Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Life and Death of a Dream

Notorious is a sobering look at the identity of rap music

For many black youths, rap and hip hop music represents the pinnacle of a dream.

For youths who are all too often accustomed to living in poverty, it's the ultimate glamour profession: promising wealth and prestige the likes of which they can otherwise only dream of.

Notorious is the real-life story of Chris "Notorious BIG" Wallace, one of the greatest performers to ever live and achieve that dream. The film is both exhilerating and heart wrenching.

Notorious sadly suffers from some serious casting issues. Few of the actors cast to portray their characters seem like the people they're supposed to be. Anthony Mackie, Derek Luke and Naturi Naughton -- respectively playing Tupac Skakur, Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs and Lil' Kim (the last of whom reportedly wasn't happy about the film's treatment of her character) -- seem less like their real-life counterparts and more like mere parodies.

Jamal Woolard and Antonique Smith (who played Faith Evans), however, delivered positively masterful performances. They almost literally become their characters.

While most of the viewers going to see Notorious will likely have an appreciation for the characters well in advance, the film will make almost anyone care intensely about the characters.

BIG is shown with all of his warts intact -- his turn toward crime and the ruthless ways in which he succeeds at it -- but in the end emerges as a redemptive figure.

No film about BIG, however, could ever be complete without addressing the famed rivalry between himself and Tupac Shakur, and addressing the tragic manner in which that feud ended.

Notorious points all the same tired old fingers over the deaths of Tupac and BIG. The film highlights the role of the media in sustaining the feud that eventually took each man's life. But while the media was clearly a factor in propagating the feud,there was sadly much more to the story than that.

Identity politics played as large a role in the ignomious fate that befell BIG and Skahur than anything.

Desperate to try to differentiate themselves from their counterparts on the other coast, hip hop listeners -- admittedly, mostly young black males, not all of them living in urban centres -- invested significant portions of their particular identity in the music.

Anger and jealousy slowly creeped into the relationship between the music on the two different coasts as east coast performers embraced the sound coming out of the west coast, and used it to supplant their western compatriots.

Not that one should think that the musical movements coming out of the east and west coasts were the only things happening in hip hop at this or any other time. Hip hop artists in southern states were developing their signature "dirty south" vibe, and music listeners and artists in places as far off as Japan were beginning to embrace the music.

(Intriguingly, one of Tupac Shakur's first paying gigs was performing in Japanese television commercials.)

The news media helped to create, inflate and perpetuate the feud between Tupac and BIG. But for the feud to erupt into what it became, listeners on the two coasts had to be ready to invest their very identity in the music coming out of either coast. Apparently, some of them even had to be ready to kill over it.

In 1999 Afina Shakur and Voletta Wallace would appear together at the MTV Music Video Awards. It was treated as a symbolic peacemaking between the two camps.

While feuds -- or "beefs", as they're called in hip hop circles -- still break out between rappers, the Shakur/Wallace appearance has solidified the deaths of their sons as a legacy of peace between the two camps.

Now it's more common to see beefs emerge from within individual camps -- such as the 50 Cent/Game beef that errupted from within G Unit records -- than between coastal camps. And while violence does still break out from time to time, the memories of Tupac and BIG remain cautionary tales about what can happen when rivalries move beyond the music.

It's impossible to ignore the extent to which violence has become embedded in the very culture of hip hop music.

When violence has become so integral to hip hop music, it should come as no surprise that living the dream of many aspiring rappers brings with it certain risks.

Unless the hip hop community finally learns from the legacy of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls it may be a dream that more musicians will die over.


  1. The problem with the Hip Hip community is the lack of positive role models. People like Public Enemy have been rapping about education, welfare, healthcare, mind revolutions and walking away from violence for over 20 years. But it just doesn't sell records anymore so all you see is the people on MTV glorifying the lifestyle they finally were able to escape.

  2. The problem with the Hip Hip community is the lack of positive role models. People like Public Enemy have been rapping about education, welfare, healthcare, mind revolutions and walking away from violence for over 20 years. But it just doesn't sell records anymore so all you see is the people on MTV glorifying the lifestyle they finally were able to escape.

    You guys make important points here, and I think they can be extended to many more areas than just hip hop music and Afro-American culture.

    Just look at comic books, for example. Quite a few fans view classical heroes like Superman, whose creed was 'Truth, Justice and the American Way' as boring and trite, and sales plummeted. Later, in the 1990s, we have extremely violent antiheroes like Spawn and The Punisher, even as established characters like Batman and Venom were turned into violent, brutal antiheroes. With the recent Civil War arc at Marvel, characters like Iron Man and Mr. Fantastic are portrayed as borderline fascists, betraying longtime friends like Thor and the Hulk (in his Bruce Banner identity, at least), and generally becoming brutal and violent. Even Spider-Man threatened to kill the Kingpin after Aunt May was shot.

    The most memorable sitcom families are now Married...With Children, Family Guy and The Simpsons, all of which feature families with varying levels of dysfunction. If they were aired today, shows like Family Ties and The Cosby Show would be positively subversive.

    Nowadays many of the most popular North American video games feature protagonists that are outright criminals, like Grand Theft Auto or the Postal series, or borderline sociopaths like Duke Nukem.

    A lot of the 'fun' of reality television is taking pleasure in the misery of contestants who fail spectacularly, most notably on American Idol.

    Now, I'll admit that I participate in these things to some extent-I enjoy seeing the Bundys suffer as much as anyone else, and I don't relate to Al Bundy so much as use him to feel better about myself-I'm just saying that what you guys are describing goes well beyond hip hop music, and it has been for quite some time now.

    In a lot of cases (although there are exceptions, mind you), genuinely good-guy protagonists, loving families and uplifting messages don't sell anywhere near as well as they used to. Heroic sociopaths, families in serious need of counselling and depictions of failure are increasingly the order of the day, and it's been shifting that way for some years now.

  3. What it boils down to is the desensitization of people.

    I remember hearing stories of people being sick in theaters watching the first exorcist movie. It is now a movie that makes me laugh.

    I think that you're right Jared, most industries are having to turn more and more violent, vulgar and disagreeable to remain competitive. I'm not saying I don't enjoy action movies or comics. I'm just saying that we were fortunate enough to not be bombarded with this stuff from the second we were born.

    PS: I miss the Cosby show!


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