Manchild in the Promised Land is a classic autobiography by Claude Brown, but it easily could be lasered as tattoos on the chests of rap superheroes Kanye West and the late Tupac Shakur. Let’s start with their Black Power era-inspired names: Tupac, paired with his middle name, Amaru, means “shining serpent,” while Shakur translates as “thankful to God.” Kanye means “to give honor,” and his middle name, Omari, “God is the highest.” Clearly, the parents of these two bright-eyed Gemini boys must’ve known they had brought fire-breathing revolutionaries into the building.
These two ’70s babies, both raised in households rooted in spirituality and Black nationalism, discovered life callings in hip-hop. Kanye danced, rapped, and produced; Tupac, danced, acted and rapped. Pac caught his break by way of pioneering Bay Area rap collective Digital Underground and his stunning star turn in the film Juice. Kanye was put on by legendary Chicago hip-hop producer No I.D. The rest, as Pac and Kanye might say, is his story. It reads like this: CDs released, critical acclaim, a little cash in the pocket and drama in multiple lanes—Kanye in a near-death car accident, Pac in getting shot five times in lobby of a New York City recording studio. That they lived to tell their stories in interviews and in songs only cemented their budding reps. Pac had more court cases than he could count, and Kanye famously stated during a 2005 telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
At their best, Tupac and Kanye have been eloquent and incendiary spokesmen for post-Civil Rights Movement America. See Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” or his tribute to his mother, Afeni, “Dear Mama.” See Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” or his brazen “New Slaves.” At their worst, this dynamic duo has kicked lyrics that have made us cringe: See Tupac’s “Hit ’Em Up” or Kanye’s hypermaterialism on “Ni**s in Paris.”
Read the rest in the June-dated issue of EBONY magazine!
Kevin Powell is an award-winning writer, public speaker, and political activist. Through the years Kevin has written for EBONY, Esquire, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Essence, Rolling Stone, The Huffington Post and Vibe, where he served as a senior writer. He is also the author of 11 books, including his latest, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and the Ghost of Dr. King: Blogs and Essays. Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell, or email him at [email protected].