July 28th, 2020
Cancel Culture Salad: Women, The Confederacy, Tupac Shakur, Barack Obama, and Robert E. Lee
In one of the most empowering moments for women not just in the US, but all across the world perhaps, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the House floor and issued one of the strongest statements not only in defense of herself, but she also spoke in a way that gave voice to countless women who’ve had to endure similar insults, such as “disgusting,” and “fucking bitch,” which were just two of the remarks that Congressman Ted Yoho directed at her. Subsequently, Yoho attempted to justify himself by stating the following: “Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of my language. The offensive name calling, words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleagues and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding.” Little did the man know that he was dealing with an empowered individual who wasn’t going to concede an argument simply because, at 29, she became the youngest woman to ever serve in the US Congress while Yoho has been married for 45 years. In a charged speech, Ocasio-Cortez addressed the Congressman’s remarks in the following way: “Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.” Indeed, this isn’t simply what we want from our women today—it’s what we expect in the 21st century, and rightly so.
Still, is it possible to say—without defending Yoho—that individuals can’t be reduced to one action, that they’re incredibly complex, that people who aspire to goodness and even those who actually manage to achieve great things do have flaws, sometimes even serious ones? In the age of cancel culture, we need to be incredibly careful about choosing the conditions, traits, and characteristics with which to measure the so-called “goodness” of people. With regard to misogyny, things still haven’t improved much in the way men treat women. The president’s well-known 2005 remarks in the presence of Billy Bush that were revealed during the 2016 campaign highlight this problem very clearly—while many men today might not be so vocal as Trump about their desires as they were in the past, it’s unlikely to believe that male psychology itself has changed very much. Thus, while grabbing them by the pussy is perhaps not something males are comfortable expressing right now, it’s nevertheless something they’re comfortable thinking in private.
Whatever the case may be, this article is neither meant to defend sexist men, misogyny, Ted Yoho, nor is its purpose to justify occasional insults by men towards women simply because all individuals possess “complexity.” What this article will attempt, however, is precisely to take the first step in proposing the following: People should try their best to move beyond an individual’s flaws—even at times when those shortcomings are quite serious—but only if said individual would never wish harm upon someone had they not been in the state that caused them to insult or hurt another human being, whether voluntarily or out of ignorance.
The fact that every person has flaws is nothing new; however, the harsh nature of how we’re perceiving these shortcomings—the overemphasis on people’s negative traits—isn’t a recipe for success either. As an idealist, one perhaps too far on the side of Don Quixote, I’ve always wanted individuals to be more or less perfect, and that’s perhaps why I’ve struggled with friendships, relationships, and other basic human engagements all my life. It’s disappointing when people don’t live up to expectations; at the same time, it’s extremely exhilarating when someone you know does measure up to your level of perfection—if only for a little while; a day after my 33rd birthday, I think I’m really beginning to “accept” that; naturally, this is something I’ve known for a long time, but there’s a big difference between knowing something (or someone) and actually living with it (or someone); the former implies distance while the latter implies complete intimacy. In no way should the meaning here be construed purely on the basis of human relationships; in fact, my point is meant to be understood philosophically.
I’ve always been fascinated by the demons that afflict individuals and also my own suffering. In a short story called “Cynthia,” written by Aldous Huxley and published in the collection, Limbo, the author wrote the following: “I can sympathize with people’s pains, but not with their pleasures. There is something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness.” The story is about a man named Lykeham who projects an image of perfection onto a woman he admires and also himself; the narrator who flashes back to the story which occurred fifty years ago eventually makes it known that Lykeham is neither the Apollo he describes himself to be (probably closer to Hephaestus) and we likewise get the sense that the woman too may be far from perfect herself, mainly because “here was chaste Cynthia giving herself to him in the most unequivocal fashion.” Either way, this article is also neither about Aldous Huxley nor is it about whether beauty plays any role in a man’s ability to attract women. What this article will attempt, however, is take yet another bold step: To argue that Aldous Huxley was on to something when he contrasted the way we perceive human beings in our own imagination and how, in turn, those human beings actually are in comparison to those imagined realities we hold in our heads.
