Did you hear about the rose that grew / from a crack in the concrete? / Proving natures laws wrong it/ learned how to walk without having feet/ Funny it seems but, by keeping its dreams / it learned to breath fresh air / Long live the rose that grew from concrete / when no one else even cared
Unlike what ‘Pac did in the first line of “Hit ’em Up,” I’m going to fire a warning shot. This piece may cause cognitive dissonance for those who cling to the false safety of respectability politics. Don’t worry. I Aint Mad at Cha if you decide to keep it moving. After all, if nothing else the life and legacy of ‘Pac illustrates that some of us like our words, activist and history like we take our coffee; sweet and diluted.
Like many Black men, Tupac Amaru Shakur, who died 20 years ago Tuesday of multiple gunshot wounds, grew in spaces that were never designed to produce life. Or perhaps I should say they created ways to excel in the mist of carefully laid concrete. This “concrete” consisted of severely economically oppressed communities, schools that operate like prisons and biased laws that are destroying the foundations of Black communities.
Yet, like ‘Pac asked… “Did you hear about the rose that grew from the crack in the concrete?” You probably did because he was loud, angry, wrong, right, brilliant and woke. Some of us didn’t recognize it. That’s understandable. I imagine an unpruned rose grown outside of a traditionally well-kept garden would have some dirt and wilted petals. This could possibly explain how the same man who wrote timeless poetry that captures nuanced social complexities could just as easily give us classic one liners like: “I ain’t a killer but don’t push me.” And guess what? I believed in his ability to dissect social injustice just as strongly as I believed is his disclaimer he gave us in “Hail Mary.”
This was part of what attracted so many to ‘Pac. He screamed the words of the oppressed and brought the conversations from barber shops, corners and prisons to mainstream America. He screamed his powerful and provocative thoughts in the face of a world trying desperately tried to silence them…and us. For this he will forever be missed.
Pac’s murder left a hole in our heart and in the music industry. A hole that industry execs attempted to fill by creating counterfeits. After his death hip-hop suffered though the plastic, battery operated light up roses for years.
Hell, we still do.
Most rappers today are selling stories about navigating a life they only heard about in “Me Against the World.” They are building successful careers out of pimping pain they never experienced to an audience too Macklemore-ish to notice. I suspect this is one of the byproduct of losing one of our greats too soon. I also suspect that if ‘Pac were alive there is a possibility we would have witnessed a shift in the genre. At the height of his career Pac was proving it was possible to have “industry success” while remaining authentic, socially conscious and extremely vocal. Eventually this would have become normal.
The bar would have been raised, and we may have been blessed to witness a combination of late 80s Rakim hip-hop with the business acumen that exploded in the 2000’s. Obviously, we will never know this for sure. However, I do know that Tupac’s influence can be found in many of the artists we love today. So for all the years we suffered through Ja Rule, I will accept Kendrick Lamar as reparations.
On a more serious level I would argue that there is something we cannot accept. ‘Pac, while we sing his praises now, was often vilified. This act of crowning our kings after they die isn’t new. Yet it is still prevalent. Two decades years after his death we barely recognize our new roses growing from the same old concrete. As we continue to witness state sanctioned murders our young fearless warriors are rising up.
Like Pac, some refuse to adhere to the rules of respectability politics and lack media training. They could never be media darlings. These front liners spit their bold truth, shun the media and are doing the work in the streets long after the cameras leave. I’m thankful for hashtag heroes that helped bring nationwide attention to systematic injustice. But I wonder about the roses whose names we will never know, whose faces go unnoticed and whose righteous anger gets them labeled as “thugs.”
I wonder about the roses who are dying inside because of the notions of what an activist and a Black man supposedly should act. I wonder if our silence is killing them. I wonder if our Booker T. Washington-colored glasses are making them the Invisible Man that Ralph Ellis wrote about.
Twenty years after Tupac’s murder we have to be honest with ourselves and answer some tough questions. I don’t have all the answers, yet I know society will be better off because of his legacy. If we learn to take a look at how we labeled him when he was alive and recognize that we are doing the same thing to some of our Black men now. Our culture will advance even further when learn to distinguish a rose from a weed and stop killing what should be nurtured.