Radical Black Imagination at Work In Tupac's Thugz Mansion
Thugz Mansion Feat Nas and J. Phoenix
Whenever I take the train home I am always doing one of the following; I'm usually reading or I'm listening to music, or sometimes I will simultaneously do both. On this particular day, as I was reading Robin Kelley's Freedom Dreams while listening Tupac Shakur's Thugz Mansion I had an epiphany as I automatically felt a connection between the two. Kelley believes that “radical ideas often grow out of a concrete intellectual engagement with the problems of aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression. For example, the academic study of race has always been inextricably intertwined with political struggles” (9). As I listened to Tupac's music and his struggles I became more aware of my own personal struggles and the way that race and politics are inextricably intertwined. I believe that rappers are poets, they are storytellers using their music as platform to tell the stories that people refuse to hear by confronting them with the issues that they refuse to see. Listen to the lyrics:
A place to spend my quiet nights, time to unwind
So much pressure in this life of mine, I cry at times
I once contemplated suicide, and woulda tried
But when I held that 9, all I could see was my momma's eyes
No one knows my struggle, they only see the trouble
Not knowin’ it's hard to carry on when no one loves you
Picture me inside the misery of poverty
No man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived.
Tupac gives us his own emotional account of his life and his choices. This is what Kelley describes as “The Radical Black Imagination” it is the belief that in order to escape the difficulties in our lives and to create social movements that combat these issues; such as living in the inner city, being poor and also dealing with the marginalization that we are faced with due to racism, these inescapable yet intersecting forms of oppression that at times seem unavoidable, one must first imagine a space, a place or a way to ameliorate their present condition. In order to survive these circumstances Tupac imagines a place where he can be himself, where he can be accepted despite the fact that people view him (and people who look like him) as “thugs”. He envisions in his mind's eye, Thugz Mansion. A place where he can escape the traps that have been set in motion by political policies such as redlining that intentionally created the ghettoes and made them almost impossible for people of color to escape. Racist FHA housing policies that have been grandfathered in, and are still in practice which have created communities that are still divided based on race while forcing blacks into impoverished communities. My interpretation of Tupac's radical thoughts are based on the way he uses his music as “a challenge to commercialism, a recognition of the ghetto as a site of creativity and a call for solidarity with oppressed classes” (Kelley 193). Tupac paints a grim yet realistic image of the ghetto, yet his vision is one of hope depicting (or should I say, imagining) what the ghetto could be, what it should be. Nas shares in Tupac's plight on the second verse radically imagining a different existence outside of the theme of violence that connects them to their hometowns, and also to each other :
A place where death doesn't reside, just thugs who collide
Not to start beef but spark trees, no cops rollin’ by
No policemen, no homicide, no chalk on the streets
No reason, for nobody's momma to cry.
Nas imagines a place where death isn't common, where everyone gets along, a place where there is no need for the police and ultimately a place where a mother will not have to bury her son. Despite all of the violent imagery in this song, I find it peaceful as the lyrics glide over the rhythmic strumming of the acoustic guitar and it feels somewhat ethereal to me. Maybe it's because it was posthumously created and remastered when it featured Nas. He was a great addition to the song, as a fellow NewYorker (Nas is from Queens and Tupac was actually born in New York although he is known as a West Coast rapper) the connection that they share, that we share, is that we are all dreaming of something better than the reality that we are faced with . In the tumultuous neighborhoods of East Flatbush, The Heights, East Harlem (Spanish Harlem), East New York, Crown Heights and all the other places that are referred to as “The Trap” Tupac reminds us that we can escape it, even if we can't physically leave, we can dream, we can imagine.
- Lisa Del Sol