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Writing Black Lives: Marvin Gaye and Tupac Shakur


Michael Eric Dyson, Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania
Credit: Chris Taggart

Author and scholar Michael Eric Dyson inaugurated the Barnard College lecture series "Writing Black Lives" with a conversation about the complex language and music of singers Marvin Gaye and Tupac Shakur.

Dyson, who has written biographies of both Gaye and Shakur, examined the struggles both men faced to find a musical voice that also reflected the experience of being a black male in America. "That voice is critical to understand black people who have tried to prove their humanity," Dyson told the large crowd at the Julius S. Held Lecture Hall in Barnard Hall.

Blending riffs on Shakur's hip-hop lyrics with snippets of Gaye's rhythm-and-blues hits, Dyson said the achievements of both singers must be considered in the wider context of the quest for literacy by the African-American community. Gaining literacy, Dyson added, was an act of "writing ourselves into existence to prove that our lives mattered."

Gaye was 44 years old when he was murdered in 1984 by his father, a Pentecostal preacher who had beaten and abused him as a child. The singer -- who couldn't read or write music -- had also struggled with alcoholism and substance abuse, and a series of personal and career problems.

Still, with songs like "Let's Get It On" and "That's the Way Love Is" that became popular with a wide audience, Gaye made music that was "transcendent," Dyson said. "There was something powerful in his soul. His love songs expressed sublimely universal themes."

Shakur was shot to death in 1996 on a Las Vegas street -- his murder has yet to be solved and remains shrouded in controversy. The rap impresario was regarded by some as the "black Elvis" and condemned by others as a street thug, Dyson said. He described the hip-hop star, who was also an accomplished actor, as a writer of "fragmented pavement poetry" who portrayed the "complexity of human identity."

Shakur's music was more intellectual, as well as political and self-exploratory, than was previously recognized, according to Dyson. "He spoke about his own failures," Dyson said, and how he was shaped by his upbringing and childhood experiences.

In their different ways, the two musicians were on a quest to express something deeper in their music, Dyson said. "Both struggled and flexed their muscles, and so crafted a body of work that continues to stand."

Dyson is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania . His book on Gaye, Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye, depicted the singer as a flawed genius. Dyson's book on Shakur, Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, was written as a series of essays on family relations, street violence, education and religion to illuminate Shakur's world.

Dyson fuses biography with social and cultural criticism in a format he calls "bio-criticism."

In his talk, Dyson noted that Shakur's rise to fame and controversy about his inflammatory lyrics and flamboyant lifestyle had challenged what is legitimate and acceptable in black intellectual life. The question became, "who would reflect us, the voice of black people," Dyson explained. Shakur sparked debate because some believed "the wrong people got the microphone."

Dyson, who has also written books about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, placed Gaye and Shakur in the context of these black leaders who were brilliant orators.

Both King and Malcolm X used words and voices to draw people into understanding the black experience. While King could move a crowd with his slow southern cadences, Malcolm X had a rapid-fire delivery that made him the "gangsta rapper of this time," Dyson said. "He told whites what was in black people's minds."

Introducing Dyson, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, professor of English and director of the Africa and African Diaspora Studies program at Barnard, praised his work for tackling the issues of black youth culture and Gaye's troubled life.

The year-long lecture series will showcase significant black writers through biographies and memoirs, including African American history scholar Hazel Carby; author Alexis de Veaux, who recently published the first biography of black feminist poet Audre Lorde; and a new interpretation by Jean Fagan Yellin of the life of Harriet Jacobs, whose memoir of slavery is a modern classic.

Gerzina said the lecture series acknowledges the strength of biography and the diversity of approaches in the field. It also raises questions about whether there is a specific black biographical form, she said.

Published: Oct 06, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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