Besides just an artistic fascination with people’s demons, along with the narrow focus of how suffering may contribute to the creative process for artists, I really didn’t start thinking about the issue of flaws very seriously until I rediscovered the music of Tupac Shakur. Before I even begin the main discussion of our topic (finally), I must first take the time to settle an unrelated issue: Contrary to what many people, along with the staff at Billboard (who don’t even include him in their ten greatest of all time) like to believe, Tupac was the most remarkable and illustrious rapper of our time. No one in the history of rap (for better or worse) even came close to displaying the type of lyrical and musical range that Tupac showcased during his short 25 years of life—not to mention starring in six movies (three released posthumously).
It’s precisely this musical “range” that will help not only drive but round out the argument already introduced. Let’s begin matters this way: Any genuine fan of the great rapper knows that there really isn’t one Tupac, but, actually, two such personalities—perhaps it’s for this reason that his name appears as 2Pac on almost every album, including one of his best-selling, All Eyez On Me.
What I mean to stress is that the man embodied, to an extreme extent, the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde attributes that are, in fact, found in all individuals, perhaps not in the same degree, but this really isn’t the main point. The more relevant thing to say would be the following: As I listened to songs from the great rapper in the spirit of Dr. Jekyll and others recorded with the sensibilities of Mr. Hyde, it quickly occurred to me that Tupac, in the 21st century, could either have been the most gentle feminist or the cruelest misogynist—depending on which part of his catalog you burned or destroyed and which musical legacy you left for the cancel culture generation to discover. Ultimately, however, it would be senseless to erase any part of Tupac’s artistic output to try and rewrite or even revise his legacy, again for better or worse. Music, unlike statues, is much harder to tear town, and perhaps it’s because of this timelessness that we must confront the man known as Tupac Shakur and deal with him in terms of “Keep Ya Head Up” while also reconciling ourselves with “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” and “There U Go,” a song in which he says “Can’t turn a ho into housewife,” and this isn’t even the worst line on this particular tune.
Let’s however start with what I consider Tupac’s greatest recording and perhaps even the most powerful song in all of rap—that would, naturally, be the aforementioned “Keep Ya Head Up.” I can think of no other rapper, especially one so “masculine” as Tupac, who could even begin to approach the type of tenderness that he displayed in the aforementioned track. Released when he was only 22, the song discusses poverty, racial injustice, but most of all it focuses on the plight of women, which will be a general theme throughout the article. The misogyny in early rap music is rampant; from music videos sexualizing women to promoting unchecked promiscuity on the part of the male—all while calling women who act the same way sluts—Tupac is but one piece in this puzzle. The difference, however, is that, unlike the rest, he had a vulnerable side to him that almost no one during the gangsta rap era came close to possessing. Even today, one is hard-pressed to find an artist who’s willing to risk the type of vulnerability that Tupac offered in one of his sincerest songs.
Since Mr. Hyde is never far away, however, the opposite side offers the other extreme—Tupac’s rampant sexism and misogyny; even if we continue with the theme of women and skip perhaps the cruelest diss track in rap history, “Hit ‘Em Up,” where he insults the rap group Mobb Deep, a member of which, Prodigy (now deceased), suffered from sickle-cell anemia (again probably not the worst thing he did on this particular recording), Tupac’s “range,” so to say, really becomes apparent. In the song “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch,” he portrays women who sleep around as the embodiment of vice—without realizing himself, perhaps, that he was glorifying the “playa” lifestyle on almost every track; the double-standard is so blatant here it’s surprising that an intelligent individual like Tupac never questioned his own logic or perhaps didn’t even realize the hypocrisy. All that, even, wouldn’t have been a problem had he not insulted a Civil Rights activist by the name of C. DeLores Tucker in the same song.
