More Important Issues in Shakur’s Death Than Music Label’s Success

Morris W. O'Kelly is a Grammy Awards coordinator for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences

“When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care--each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms.”

Martin Luther King Jr.


King never cut a record, nor did he “freestyle” on the mike, yet still his writings were an affirmation of the social ills of American life in his time. Much of today’s gangsta rap is “The New Testament” . . . with a little more or little less elan, depending on your viewpoint. Like it or not, rap music arguably has the attention of more of the collective American youth than King, Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey ever had combined. Is that all bad? No, not as long as we teach our children how to separate the message from the misogyny and the information from the insanity. Don’t believe the hype that these concepts are inextricably linked. The signal-to-noise ratio in music is only as strong as the foundation that we have laid for young people.

The death of Tupac Shakur is not a “wake-up call”--a phrase we use more as a cliche than an actual call to arms. It must be a catalyst to exhaustive public action on the problems confronting black men. Another black man died violently long before he was 30, and all that is being talked about is the future being cloudy for Death Row Records (“Future Is Cloudy at Death Row,” Calendar, Sept. 14). Another black mother will spend the rest of her life mourning her son, and all that is being asked is whether Shakur’s recording label will be able to attract new talent. With myself being only 26 and having a mother, this personally concerns me.


Robert Hilburn and Cheo Hodari Coker report that a question being asked is, “Can a relatively small label afford to lose such major players?” I ask, “Can a relatively small race of people afford to lose their fathers, brothers and sons? Can that relatively small race of people continue to accept misguided commentary devoted to the future of a company as opposed to the future of the community that made said company so profitable?”

The deaths of Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Jonathan Melvoin (Smashing Pumpkins) helped stimulate the public debate about the responsibilities of record companies to their artists and the problem of drug abuse. The death of Tupac should not “stir” us to probe the future of Death Row, but instead reassess the responsibilities of the record company to the artist and the community that supports them both. The entertainment industry and the “war” on drugs are not that dissimilar, where for every bust, or superstar taken away from us, invariably there will be another to take their place. Tupac was very talented, but there eventually will be another. Our youth are not monogamous in their idolatry and soon enough someone else will be the object of their monetary affection. Death Row was successful before Tupac and Dr. Dre left a plethora of talented proteges behind. Somebody called Snoop Doggy Dogg comes to mind.

Instead of hushed-tone criticism of Tupac’s lifestyle or anonymous quotes by . . . well, anonymous record executives, we could do far worse for ourselves than understanding Tupac’s death as a symptom of a larger malady that’s afflicting our society and getting to the heart of the matter. We must address the real issues. Tupac in his own prophetic style said it best.

“I’ve been trapped since birth, cautious because I’m cursed. And fantasies of my family in the hearse. And they say it’s the white man I should fear, but it’s my own kind doin’ all the killing here.”

And remember what King said: “. . . Its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms.” Emphasis on human terms. Emphasis on human terms. Emphasis on human terms.