It was more disturbing than surprising when rapper Tupac Shakur, known for his violent lyrics and lifestyle, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas earlier this month. Last year Shakur spent nine months in jail on rape charges and was shot twice during his trial as he entered a Manhattan recording studio.
Shakur wasn't the only "gangsta" rapper to have spent time in court and jail. Earlier this year, Snoop Doggy Dog was acquitted of a gang-related killing. Shakur also wasn't the only artist whose music glorified the "thug" life - promoting cop killing, for instance - much to the dismay of politicians of all stripes and of parents concerned about the music their children listen to. And, sadly, Shakur was only one of thousands of black men murdered each year.
So why did his death generate so much attention? Was it simply the result of his fame and fortune, or was it, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, because Shakur's music contained "a message of pain and hope" - a message we shouldn't ignore?
That his music was hopeful is debatable; that it was informative is not. Shakur wrote not only of killing policemen but also of teenage pregnancy, absent fathers, crack-addicted mothers, and, only occasionally, the hopelessness of thug life. Gangsta rappers pride themselves on "keeping it real." They want their lyrics to reflect the lives they witness. Some of them live the lives they rap about. Though Shakur occasionally denounced the gangsta lifestyle, he never seemed able to separate himself from it.
His murder, however, may further a growing aversion to gangsta rap's violent culture. Analysts and some music- and entertainment-industry executives say consumers are growing tired of gangsta rap's negativity and predict that, from now on, rappers will be more careful about the messages they send listeners.
Already there are encouraging signs. At the recent "Hip Hop Day of Atonement," sponsored by the Nation of Islam, rappers, disc jockeys, and religious leaders gathered in Harlem not only to remember Shakur but also to encourage performers to become more conscious of and accountable for their actions onstage and off. As one speaker said, if "keeping it real" means condoning assault, rape, and murder, then "we need to change the reality." It's time to get started.