It’s true that after marching alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 and forming the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom in 1990 with 15 other African American men and women, Tucker dedicated the remaining years of her life to speaking out against the misogynistic and sexually explicit lyrics of gangsta rap. In turn, according to 2005 Washington Post article, “Rappers called her ‘narrow-minded.’ Some ridiculed her in their lyrics. She was sued by two record companies.” In one of his other misogynistic masterpieces, “How Do U Want It,” which is in many ways far less offensive than “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch,” Tupac gives a clue as to the reason for his anger: “Instead of tryin’ to help a nigga, you destroy a brother,” meaning that Tucker’s refusal to support black rap artists was a stab in the back, mainly because a great number of them, like Tupac, had come from impoverished backgrounds and her desire to silence their message was an attempt to subjugate the black nation and keep it from being empowered, an ideology which, according to the rappers, ran contrary to her own civil rights values of free speech and expression.
It should be noted that the ten million dollar lawsuit Tucker brought against Tupac for both songs was eventually dismissed in court, which, ironically cited the same reasoning as he did for its dismissal. According to the RCFP (a non-profit organization press organization founded in Washington D.C. in 1970): “In explaining its holding in an unpublished opinion, the court wrote that the reference to Tucker ‘did not tend to injure her reputation, her business or profession, or expose her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule and thus were not defamatory.’ The court described the reference to Tucker as an opinion ‘that Tucker was out to hurt rather than to help her fellow African-Americans.'” Along roughly similar lines, an LA Times article appeared which described the civil rights leader’s own failures and faults—being fired by Philadelphia Governor Milton Shapp for allegedly asking “state employees to write speeches for which she collected $65,000 in honorariums, some of the money from charities under her supervision.” Many rap artists, thus, justified their accusations on these grounds but what Tucker’s actions in fact do is simply confirm the message of my entire article, something that Sandra Mills, her campaign manager during the good activist’s failed bid for Congress, echoed in the same LA Times piece: “Everybody has some baggage in their past and in C. DeLores Tucker’s case, the baggage is in bad property management, but I don’t see how that diminishes in any way the public service she is performing for African Americans by fighting against the negative lyric content in rap music.” In the same sense, we may apply this to not only Tupac, but all the others like him who’ve at some point in their lives striven for a better world in which no one can really be perfect.
Now, let’s slow down a minute; no one wants to rehabilitate Robert E. Lee, for example, just because he stated the following in an 1856 letter written to his wife: “In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country.” Similarly no one wants to romanticize the entire Confederacy simply because at one point in 1864 Patrick Cleburne, an Irish-born American Major General in the Confederate Army, once wrote a pamphlet urging Jefferson Davis to arm the slaves and free them after the war. Indeed, even the Confederacy and the people who served within it were incredibly complex; nevertheless, there’s a fundamental difference in the way we must apply this logic for our purposes—while the Confederacy can’t get a pass, because it was fighting to protect slavery, individuals like Tupac and others who championed and continue to fight for a better world do deserve some latitude for their shortcomings because they were doing precisely that: Using their power or art to change society for the better.
It may often be the case that it’s too late for art to change society—the only thing it can achieve is remind people of a horrific past in the hopes that its message can prevent similar things from happening again at some point in the future; if art has such power, perhaps we can interpret its ability to renew society as a genuine way to reform the world at large, but prospects remain bleak. In the song, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” Tupac raps about a twelve year old girl who gets pregnant. Loosely based on a true story of a person the same age, a New York Times article which Tupac had supposedly read or heard about talks about a girl who is “already an orphan, a rape victim and a mother. Now, two days after her newborn son was rescued from the maw of a trash compactor, she has become something more—a symbol of the violence that stalks the young in some corners of this city.” Such instances of violence, despair, and hopelessness are precisely the things which Tupac wanted to highlight—it was his way of bringing more attention to these issues.
