Two hundred students back from winter break are already trading noisy banter when Dr. Michael Eric Dyson strides into the lecture hall, reaches into his briefcase, and pulls out a stack of CDs. An urgent voice soon rises through the din:
As he reviews his notes at the lectern, the 44-year-old Dyson bobs his goateed chin up and down to the recording of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur.
Suddenly the music is shut off. The class quiets.
Religious Studies 113 has begun.
Hows everybody doing? asks Dyson, Penns new Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities. This class is a seminar on Schopenhauerthat right? he deadpans. The students laugh. They are here not to study German philosophers, but to learn about one of raps most influential and controversial artists, Tupac Shakur. Just 25 when he was slain in a 1996 drive-by shooting, Shakur has sold millions of records that speak to a generation of youth, including those who feel themselves pushed to societys margins. His lyrics both glorify the gangster lifewhich he saw as an almost inevitable response to poverty and racismand critique its self-destructive outcomes.
Dyson, an ordained minister, high-profile pundit, and outspoken social critic who joined Penns religious-studies department and Center for Africana Studies in the fall, goes on to explain the purpose of the course: To look at Tupac Shakur as a cultural figure of enormous importance and to probe the ethical, moral, social, and political consequencesand especially the religious dimensionsof his thought.
Transforming his usual baritone into a taunting rasp, Dyson poses this preemptive challenge: Why you tryin to give world-historical importance to a dad-gum rrrrrapper?
Though most who would dismiss hip-hop as a subject for scholarly analysis are probably absent this afternoon, Dyson proceeds to argue, tease, and even rap his way to some answers. In this class, Mos Def and Lil Kim meet Michel Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartretwo cats also known for their hip-hop lyrics.
Shakurs genius, Dyson contends, lay not in his artistry with words or his haunting baritone so much as his keen ability to ask fundamental questions about suffering and evil, evoking a kind of thug theodicy: How can a God who is claimed to be ostensibly good and possessing power allow Gods children to suffer in the midst of a cultural context that seems hell-bent on destroying the very people who worship that God?
In his biography of Shakur, Holler if You Hear Me, Dyson calls him a hip-hop Jeremiah, an urban prophet crying out loud about the hurt that he constantly saw and sowed. He goes on to add that, Perhaps more than any other rapper, Tupac tried to live the life he rapped about, which had spectacular results in the studio but disastrous results in the world, where the artist had numerous run-ins with the law on assault and weapons charges.
Shakur was a high-school dropout who devoured books and wrote poetry; a rapper who alternately defended and demeaned women in his lyrics. The son of a Black Panther activist, Shakurs mind and soul were divided between his revolutionary pedigree and his thug persona.
Thugs bring arbitrary correction to the imbalances that revolutionaries seek to redress, Dyson writes. By giving in to the temptations of gangster life, Tupac lost his hold on the frustrating but powerful moral ambiguity that makes the rhetorical representation of gangsta rappers effective. In fleeing from art to the actual, from appearance to reality, from studio to the streets, Tupac lost his life.
More than six years after his unsolved murder, stories abound on the street corner and on the Internet that Shakur lives onsome fans suggest in Cuba. According to Dyson, he has become the first black figure with a serious chance at the persistent cultural memory accorded Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean.
As a result of his death and life, Dyson tells his students, he serves as a prism, a sharp lens through which we view the conflicts and contradictions of black urban existence.