As in any other subculture, rap aficionados argue about which rapper has produced the most impressive output. Jay-Z has cited Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and 2Pac as “greats”—and his career is often compared with theirs. The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac met untimely deaths in 1997, so comparisons are limited. But Nas’ “Illmatic” is considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Few hip-hop fans believe any of Jay-Z’s albums are of the same caliber, yet Jay-Z has released a consistent stream of critically acclaimed albums—while Nas’ career hasn’t flourished.
As teachers, we cannot expect to perform perfectly for every period of every day of the school year: Such unrealistic hopes can lead only to utter disappointment and early burnout. Unfortunately, perfectionistic tendencies can often be intensified by the pressures of high-stakes accountability systems. That’s why we must gird ourselves for the long haul, developing mindsets, skills, and innovations that will enable us to sustain our careers.
One of my NYC teacher friends posited that I was popular. I laughed. Hard. The one thing to keep in mind, my people, is that I have a hard time talking about myself in depth. On the web, I’ve gotten gracious amounts of praise (all of which I’m humbled by) but in my district, I think I’ve also maintained a fair share of notoriety. I tend to listen a lot more than I speak, and I nod a lot until I find the best place and time to say something. She asked me to write about why it is that I laughed so hard at her question, but before I accepted that offer, I replied with this: What’s the realistic difference between infamy and popularity.
Simple. It’s about intention.
Whenever I enter a conversation, my intentions depend highly on the audience, what I know beforehand about the space I occupy with that audience, and how I can help move a conversation forward. There have been a couple of district professional development sessions where I had to say things that the district or network weren’t happy with. I’ve had the audaciousness at a national conference or two to suggest that teacher voice matters in any future context of building 21st century schools. I’ve walked into a few teacher-led meetings and openly questioned the lack of diversity in certain spaces. Usually, people who tacitly agree with me might give me an applause or talk to me in some backchannels later, but I also get the intense stares and “Can I talk to you for a minute” parts, too. Often enough, I’ve also gotten the “Vilson, did you say something?” when an e-mail comes out about how we as teachers dared to discuss our disagreements and prompted subsequent meetings cancelled.
Thus, it’s not popularity, but notoriety. I’m OK with that.
It also means that, when I’m vested in a project, people know I mean business. It also means people always need to re-read their pieces as if they’re reading it to me. It also means that when I say something positive or constructive, because I know how to find that balance, then it’s taken more seriously. It also means that I get to say a lot more “and” than “or.” For instance, I want students to achieve more and I want educators as a whole to get paid more. I want less middle men (and women) and more support and solutions coming from all levels of our educational system. I want us to openly discuss problems and also find ways and means for the people to engage others in a real discourse on present and future purpose for what we do.
It’s also why I’m squeamish at the idea of putting my main source of writing, for instance, under the auspices of any organization; whenever you’re commissioned to do something, you have to keep the organization that sponsors you in mind unless they specifically call for you to use that voice in the pieces you’re writing. Freedom isn’t free, but it’s not about the price; it’s about the value. I don’t walk into conversations tied down by any one entity, even though I know I’m getting paid for compliance to an understood standard of complacency.
That’s OK. As long as I get to poke at the boundaries a bunch, and possibly kick dust around the edges, I’m alright. Because I have my ambitions. How about you?
Jose, who celebrates what would have been 2Pac Shakur’s 40th birthday …
p.s. – :: whistling “I won’t deny it, I’m a straight ridah. You don’t wanna fuck with me …” ::
Recently, I was watching the movie 2Pac Resurrection, the posthumously narrated biographical film about the rapper Tupac Shakur. In one of the segments, 2Pac discusses his prison stint and the people who sent him letters and visited him during his time behind bars. One of those people, of course, was his mother, Afeni Shakur. Their relationship strained over the years, but his prison sentence forced the two back together. The irony, of course, is that they were once together in jail while Ms. Shakur was pregnant with 2Pac during her time as a Black Panther.
When I first heard the song, I couldn’t fully grasp their situation. I knew as much about 2Pac’s life as MTV would reveal. To the general media, he was a chart-topping, record-selling, reckless, Black thug with way too much money on his hands and too much celebrity. I didn’t know much about Dionne Warwick nor C. Dolores Tucker. I also didn’t know he was literally getting followed by the FBI and every law enforcement official within a 5-mile radius of his entourage.
But if there’s one thing I knew about 2Pac, and it’s the same thing every poor kid knew when they ran the “Dear Mama” tape, it’s that this man knew how to make a song. My friends and I would sit there not saying much while the record played, or the video came on, and tried to hold the emotions in. We’d weep while no one was looking, and tried to act tough in front of each other. Usually. 2Pac’s songs still pull people in because it doesn’t let people off the hook. Either you ride with him or you turn the tape off.
So it was with “Dear Mama.”
For a good portion of my life, the only people that my mom and I had were each other. When my stepfather came into our world, and eventually my younger brother, I still remember how much she struggled just to keep a hot plate on our table. She took odd jobs around town, including the factory job that eventually left her incapable of maintaining a full-time job. When that didn’t work out anymore, she took on parenting heroically, piecing together monies she saved up with income from my stepfather and other sources. We rarely if ever missed meals, and our clothes stayed clean. Out of circumstance, I only saw my father once a year on average, but my mother wouldn’t let me feel any sort of way about that.
