Nietzsche whole thing beyond good and evil, then you can tap into the human and that’s where a lot of people can think about Tupac.
How much knowledge would the average student need to get the most out of this class?
Georgia: Most of the students are juniors and seniors. Not all of them have taken an ethnic studies course. They don’t necessarily have to have that but the students that have had that have been able to get beyond race only. A lot of students are shocked about the history of this country. It’s harder for the students who haven’t gone there yet. The kids from the suburbs consume the music and the culture but to be able to theorize their practices is a different answer for them as opposed to the ones from the city. I think if you can get those two groups talking to each other then the culture has power.
What about Tupac influences you?
Georgia: I think just his passion. We read Michael Eric Dyson’s book and someone was quoted in there saying Tupac was just as passionate when he was cooking tacos as he was when he was talking about race. That in and of itself is extremely inspiring. I don’t know how any person can live like that and sustain that type of passion. That and his will to live honestly regardless of the consequences. It’s interesting to think about Tupac when you put him in a conversation with Malcolm X and Huey P Newton. All these people were willing to stand up and have a voice.
Do the students ask you why he keeps coming out with stuff?
Georgia: I had them read some stuff by Assatta Shakur. They’re not chilling in Cuba, no way.
What has been the student response after you have exposed them to the text that Tupac is referencing or paraphrasing?
Georgia: We read Dr. Faustus, it’s a Christopher Marlowe text, it’s written in the sixteenth century and students are just like whatever. I think it’s a matter of close reading skills. We read Huey Newton ‘œRevolutionary Suicide’ and some other Black Panther work. Huey was a big Macbeth fan and loved Shakespeare. It’s easier for me to show them Huey loved Shakespeare and wonder what’s dope about Shakespeare and for Huey to say it then for me to show them Shakespeare and say you must like it. It’s a way to finagle what someone else likes and mix it in with something else. The stuff they have gotten the most of has been philosophers like Antonio Gramsci. His idea is the organic intellectual as being an intellectual that comes from the people and doesn’t leave the people and speaks for the people. It’s giving them a vocabulary to think of the importance of a figure like Tupac. The media wanted to say ‘˜keeping it real’ got him killed but keeping it real kept him with the people and I think that’s important for people to theorize.
What are some examples that you’ve seen teaching these classes that really makes a strong case for using hiphop and hiphop culture as an educational tool?
Georgia: Honestly, as far as my teaching experience its rare to get a completely diverse classroom where people are coming from different points of view, different educational goals, and different ethnic and racial backgrounds. There’s usually a lot of girls in English and Humanities based classes while the Engineering department was mostly boys. It’s interesting to have a class to talk about social issues that isn’t for certain types of majors.