It might not be Tupac in his most tender moment, but the level of social awareness in the aforementioned song is high, speaking in the most modest sense; likewise, in a very conservative manner, the track “Run tha Streetz,” is the exact opposite of “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” to say the least. Tupac wastes no time telling listeners in the opening lines exactly where women stand: “the secret on how to keep a playa / some love makin’ and homecookin’, I’ll see you later.” Not to mention he later repeats the fact that women should prepare meals for him—this time saying please. Tupac’s assumption that women must stay in the kitchen is yet again not the worst thing that happens on this track but it nevertheless astonishes—how could a man with such sensitivities, the man who wrote “Keep Ya Head Up” and “Dear Mama,” stoop so low? To his credit (whatever is left of it in this instance anyways), Tupac does, at the very least, feature a female vocalist (Michel’le) on this track, and she raps the following lines: “it’s a man’s world / But real women make the shit go around.” Once more, I wish to stress that complexity within individuals doesn’t simply excuse whatever mistakes they happened to make; what it should do, however, is give us the opportunity to think about the demons which many good people have; as I’ve said, we can excuse these negative qualities, if, overall, the person has for the most part dedicated themselves towards fighting for justice.
Speaking of struggling for a righteous cause, no one else in Tupac’s family (except the man himself) embodied that trait better than his mother, Afeni Shakur. Having joined the Black Panther Party in 1968 at the age of 21, she wrote for the organization and eventually became a section leader for the Harlem chapter. Along with other Black Panther members, she was arrested in 1969 and subsequently charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to blow up police stations and other public places in New York. Already pregnant with Tupac during her trial in 1971, she chose to represent herself, interviewing witnesses and arguing in court. A 1971 New York Times article states that she, along with the other members, were acquitted and that Mrs. Shakur was “eight months pregnant, [and] represented herself during the trial.” The latter alone, without the former, would’ve been a major accomplishment by itself.
Recognizing the struggles which his mother endured to raise him, Tupac wrote “Dear Mama” as a tribute to the most meaningful woman in his life. Additionally, like in “Run tha Streetz,” he naturally mentions that a woman cooks for him (in this case his mother); however, this naturally has no sexist or misogynistic undertones because, firstly, he talks about himself as a child, and, secondly, he also mentions that his mother “comes home from work late,” meaning that, although she lives in poverty, she’s an empowered individual because of her capability to both work and prepare a good meal for her son—one of the traditional values of motherhood.
As already mentioned, one of the lines in “There U Go” is “Can’t turn a ho into a housewife.” The line is very denigrating because many prostitutes don’t consciously choose to be one—they’re often forced into the profession by proxy of human trafficking or because of poor financial resources, as Tupac himself admits in “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” Furthermore, the fact that his own mother, while never being a prostitute, herself had to undergo hard times and poverty, makes it even stranger that Tupac would speak of women in this way, especially since his mom did manage to overcome difficult obstacles while also being able to raise a child. The song goes on to state blatant hypocrisies such as this:
We’re to assume that only men have the right to be irresponsible in clubs, to stay out late, dress up in flamboyant ways, and so on. The double-standard is so blatant that Tupac himself admits it: “It’s all good, ’cause there you go / Me I’ma still be a player, all day baby.” There’s a fundamental disconnect between the type of leisure that Tupac allows himself (and by extension all men), and the type of activities that women are supposed to partake in (staying home, cooking, and raising children).
A lesser known song in Tupac’s catalogue called “Mama’s Just a Little Girl,” from the posthumously released 2002 album Better Dayz, has a somewhat similar message to “Brenda’s Got a Baby.”
However, despite the fact that the baby also dies in the end, Tupac concludes the song with a heartfelt message, along with the fact that he’s probably the only figure in gangsta rap to use the archaic word “thee” in a song:
The rose that grew from concrete is the most powerful metaphor, in my opinion, that Tupac ever created; it’s a genuine poetic image in the sense that it can live without music or even his lyrical ability. As Tupac stated numerous times, the phenomenon of a rose growing from the concrete is something so strange and distinct—for this to happen the rose must have a type of will to live that’s unequaled by the majority of life. He wrote a poem by the same name, further symbolizing the message that unique and beautiful things can come from hostile environments, but, likewise, stressing the fact that phenomena like these require the greatest willpower on the part of such individuals in order for them to grow in environments everyone claims they can’t survive in.
