Last week, the whole world found out that Guru a.k.a. Keith Elam of the world-renown hip-hop duo Gang Starr had (ostensibly) died of a recent heart attack he suffered the day before. Entertainment bloggers reported it. Wikipedia reported it. Celebrities who are usually in the know said it. Then, I typed up a dedication to the man, thinking these three had become relatively credible sources.
Ten minutes later, the news of his demise was squashed.
I was crushed. Hurt. Distraught. A bit angry, especially after my apology and subsequent redaction.
Then, happy the man was still alive.
His music is a big reason I made it through college to begin with. Songs like “Royalty” and “Moment of Truth” infused awesome street symphonies with super-tight poetry in ways no one’s mimicked since. He isn’t superlyrical or completely braggadocious, but his street tales and messages of peace and reflection carried me through some tough times and even some awesome times. I never had the fortune of picking up his albums early in my youth, but as I got older, I recognized Preemo (DJ Premier) and Guru’s melodies from a mile away.
It also made me think of the people I valued as heroes, people whose names sparked chatter in their respective fields, whose work made people quiver with excitement, whose passion put them just a notch above everyone else I looked up to. During college, I met many of these folks and gathered many more heroes along the way, learning more about myself as a person through their works and my reflections upon those. Whether it was education, activism, writing / poetry, or just life as a whole, I sought these figures actively as a source of the proverbial light.
Meeting them in limited spaces gave me and others the impression that they’re somehow on another level of “avatar” than those of us acolytes. In many ways, that still holds true: when one is still learning and finding their guide in life, one needs those role models to help guide their personas and spirits.
As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve become acutely aware of my heroes’ faults. Starting from my extensive research of the long history of Muhammad Ali’s womanizing and Malcolm X before he became we semi-deify now, my ever-expanding knowledge began to deconstruct the images I had of them, and as I got older and saw my more current heroes more regularly, I saw the griminess, the discontent, the shiftiness, and the inexplicable. I also found myself at a loss for words at the indirectness and secret society rules many of them played by.
In a fit of poetic rage, I metaphorically killed every single one from top to bottom, in rhyme and meter. Like those movies where the one guy finds out his boss / government has been deceiving him the whole time and decides to abandon their rules and go guerrilla.
Except that Guru almost died.
And then it took me back to a discussion our African-American Studies department at Syracuse University had about leaders like MLK Jr., wondering whether his less savory acts devalued what he did as one of the greatest civil rights leaders in the world. One of the younger professors in the panel argued that, because he had these blemishes, he was more closely reached. Before, the MLK standard was so hard to reach for him but now, in a backwards sort of logic, he now felt better about getting to that level.
In my current position, I look at those who I consider role models and that I certainly consider myself a fan of, and have to remind myself that, for all their inner divinity, they are human. They’re every bit as emotional, insecure, wavering, and contradictory as I am. That’s what makes them possible.
Why not pray for peace with them while they’re still on Earth and not when they’re six feet under or ashes spread across a plot of land?
Everyone is on a path that’s asymptotic to 100%. That’s why I can’t blame them. They’re somewhere down the road from where I am.
Jose, who shouldn’t be this popular, you’re far too kind …