Tupac Shakur: Radical poet

On the sixteenth anniversary of his death, we remember a man who was the living embodiment of a contradictory career and politics.

On 13 September 1996 Tupac Shakur passed away in a hospital bed - the victim of a drive-by shooting six days before.  He had been shot several times in a rapid volley while reclining in the back seat of a car on Las Vegas Boulevard. The tragic death of young black men from drive-by shootings is, in the US, terrifyingly commonplace but Tupac’s life was anything but. At the age of 25 - the time of his murder - Tupac had realised a quite remarkable resume; he was an international hip-hop star, a critically acclaimed actor, a poet, a model, an activist and a budding script writer.  Quincy Jones throws this into relief by reminding us shrewdly – “If we had lost Oprah Winfrey at 25, we would have lost a relatively unknown, local market TV anchor-woman. If we had lost Malcolm X at 25, we would have lost a hustler named Detroit Red."

However, Tupac was also a figure steeped in controversy. He was perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the politicisation of rap music while at the same time embracing the "gangsta" lifestyle and glorying in much of the gang-land conflict it entailed. He wrote homilies to women struggling on welfare extoling their dignity and bravery yet elsewhere reverted to the depressingly familiar misogynist idiom of "bitch" and "ho". He reeled out screeds of poetry but would become infamous for his volatility and a reckless proclivity for violence. He lauded the values of community and social struggle while simultaneously embracing the individual wealth and material status his fame brought him.

Such paradoxes should be situated in a broader historical development. Afeni Shakur named her son Tupac Amaru for the Incan revolutionary leader who had fought against Spanish imperialism several centuries before. She was one of the leading lights of the iconic Black Panther Party, and both Tupac’s father and step-father were active in the movement. The young Tupac imbibed activism; as a teen he was sufficiently radicalised as to become a member of the Young Communist League. But the social reality of the projects of Baltimore where he grew up represented a malaise - a retreat from politics more broadly. If, in the late sixties the Black Panther Party boasted many thousands of members, by the early eighties it is estimated the number had fallen below thirty. The great civil rights movements had ebbed and abated with many of the most courageous militants either murdered or imprisoned.  

A form of rampant individualism and crass materialism rose from the debris of social struggle. If community activism cannot secure emancipation, then inevitably the onus falls on the individual to free themselves through their own resourcefulness, guile and entrepreneurship. The solution to empowerment more and more became a fiscal one; the ruthless, resourceful "hustler" who would use "Machiavellian" means in order to win wealth and power. This historical shift in consciousness attained a vivid resonance in hip-hop culture; figures like Puff Daddy would emerge and proclaim as a hero neither Malcolm X nor Angela Davies but rather Donald Trump.  

Tupac’s tragedy, and his brilliance, lies in the fact that he was the living embodiment of this contradiction. He carried within himself the conflict between the universal tenor of community struggle and the narrow horizon of personal acquisition and individual gain. Often Tupac would appear in videos decked out in gaudy gold amid a background of sleek supercars and semi-naked women - women who themselves appeared as little more than commodities, reduced to the status of props in a street theatre given over to the depiction of power and financial status. Tupac’s songs often carried the same unsettling fusion of misogyny and materiality; in one track he disparages a female target sniping – “Still lookin' for a rich man, you dug a ditch, got your legs up, tryin' to get rich."

But in his great works one can feel the moment of universalism once more; the hopes and aspirations of the community steeped in deep traditions of struggle and overcoming. Here Tupac sings about the heroism of single mothers on welfare for example, or his call for solidarity and internationalism which is the major theme of his anthem to revolution – Changes.  

Tupac’s voice was particularly raw; rich and deep but also throaty and unrelenting. It was something you had to acclimatise yourself to.  Like the voice of Johnny Cash, its starkness - a whisky-rich vocalisation often closer to simple speech than song - meant that there was no softening of the syllables by a sweeter smoother lilt; instead the emotion itself remains raw and unmediated. Its feeling was transmitted through the intense integrity, the purity, of the utterance, and in his beautiful homily to a son’s love for his mother – Dear Mamma - this is powerfully manifest. Tupac’s voice here is gentle, little more than a husky whisper, understated, yet at the same time the words resonate with such emotion that it is almost unbearable; you have the distinct feeling the singer is going to break down, to burst into tears, as he puts into perspective from the purview of his adult-self, just how meaningful his mother’s sacrifice was – “And I could see you comin home after work late. You're in the kitchen tryin to fix us a hot plate. Ya just workin with the scraps you was given. And mama made miracles every Thanksgivin’”.

It verges on the unoriginal to say how - in the face of someone’s death - they are with us still. But in the case of Tupac it feels genuinely apposite especially in terms of the cultural legacy he has engendered. Hip-hop artists of today, like Eminem for instance, often cite Tupac as their definitive musical influence. Moreover across the internet and the world something remarkable is happening. Tupac’s songs of struggle are being continually rethought and reworked, set against new social backgrounds and groups who register in Tupac something of themselves, whether it is the first  major Palestinian rap group – DAM - who emerged from the crumbling Israeli ghetto of Lod or the somewhat more salubrious setting of Harvard University which co-sponsored a symposium - All Eyez on Me: Tupac Shakur and the Search for the Modern Folk Hero – celebrating the late, great rapper’s work.   

A hologram of Tupac Shakur performing at the Coachella Music Festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution