Tu-Pac's insights for youth workers

Don't Get It Twisted”

Dan Hodge | Oct 5, 2004

Photo by burst.shopify.com

Disclaimer: Engagement with contemporary culture will sometimes be “messy”. By that we mean that we won’t often agree (and sometimes can be offended by) what we read, hear or see. Swearing is one of those areas in which our ears/eyes could be offended. Tupac Shakur’s music contains some of these components; yet a successful engagement with his music will include an engagement with things that can sometimes be offensive.

“I wonder if the Lord will forgive me or bury me a G. I couldn’t let my adversaries worry me and every single day it’s a test, wear a bulletproof vest and still a nigga stressin over death.” [[Tu-Pac Shakur “Lord Knows”; Me Against the World: 1995]]

“That which does not kill me can only make me stronger (That’s for real)—and I don’t see why everybody feel as though they gotta tell me how to live my life (You know?)—Let me live baby, let me live only God can judge me,—That’s right baby, yeah baby.” [[Tu-Pac Shakur “Only God can Judge Me”; All Eyez on Me: 1996]]

These are the lyrical messages from the hip-hop community’s canonized saint, Tu-Pac Shakur, who was considered the “urban-prophet” by many. [[For more on this see Dyson (Holler if You Hear Me; 2001) who reveres Tu-Pac while struggling with his vulgar language; while all the yet he is an “Urban Saint.”]]

As a youth worker, what do you do with such passion, despair, talent, rage, anger, hostility, love, spiritual connectivity, and enthusiasm that encompasses the life of Tu-Pac Shakur? How do you, as a youth worker who cares about both God and culture, deal with the constant contradictions between God and Gangsta Rap? Some of the many issues that a youth worker and the church as a whole have to deal with in youth culture are listed below:

  • Does the church have a responsibility to condemn, ignore, or join with the hip-hop community with such unconcealed lyrics such as “F*ck the Police” and “A Bitch is a Bitch?”
  • How does a youth pastor deal with the male domination that is prevalent in the majority of current hip-hop music, while still ministering to the females in the congregation?
  • How does the “church” and Christians in general adequately deal with a cultural phenomenon that cannot be ignored, cannot go unheard, and cannot simply be disregarded?
  • Most importantly, as a follower of Christ interested in being a relevant youth worker, what can Tu-Pac tell me about hip-hop culture, Jesus, life, philosophy, and ministry?

These are not small issues that sit on the church’s front pew every week. These concerns from the hip-hop community cannot be merely disregarded as a “phase” or “fluke.” Hip-hop is a dominant influence in today’s culture and something we cannot ignore.

Tu-Pac, considered to be a “secular” artist by some, engages in all of these topics and issues. The issues that are raised in songs like “Dear Mama” (In which Tu-Pac contrasts the struggles between loving his mother when she was a “mother” and a “crack addict”), “Black Jesus” [[This particular track also engages the issue of a Jesus that was not exactly “perfect.”]] (Tu-Pac engages the issue of Jesus’ ethnic make up and begs of a Lord that is similar to him), “Only God Can Judge me” (which deals with the issue of condemning others without knowing the whole story, especially those in the church), and “Looking at the World Through my Rear-View” (this particular song deals being aware of the constant game called “life” and how to deal with that game), are too enormous for one person or church to contend with. Yet, these concerns and difficult subject matters for too long have gone unheard, ignored, and unchecked by many churches because of a very specific taboo that rejects the integration of the sacred and the profane in modern Christianity. Yet I believe that Tu-Pac had a message in his music. I also believe that while he himself admitted his inability to solve all the world’s problems, he had a relevant message for youth workers both urban and suburban. So that leads us to a key question: What might Tu-Pac have to say to us?

To understand Tu-Pac we must first begin to look into his musical lyrics, life, and philosophies. Tu-Pac’s music can be broken down into 3 categories as seen below:

  • Participant: When Pac is involved in the story he is telling, he is typically telling it as a 1st person: involved in what is going on. The song “How Long Will They Mourn Me?” is an example.
  • Observer: Pac is telling the story from a 2nd or even 3rd person point of view. He is merely observing what is going on in the culture or in a particular context. Songs like “Dear Momma” are a good example of Pac observing reality as he sees it.
  • Messenger: Here Pac is telling you a message about what is going to happen, what has happened, or what is happening. This is where Pac is considered to be a Prophet. Songs like “If I Die Tonight” (which actually predict his death over some real dumb stuff) is an example.