The final song I’d like to contrast is “How Do U Want It.” I’ve purposely chosen to end on Tupac’s Mr. Hyde side to really symbolize the fact that people who are in essence good, those who strive for a better world, and those who actually do make some positive changes within it, aren’t perfect—they may even have, as in the case of Tupac, very serious flaws, but this shouldn’t stop us from celebrating these individuals freely without ourselves being harassed, cancelled, or humiliated; anyways, all this is really material for the conclusion, so let’s discuss the actual song before we pursue those matters further.
As we’ve already seen and as Tupac himself stated on numerous occasions, he was someone who appreciated women, for better or worse. The song can, perhaps, be considered a parallel of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” for the rap community. It celebrates the female form, sexuality, and worldly pleasures in general—probably to an extent which crossed a few boundaries that Gaye’s song didn’t; I say this only because in a track which talks about casual sex with multiple women and hitting “switches on bitches like I been fixed with hydraulics,” Tupac, somehow, finds a way to diss the ever-present C. Delores Tucker, who was already an unattractive woman of about 69 at the time Tupac released the record in 1996; surely, I don’t have to explain the relevance of the age in this matter.
Additionally, the fact that Tupac includes a mention of Bill Clinton in a song about wild sexual escapades is also a statement to his, should we say, talent? I can’t speak for Bob Dole, but it seems that contrary to Tupac’s premature criticism, the jolly Bill Clinton of forty-nine years really wasn’t too old to know how the game is told, given that his decision to have an affair with a twenty-two year old intern called Monika Lewinsky doesn’t really favor Tupac’s assessment so well, although in his defense, the good rapper himself had already been dead for three years at that point.
Well, it’s always good when humor can be brought into a serious environment, but returning to weightier issues, Tupac is the best person to illustrate why we must give people with serious flaws a chance. I’ve said it and I’ll repeat it again: Tupac was the greatest rapper in terms of lyrical composition and delivery, along with being the most influential spokesperson for social justice in that genre. He was a real artist—an actor, a poet, and a soldier for peace, even though his post-imprisonment career began to symbolize the latter less and less. Still, there’s evidence that Tupac wanted to walk away from the gangsta rap lifestyle. Even before signing the actual contract with Death Row Records, his manager and two of his lawyers, “argued vigorously with Tupac about his decision to go to Death Row,” according to a 1997 New Yorker article called “The Takedown of Tupac.” The late rapper, while still in prison, responded to his manager, Watani Tyehimba, in the following way: “I know I’m selling my soul to the devil.” Suge Knight paid Tupac’s bail in exchange for Tupac’s services at Death Row.
Charles Ogletree, his criminal and civil defense lawyer is quoted as saying the following: “I remember seeing him just before his twenty-fifth birthday. He felt it was a glorious day. He never imagined he’d live to be twenty-five—but there was a sadness in his eyes, because he still had these chains binding him. This [Death Row Records] was not where he wanted to be. I said, ‘You can be anything you want to be.’ He said, ‘Can I be a lawyer?’ I said, ‘You’d be a damn good lawyer!’ I sent him a Harvard Law School sweatshirt.” Had Tupac fulfilled his dream and actually become an attorney, what would he have said about the times we find ourselves in? There’s that would make one believe he didn’t have the intellectual capability to attain academic success—just watch this 1992 MTV interview in which he was already speaking about the dangers of living in a Trump-influenced environment, even going so far as mentioning the mogul’s name—and you’ll be convinced by the way he articulates his points that the man was clearly no idiot. Certainly he had flaws and yes he was reckless, but we shouldn’t burn half his catalog and write him out as a human being because of them. When I do wonder what Tupac would’ve said about our times, I watch this video and it becomes apparent that it’s not difficult to image his own take on the Black Lives Matter movement and social unrest in general.
If the previous statement and interview, however, didn’t do much to convince, perhaps a more “reputable” figure might. Here’s what President Obama himself had to say in Rolling Stone about the so-called “woke” culture back in 2019: “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you. I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media—there is this sense sometimes of the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Did you see how woke I was, I called you out. Then I’m going to get on my TV and watch my show … That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.” It’s always nice to see that a former president (and a sane one at that) can confirm what you have to say. So let the outrage come. I can handle it.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.