The more I found out about my mom and the struggles she went through just to ensure I became the man I am today, the more I knew I had to become that, at whatever cost. I blamed myself often for my own shortcomings, and became frustrated with her. That’s what most sons in that situation, my friends included, felt in my predicament. We didn’t have our fathers there, and we kept trying to run away from our fathers’ images until we became lots like them. It’s our ultimate shortcoming, and often, the only way to reverse the anguish of not living up to a certain image is to reflect without the external influences, without the confusion, without the noise.
That’s what Tupac did for a lot of us, so we didn’t have to.
Last year, this song was added to the National Recording Registry. Wikipedia states that “The Library of Congress has called ‘Dear Mama’ ‘a moving and eloquent homage to both the murdered rapper’s own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference.’” For those of us who felt like Pac did, we couldn’t agree more.
Jose, whose plan was to show you that I understand …
Jay-Z, Cornel West, and Harry Belafonte before Decoded Talk
I had the pleasure and misfortune of running into videos my former students get involved with, and one of them featured a gang from one of the neighborhoods my school represents. I watched a bit of it, annoyed that these pseudo-gangsters would put their videos on YouTube (“Real gangsters move in silence …” – Biggie), but more perturbed because they paraded in a coterie down a set of project buildings. I watched as the faces I once knew, who I never taught but I saw promise to their teachers they would do better, yelled in defiance to the camera about another pseudo-gang and how “pussy” they were and how this set of misguided youth is more malignant than the other.
One even observed that their rival group never gets out and made this quip: “Niggas is doing they homework, yo!” and laughed heartily.
Inside, I sat there and boiled. On a day like today, remembering the types of struggles a small but powerful group went through to extract consent from the majority rule to do the things “niggas” like these take for granted. If they had been that loud in their projects during the time Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the front of a bus, police would have made sure they couldn’t even walk the sidewalk. If they had been that bold in their attire and violence, the firemen would have taken hoses and washed the colors right out (take that how you will).
If they had even thought about getting “back into school” and saying “Fuck this gang shit,” they wouldn’t have access to second-chance programs that let them follow through on their word.
My blood temperature got to 400° until a clip of Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama” played in my mind. When he said, “I hung around with the Thugs, and even though they sold drugs, they showed a young brotha love.” When I think about all my students who don’t have any figures around them that empower them, it’s only right that these young kids have this bravado: no one else picks them up. Many of their fathers leave, and their mothers don’t always know how to make a boy into a man.
Even the kids with two parents either have both parents working or parents who leave it up to the school to teach the kids about themselves. While I agree that this is a White culture and every other American should acclimate elements of the dominant culture, I also see that the lack of representation in all facets of academia as a means to dissuade internal interest for those very children. It may not matter for some people, but we see examples of social and economic stratification pushing many types of students away from learning anything.
At least if they join a gang, there’s a history there, and they have reflections of themselves in those groups, as dangerous as they may be.
It makes me wonder, though, if these niggas actually did their homework, would they make the gradual transformation from niggas to men of color, and eventually, kings?
Jose, who can’t stand Chris Matthews’ interview style …
2Pac probably says everything that needs to be said in this video better than most intellectuals who engage in anacoluthia for the sake of just going above their readers’ heads rather than touching their hearts. Maybe a useful tactic for burgeoning anything is to only apologize when you mean it. Say sorry if you’re really [...]
A few notes: 2Pac is a freakin’ legend. He’ll never truly rest in peace. He’ll always live on in the hearts and minds of those who were even so much as touched by his music. There, I said it. RIP means nothing for a man like that. The Acentos Workshop was really good. Can I [...]
Today will mostly be remembered for 2Pac Shakur’s birthday. The once and still prolific MC carried on a legendary life, evidenced by his persistent legacy and demigod status within multiple communities. He constantly ranks amongst the most profitable dead celebs, and his style continues to pervade some really popular MCs. People like me were also [...]
I wrote this sometime in October 2008, but for whatever reason, people who I sent this to never actually published it. Some of the stuff I wrote in the original blog I’ve edited to fit my more informed views now, but the message remains the same. Please read and discuss below. Also, for more Biggie [...]
There I go, quoting another rapper again. I consider myself a rap fan by most standards, but today especially, I recognize the power of their words. When Jay-Z speaks of the “genesis of a nemesis” when telling of the birth of a drug dealer, when 2Pac speaks of hopelessness throughout most of his records, and [...]
Thanks everyone for your prayers and thoughts. I finally arrived to Florida after a somewhat long trip here. I had a short stop at Washington, DC, and of course, I had to wait a while before someone picked me up. It was weird. We headed directly to the hospital, and when I saw him, I was in [...]
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My name is Jose Luis Vilson, teacher, writer, public speaker, activist, Syracuse University and City College grad, poet, hip-hop enthusiast, and (certainly not least) father. I've been featured at CNN, Huffington Post, Education Week, Scholastic, TEDx, and GOOD Magazine. For more, click here.