Shawn Maxam on how the 1990s and rap music defines him as a man.
I’m ready to die and nobody can save me
F**k the world, f**k my moms and my girl
My life is played out like a jheri curl, I’m ready to die
-Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die)
Angry Black Man = Depressed Black Man
I was a teenager during the East Coast-West Coast “beef” that riveted the country in the mid 1990s. I never admired Tupac Shakur or Christopher Wallace but I was a fan of their music. Being from Brooklyn, NY I had an East coast bias. I preferred Biggie Smalls and Bad Boy over Tupac and Deathrow. It’s now only fifteen years later that I realize how young both rappers really were. Both 2pac and The Notorious B.I.G. died around the ages of 24 and 25 years old. That is really young. My own brother was shot and killed at the age of twenty-two. I am now thirty-one years old but when all of this bullshit was happening I was just a kid and couldn’t really process the complexities of race, fame, masculinity and entertainment.
I now understand why Shakur and Wallace were so “angry”. They weren’t just mad at the world. They were also very sad. Depression in men usually manifest itself in aggressive behaviors. If you listen to both Tupac’s and Biggie’s music you will hear them talk about their own mortality often. It is not normal for men in their early twenties to be so fixated on their own deaths. It is suicidal ideations implemented into the creative process and songwriting. There were songs like Suicidal Thoughts where Biggie kills himself on the recording. Gunshot effects and and heartbeat that stops. Everyone was so mesmerized by the incredible talent of both of these guys that no one really analyzed the underlying psychological pain being displayed.
Do Or Die Bed-Stuy
I was actually a rapper myself when I was a teenager. I dropped out of high-school in my junior year, got a job and started to pursue a career in rap music. I used the money from my full-time job to pay for studio sessions and purchase promotional materials. I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant aka Do or Die Bed-Stuy. Today Bed-Stuy is considered a sexy neighborhood and is experiencing gentrification and urban renewal. But back in the 1990s it was a difficult place to call home. I was constantly harassed by the police. There were also several instances where individuals pointed sawed-off shot guns in my face. I was always afraid. I was afraid of the cops and I was afraid of other Black males who weren’t my friends or relatives.
Living on the edge like that was emotionally draining. I had to walk around like a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was always on guard, always reacting to everything, never relaxing when I was out doors. Back then I assumed it was normal but now I know it isn’t. I am not going to debate the street-credibility of either Tupac or Biggie. They probably exaggerated their own involvement in illicit activities but they did grow up in neighborhoods like mine. Urban neighborhoods that shape your mentality about how the world works. You assume being a man is based around exuding toughness and strength.
I never did anything illegal but I had friends and relatives who did. I had friends who sold drugs. Friends who were attacked by gangs and decided to carry guns to protect themselves. I rode around in stolen cars with handguns in the backseat. I eventually decided I couldn’t be around the people I grew up with becuase it was dangerous to my well-being. But how often does that happen? Look at how many people are shaped by their communities. Yet we expect people to easily shrug off childhood associations and forget where they come from.
Sometimes the reason why a person can even make it out of “the hood” is becuase someone else sacrificed on their behalf. Occasionally these sacrifices could be against the law. Once a person becomes successful they feel a sense of loyalty to people they owe debt. These friends and relatives may not have the same self-discipline and self-control of the person who made it out. My older brother is a high-school dropout who just received his GED at thirty-two. He still engages in petty theft and does drugs. Should I forget him? Should I leave him behind. There are never any easy answers.
Boys to Not Men
I didn’t relate to every aspect of Tupac or Biggie’s music. I couldn’t identify with every part of their image. But I understood how they felt and why they felt the way they did. They had a platform to express masculinity as I understood as Black boy from Brooklyn. Behind the vulgarities, misogny, materialism and homophobia there was real pain present in how they communicated to the world.
I am not giving them a pass for a lot of their ignorance but I am not sure how many non-college educated individuals are aware of their own issues. You think a kid trying to make money knows anything about gender roles, patriarchy, systems of oppression and privilege? I didn’t back then. I am fortunate to understand these things now. We can’t judge the ability of specific individuals like Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace to exhibit progressive masculinity when they never even had the chance to really become men.
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