Media Circus: Yo, Niccolo!

Move over, Bill Bennett. The late Tupac Shakur  aka Makaveli  may have given the Great Books the biggest boost since Sting discovered the Canterbury Tales.


Wagner James Au
December 12, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

who would have thought that the late Tupac Shakur, who was gunned down in Las Vegas some two months ago, would revive interest in the Great Books? Yet Shakur's posthumous album "The Don Killuminati -- The 7 Day Theory", put out under the pseudonym Makaveli, has managed to do just that. As "Makaveli" vaulted up the charts, booksellers noticed a marked increase in interest in the real Machiavelli's "The Prince." Apparently, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Tupac fans were seeking the source of their dead hero's inspiration.

It is pleasant to imagine guys in baggy pants and Hilfiger boxers swaggering into bookstores in search of Renaissance wisdom: "Yo' homes, where the philosophy section at?" But if Internet postings on the subject are any indication, this renewed interest in "The Prince" is not motivated by a sudden desire by gangsta rap fans to learn more about 16th-century Italian political thought. On fan websites and on Usenet's rap-related newsgroup, bizarre conspiracy theories abound, with fans arguing over a set of "clues" said to prove that Shakur hadn't really died at all. (See Michael Datcher's story below for more on this curious phenomenon.)

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"Machavelli (original) the philosopher had a theory that if he faked his own death he could sneak up on his enemys and kill them all by surprise when they least expected it," wrote one fan recently in rec.music.hip-hop. "has anyone seen the cover of tupacs' newest album? he is portrayed on the cross full of bullet holes being resurrected, with his name changed to makaveli. now what do you people think is trying to be said about the death of tupac?" Such postings make clear that most of the curiosity about Machiavelli's writing is mere popcult kabbalah of the Elvis Presley variety -- somewhere in this book is proof that Tupac is still alive!

But Shakur's own fascination with Machiavelli went beyond empty symbolism -- he read the Italian philosopher, and cited him as an influence. "Now I'm dealing with a more military type of philosophy -- to mix the street life with respected, known and proven military philosophy," he explained in an interview with VIBE. According to the culture critic Greg Tate, Tupac "saw himself as someone who could out-think and out-strategize the competition. Machiavelli's books were about strategy, how to control the thoughts and behavior of those around you, and how to set them against one another -- which is certainly something 2Pac did in hip-hop."

Tupac's attraction to an Italian Renaissance writer may seem improbable, but it's actually part of a grand tradition. Angry young men have often been attracted to the dark adventurers of the intellect, to thinkers who challenge the status quo -- in a word, to Gangsta Philosophers, take-no-prisoners theorists forever kicking it in the inner city of our collective unconsciousness.

Gangsta Philosophy is as old as Plato himself, whose dialogue "Gorgias" portrayed Callicles, an ambitious Athenian youth, contemptuously berating Socrates' lofty moralizing. But it was Machiavelli's "The Prince" that was first to turn this principled contempt into a plan of action: Written as a practical guide for power-hungry politicos, it treats virtue as nothing more than another tool used to keep and acquire power. The purest application of gangsta philosophy in the social realm is found in Thomas Hobbes' "Leviathan." Before the existence of government, he argued, man lived in a state of nature -- which to Hobbes was pretty much like South Central L.A. on the hottest day of the summer. The creation of the State was merely the legitimation of the hardest gangbangers on the block.

And then, of course, there was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings were like an anonymous call sent to the beeper of Western civilization -- when the West dialed the number in, a mortician answered. To Nietzsche, Christianity represented the triumph of "slave morality," a system of ethics created by the weak that enshrined resentment of the strong into a religious creed. (In Tupac's more conspiratorial view, Christianity is a slick scam run down by the Big Boys: "I think some cool motherfucker sat down a long time ago and said let's figure out a way to control motherfuckers. That's what they came up with -- the Bible.")

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Seeking wicked inspiration, the angry young intellectual picks and chooses from among these thinkers. Aspiring CEOs in search of brutally effective middle-management strategies tend to gravitate toward Machiavelli, or his Eastern counterpart, Sun Tzu. Sexual radicals prefer the Marquis de Sade, whose tales of maids lured with Spanish Fly-laced chocolates into a night of non-consenting bondage and flogging makes him the Rick James of Western thought. The most bookish, along with a handful of confused paramilitarists, lean toward Nietzsche.

But Gangsta Philosophy represents more than simply an excess of testosterone. Its dark vision of human relations rings too true to be dismissed; it must be confronted, and answered. In John Locke's revision of Hobbes' theory of the state of nature, individuals do not relinquish their freedom to the State, but put the State under provisional contract to protect it. Locke's compromise between the drive-by anarchy Hobbes described and the Darryl Gates-style authoritarianism he prescribed would become the model for the Declaration of Independence.

Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. arrived at his liberating vision after confronting directly the profound challenge to his faith posed by the writings of Nietzsche. In the turn-the-other-cheek passivity extolled by Christ, Nietzsche saw the behavior of vengeful sheep patiently taking their blows, eagerly anticipating the hellfire that awaited their tormentors in the afterlife. But King saw in it an active, transformative moral force strong enough to overpower evil. In a sense, then, both the civil rights movement and the American revolution owe a debt to the gangsta philosopher.

In the same way, if the angry young man can go beyond shock for its own sake and learn a little bit about the fragility of life, he may eventually moderate his gangsta philosophy into something worthwhile -- even while retaining its contempt for convention and empty moralism.

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Tupac never had that chance. Before he could ever really grasp the subtle stratagems of Machiavelli, let alone grow beyond them, the braggadocio of his earlier years caught up with him. His bullet-riddled end demonstrated an axiom that not even the toughest gangsta philosopher has ever been able to refute: "Those who live by the sword..."


Wagner James Au is a writer living in San Francisco. His payment for this essay will be the first tangible benefit of his Bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Hawaii.


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ON THE GRAPEVINE, OVER THE INTERNET -- TUPAC STILL LIVES

By Michael Datcher

"Tupac Shakur is alive!"

Almost two months after the 25-year-old rapper was gunned down in Las Vegas, the grapevine in African-American communities is abuzz with the news -- Tupac is still with us. Of course, I am traveling on a book tour for "Tough Love," an anthology on Shakur, so perhaps I attract the fanatics. Still, the spectrum of African-Americans who want to believe it, insist on it, is mind-boggling.

In New York, a thirtysomething black professional asks me if I think Tupac is really dead. When I tell him, "yes," he leaps into his cross-examination.

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"Did anyone, besides the immediate family and the doctor, see the body after he was pronounced dead?

"Were there witnesses to the supposed cremation of the body?

"Why all the secrecy?"

In Philadelphia, a young black man, a fan of the rapper, had his own explanation. "Tupac's not dead. He was making all that money and people were out to get him. He needed a way out -- I heard he was in Brazil, just kickin' it on the beach."

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And on the Internet, worldwide, Chuck D., the respected rapper proclaims "Tupac Lives." Among his "18 Reasons Why Tupac Is Still Alive" is the fact that Tupac's last album was recorded under the name "Makaveli," a play on "Machiavelli," the 16th-century Italian philosopher who recommended that rulers stage their own deaths as a stratagem.

On the official record, Tupac was pronounced dead on Friday, September 13, at 4:03 in the afternoon at a Las Vegas hospital. Cause of death was four bullet wounds. If he was faking, Shakur would have had to rise from the gurney and walk past thousands of concerned fans. This did not happen.

What did happen is more interesting. Why are so many rational black people claiming that Tupac Shakur did not die? The answer is that they are having a hard time letting go of what he meant to them.

As the Harlem-based writer Tony Medina put it, Tupac has now become "a metaphor for the frustrated, confused, divided determination of a generation of angry youth whose revolutionary potential had been torn away from them with their umbilical cords at birth."

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Black people, especially those who are young and live in cities, saw Tupac struggling in public with the baggage of being young and black in America. They embraced his attempt to "be his own man" and carve out a future of his own design -- against the odds which see one in four black men under the control of the justice system and many others die before they reach middle age.

They were interested in Tupac's rise because they saw themselves in his struggle, his dream. When Shakur died, a part of them died, too.

Making it even harder to let go of Tupac is the fact that he had survived so much -- not only routine racism, but a life of petty crime, even being shot five times in ambush -- and survived to produce a double CD album, "All Eyez on Me," which sold over five million copies. He had two feature films in the can, "Gridlock" and "Gang Related."

He was also becoming more involved in political activity. Last year, he helped plan a benefit concert designed to raise money to defeat California's anti-affirmative action initiative, Prop. 209.

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Tupac made this connection clear in his last interview, published in VIBE. "I represent five million fucking sales, and no politician is checking for us. By the next election, I promise, I'll be sitting across from all the candidates."

Tupac seemed to be growing. He was not only beating the odds, he was doing it in front of millions of people who were pulling for him -- pulling so hard that some still see Tupac Shakur alive and well and kickin' it on the beaches of Brazil.

-- Pacific News Service


Wagner James Au

Wagner James Au is a frequent contributor to Salon, and also writes "Notes from a New World," an online journal for Second Life, an upcoming MMOG.

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