Self-professed "hip-hop intellectual" Michael Eric Dyson remained on the r oad in the weeks following the September 11 World Trade Center tragedy in New York, promoting Holler if You Hear Me (Forecasts, Aug. 6), his examination of the myth and music of rap star Tupac Shakur, who was gunned down in 1996 in Las Vegas. Having just finished his scheduled 10-city national tour, the Baptist minister and DePaul University professor will now launch full-tilt into the next phase of his promotional push--what he affectionately dubs the "chitlins circuit," the network of black churches, bookstores and book club meetings.
Dyson, author of I May Not Get There with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr. (Free Press) and Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line (Vintage), has been buoyed by gatherings of racially and generationally mixed crowds, often 100 people or more. Holler if You Hear Me (Basic) may become Dyson's most successful book to date, going back to press twice after a first printing of 35,000 and shipping more than 45,000 copies within the first month.
The book, published September 13, the fifth anniversary of Shakur's death, was frozen out of scheduled media dates by coverage of the recent attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Still, the energized mix of political, cultural and theological analysis Dyson brings to his biography of Shakur has garnered favorable review attention in USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and New York Newsday, among others.
Asked about Shakur's enduring appeal, Dyson said, "Tupac was the premier rap figure, a man of enormous contradictions and conflicts, a true reflection of the beauty and terror of hip-hop. His was a transcendent voice, one that dealt honestly with the death and destruction caused by urban blight. He spoke to the heart, singing eloquently of the spiritual angst of his generation." The book derives some of its potency from the chorus of voices Dyson weaves throughout, including Toni Morrison, John Singleton, Rev. Al Sharpton, Stanley Crouch and Quincy Jones.
"There are some out there who are mad at me for writing about Tupac, but that is predictable," said Dyson, who loves a good rumble, as evidenced by his recent verbal slugfest on Bill Maher's TV roundtable, Politically Incorrect. "Many of the elite literary types don't want to deal with the complexity of Tupac, fixating only on the negative themes of hip-hop, the murders, diamonds and pursuit of booty. But there is more both to this man and to hip-hop culture. For many of the young, Tupac was a kind of ghetto saint. Although he possessed a tremendous urge to die, he produced a large body of work that contained both hope and incredible political insight. What I tried to do with this book was to build a literary bridge between the influential Black Arts movement of the 1960s and the current hip-hop movement."
Booksellers note that books by or about Tupac have an avid audience. Temi Dada, owner of Tunde Dada House of Africa in Orange, N.J., said Tupac's books sell extremely well, better than other books on hip-hop culture. Other storeowners also note the enduring appeal of the late singer. "His books move fast here, especially his poetry book [The Rose that Grew from Concrete (Simon & Schuster, 1999)]," said Gwen Richardson, co-founder of Cush City Books in Houston, Tex. "Tupac is like a legend to the young, like Elvis, with sightings and all. Tupac is really big with the prison readership. They're really into him."
But a rapper's album sales don't necessarily predict a book's success. "Everyone wants to do a hip-hop book now that it's so popular," said Josh Behar, senior editor at Harper Entertainment, who is working on the autobiography of rap star DMX, due in fall 2002. "A hip-hop superstar's book will succeed only if the artist is willing to give up the goods. Snoop Dogg's book would have worked if he had truly talked about his life; instead, we got a whitewashed version of it. Tupac's poetry book worked because he wrote from his soul. The reader felt as if he was inside the man's head. You could sense the intellect and rage at how he was beaten down by society. The hip-hop community won't read a book unless it is raw and real."
The music appeals to young people because it speaks candidly to their daily experience and identity and interprets them in a larger context, explained Monique Patterson, an editor at St. Martin's Press, who recently signed hip-hop writer Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop: The Politics of Hip-Hop and Its Social and Economic Implications. That candor has translated into solid sales for the house's hip-hop books, according to John Karle, St. Martin's publicity manager. An autobiography by Run-DMC's Joseph "Run" Simmons, It's Like That: A Spiritual Memoir (2000), has sold 35,000 hardcover copies, while Darryl "DMC" McDaniels's King of Rock (2001) has sold 25,000 copies, and LL Cool J's bestselling I Make My Own Rules (1997) has sold 140,000 hardcovers. Other popular hip-hop entries include Luther Campbell's As Nasty As They Wanna Be: The Uncensored Story of Luther Campbell (Barricade, 1992); Chuck D's Fight The Power: Rap, Race and Reality (Delta, 1998); Queen Latifah's Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman (Morrow,1999); and Russell Simmons's current bestseller, Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money and God (Crown, 2001).
Among the dedicated chroniclers of hip-hop culture, Bakri Kitwana, former executive editor of the rap world publication The Source and author of the upcoming book The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture, contends this influx of books indicates hip-hop is not a passing fad, though he has his own opinions about Dyson's new work. "So many of the older black intellectuals have not been able to fully appreciate this culture because they have not taken it seriously enough. I give Dyson some props because he has some interesting things to say, but since he's not a part of the generation, he sometimes let us off the hook when we're wrong. We must bear the responsibility for what is wrong in our lives. Still, you must give Dyson credit--he makes the older generation really listen."
And for Dyson, that is the goal. "I don't mind controversy," said the author, whose next projects are a book of interviews about race and another about his love for black women. "I welcome good debate and criticism. Young people appreciate my work because I deal with the subject openly and honestly. We need to reach out with love and try to correct what is wrong and make it right."