Leave it to the late, great Tupac Shakur to bring hiphop to Broadway. Holler if Ya Hear Me—opening June 19 at the Palace Theatre—uses the rap icon’s lyrics to spin an original, non-biographical drama about “friendship, family, revenge, change and hope.” Days ago at the Upper West Side’s Ballet Hispanico, director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, The Mountaintop) ran the cast through four set pieces for the media, outlining bits of writer Todd Kreidler’s storyline using Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. hits like “Keep Ya Head Up” and “I Get Around.” The preview’s highlight, unsurprisingly, was starring poet-actor Saul Williams.
As a poet (The Dead Emcee Scrolls), actor (Slam) and MC (Volcanic Sunlight), Williams is the obvious choice to bring to life the spirit of a poet-actor-MC like 2Pac. Newly married and fresh from four years abroad in Paris, the triple-threat thespian talked to EBONY.com about Holler if Ya Hear Me and his opinions of Tupac as a poet, an icon and a revolutionary.
EBONY: You can travel to Paris, Sierra Leone or wherever around the world and see Tupac T-shirts and graffiti murals. He’s become as much of an icon as Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley. What do you think explains that?
Saul Williams: I mean, the main thing we have to realize is that Tupac was birthed into some political affiliations that we have to acknowledge. Like, his aunt is Assata Shakur, who is still in political asylum in Cuba. His father, Mutulu Shakur, is still in prison. His mother was in prison all because they were targeted by COINTELPRO. So Tupac felt that targeting from the time when he was young and it’s embedded in his work.
The way I see Pac is like this: it is true as an east coaster baby, some of us could have slept or what have you, but we always loved his spirit. You know who I compare him to? Like, [painter Jean-Michel] Basquiat. In his short lifespan, Basquiat had seven [artistic] movements that he went through. Tupac as well had those movements in his work. If you go through all of his albums, all of his work, he did essentially a thesis on the Black community with an emphasis on the plight of the Black male. You can see that clearly in his work.
Tupac’s legacy is larger than life. The first time I went to Senegal, Mali, the Gambia—
Wu-Tang says, ‘That’s amazing/Gun in your mouth talk,’ and Maya Angelou says, ‘Anything an artist writes should be written with the urgency of what they would write if someone were holding a gun in their mouth.’ Tupac wrote from that place.
EBONY: He’s there.
SW: In ’94, before he was dead, there were already images of Tupac next to Bob Marley. Before he was dead, they just recognized he represented something real. Real recognize real, and it’s essentially that. Pac symbolized and symbolizes that. And the further we get away from his death and the more we go into his work, I think you essentially just can realize. You’ll see it in this play, because when you hear, like you saw here, the words [of “Keep Ya Head Up”] coming out of women’s mouths—
EBONY: That was powerful.
SW: You realize how ahead of his time he was, and you also realize that his idea of a thug is very different form the reigning idea of a thug. For him, that [THUG LIFE] acronym—“The Hate U Gave Little Infants Fu*ks Everyone”—had nothing to do with materialism, had nothing to do with Cîroc, had nothing to do with Maybachs, had nothing to do with fu*king Picassos. It had nothing to do with any of that.
Look at the name of his group, The Outlawz. They all had names based on people that were enemies of the state. For him, that thug life had to do with representing the misrepresented and not saying, “Oh, look. I could be rich.” He was saying, “I’m not afraid of the system, I’m not afraid to speak up!” And so Tupac was a thug in a way that these so-called thugs out here could never even fu*k with! Rick Ross is not… that’s not what he’s talking about. And so it’s great to be part of that reminder of what real thug life is.
EBONY: As a poet, did you read Tupac’s poetry collection, The Rose That Grew from Concrete?
SW: Yeah, I read it.
EBONY: How do feel about Tupac as a straight-up poet, outside of his emceeing?
SW: My introduction to poetry came through hiphop. Pac says that his introduction to hiphop came through poetry. I would say that Tupac is the American [Arthur] Rimbaud. Because when you think of [Allen] Ginsberg or whatever, it’s great to be able to write beautiful, poignant poetry that speaks to the system or what have you from a bourgeoisie sideline. But it’s another thing to live in it and to die in the midst of it. Tupac wrote in the middle of some sh!t. Like what Wu-Tang says [on “Triumph”], “That’s amazing/Gun in your mouth talk,” and Maya Angelou says, “Anything an artist writes should be written with the urgency of what they would write if someone were holding a gun in their mouth.” Tupac wrote from that place. And I compare him to Rimbaud because Rimbaud also wrote this violent poetry where he’s like, “I’m a ni**a, the merchant’s a ni**a, the president is a ni**a.” That’s Rimbaud said that.
EBONY: Mad young.
SW: Mad young! He stopped writing early and then he went to Ethiopia and sold guns and slaves. Tupac was that. Tupac went out in a blaze in the same way. When I think of what he did on the page as a poet, where it came from, it’s strong.
EBONY: How similar or different is your character in Holler if Ya Hear Me from Tupac?
SW: Oh, it’s completely different from Tupac. I think that if anything, I would say that maybe the 25 of us on stage all represent different aspects of Tupac, and the writer Todd Kreidler did a great job. You know, you should be clear on the fact that this project started when Afeni Shakur went to [the late playwright] August Wilson. When you think of an August Wilson play, you understand what I’m saying. That’s what the fu*k we’re talking about. The brilliance of this is that they took all of these many aspects of Tupac’s persona and put it rightfully in the place of all these different characters, so that we lose the confusion we may have about Tupac. Because they compartmentalized it in a perfect way and put it in all these different spots so that it makes sense, and what elevates is the message. It really becomes clear. The mud settles and you see clearly like, “Ohhh, this is what Tupac represented.”
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.