Tupac Shakur 101

Sun Tzu. Christopher Marlowe. Niccolo Machiavelli. Frantz Fanon. What do these men have in common?

Few could imagine the common thread among these four thinkers and philosophers to be modern-day gangster rapper Tupac Shakur and his lyrics. A new class at the UW, however, emphasizes just that.

The course, titled The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur, is taught through the Comparative History of Ideas (CHID) program by Georgia Roberts, an English graduate student.

Despite the name, students are not given a 10-week course on hip-hop and rap. Rather, the aim of the course is to analyze the men in history who Tupac idolized and admired, according to Roberts.

The idea is to begin with common ground, the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, and to dissect them as pieces of poetry with references to other famous literary works.

"I want students to think of what Tupac was thinking when he wrote those lyrics," said Roberts. "What are the universal themes? The students should get involved in his lyrics and see if there are themes in the books they will read that match the lyrics."

Hip-hop, and gangster rap specifically, has been heavily criticized by prominent political figures for its emphasis on violent behavior.

Tipper Gore organized the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the '80s as a response to the expletive lyrics in modern-day music. According to MTV Music News, she has since apologized to those affected by PMRC.

In 2000, the Federal Trade Commission released a report that claimed the entertainment industry was repeatedly targeting minors, and advised the industry to establish codes prohibiting marketing to children, increase compliance at the retail level and educate parents about warning labels.

Locally, the Seattle Times reported in 2000 that Mayor Paul Schell blamed a shooting in Pioneer Square on hip-hop music.

Tupac did his own part in sparking controversy while music was being criticized for its influences on society.

Tupac's violent image and lyrics contrast drastically with the reflective Tupac, who wrote songs about young girls being impregnated and not losing faith when times were hard.

Tupac himself was affected by the violence his music and lifestyle implied. In 1996 he died after being shot five times. Tupac's unsolved murder and the aggressive rivalry between him and rapper Notorious BIG left an image in many people's minds of both Tupac and his rap as violent, valueless music, an idea Roberts disagrees with.

That impression is precisely what Roberts' class aims to change.

"Hip-hop is no joke. It's a force and it's a movement," said Roberts. "I want students to realize that [Tupac] was in conversation with some of the greatest literature of our time. Just because he's a hip-hop artist, [this] shouldn't be belittled."

Much of today's hip-hop has been colonized by corporate America, according to Roberts, but there are elements within hip-hop that are fundamental to a political agenda.

Tupac's lyrics included references to Tzu, Marlowe, Machiavelli and Fanon, and he attempted to be thematic about expressing his views on society. Of great fascination to Roberts is Tupac's discussion of an alternative nation called "Thug Nation" in his lyrics.

A third-year graduate student, Roberts discovered the idea of teaching this course while at UC-Berkeley completing her undergraduate degree. At Berkeley there is a course on linking hip-hop music and literature.

While her focus of study is 19th-century American literature, Roberts is extremely interested in masculinity studies. Tupac's lyrics provide insight for Roberts on connections between masculinity and American identity.

Last winter Roberts taught a focus group on 19th-century author Henry James. In spring, she taught the history of hip-hop. For Roberts, there is no shame in combining personal preferences, such as hip-hop music, with academic study.

"As a graduate student, I'm still learning and still a student. It's cool to study something you're interested in," she said. "People have tons of interests, and [by seeing] the connections they share through music or politics, you can learn a bunch of different things. This is the type of teaching that CHID supports."

Roberts plans to continue this unique teaching style in her career as a professor.

While the focus of the course is on the lyrics of Tupac Shakur, it is heavily reading-based, and students will read many of the classical literary texts that Tupac refers to in his lyrics.

Students of the course have been forewarned to have a general idea of the history of hip-hop, which dates back to the early 1970s. Being familiar with Tupac's work is also a bonus, because each week students are asked to bring in pieces of his lyrics that relate to the authors they are reading.

Roberts hopes that this course, which is only taught as a focus group, will eventually become a permanent class at the UW. While there was room for 25 in the classroom, more than 150 students e-mailed Roberts and asked her for an add code, even after knowing that the class included heavy reading.

"If I can show that this is not just a fluff class for students and that we can learn from this common interest we share in hip-hop, I think there is a chance that it can become a class."

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