All of Tu-Pac’s music can be seen through these three lenses. For the church, Pac focused on the Messenger part. In “If I Die Tonight,” he actually states that the church, pastor, and prayer could not reach him. Now, why is that? In the latter part of the track he goes on to say that no one really understood him because no one took the time to get to know him…so he did his own thing and ended up dead.

This is an area that the youth worker must take seriously. Donald Smith in his work, Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication Across Cultural Landscapes, talks about the difference between “communicating” the Gospel message and “transmitting” the Gospel message. Communicating the Gospel means that you listen, engage people from their particular social/emotional/political/economic situation (commonly called “where they are at”), and become culturally relevant. Transmitting may be described as passing out tracts, preaching with no real relationships with the people, and using the Bible as a “people shield.” [[Donald K. Smith, Creating Understanding: A Handbook for Christian Communication Across Cultural Landscapes, Zondervan: (1992) pp.24-25.]] The latter is what Pac did not agree with; his message to youth workers about this was to engage, connect, and become involved with the people…even if it means you are a little inconvenienced.

To engage means that you must participate in a very important part of communication: listening to the youth that you are working with. Pac insisted that adults listen to the younger generation because he felt that they have a lot to give and a fresh view on life. Ignoring this message would be a critical error for youth workers. But what can we say about this type of listening? What does it really look like? Allow me to illustrate below with 3 different styles of listening I have observed:

  • Active Listening: To listen just to listen. This is done with an open mind and a mindset to actually know the other person and their perspective.
  • Listening for A Break: This means the listener is listening just to inject his or her own philosophy and way of life. This style of listening often will result in missing the small subtle hidden messages that people give you.
  • Listening to “Save”: This is the worse kind of listening. The listener listens just to “save” the individual and “close the deal” to “win” them to Christ. No real listening is done here, just sitting there waiting for a break or pause in the conversation.

Pac begs of the youth pastor to practice the 1st area of listening. Pac saw things the way they were, he was a realist. He saw pastors preaching to youth and “begging” them to come to church with no real commitment to listen to them or engage them “where they are.” That is why Pac argued for a new “form” of Christianity in his song “Black Jesus.”

After we engage, listen, and really understand this concept, then Pac brings us to his 3rd part of his lyrical matrix: involvement in the world of a teenager. Young Life calls this “going into the world of a teenager.” Are you ready? It’s not pretty! I would always tell my volunteers that if they really wanted to get involved with youth culture that they should go chaperone a high school dance. That will break you in real fast and proper like!

Involvement means that we are there when kids are trying to give each other lap dances. Pac stated that the church was too afraid to look into the “real shi**” of a young person’s life. [[“Hail Marry” The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory; 1996.]] For many, this is a daunting task, especially if you are going up onto a high school campus… teens look at you like: what are you doing here? However, if you can just get past that, you will begin to see that those stares will turn into questions like, “Why you keep coming up here” and “What’s your name?” But being involved means to begin to get past those initial fears, because, as Pac would say, fear can be your best motivator!

What does all this mean for the youth worker? Does it mean we all go and get bling bling and ice around our necks? Does it mean we sag our pants during the offering? No (although there may be some called specifically to do that). It simply means that we do as Jesus did: engage people “where they are”. Jesus’ harshest words were to the religious people of the time. He had compassion, love, mercy, grace, and a message for those who were lost and did not know Him. Pac was real and went to the people; that is why both Anglo and African American youth love him. This type of authenticity is the key principal for the youth worker. Jesus possessed authenticity, and so did Pac. We could learn from that, even from an artist that is considered “secular.”

Action Points:

  1. Listen to 3 of Pac’s tracks: Hail Marry (7), Black Jesus, and Dear Momma. Go to www.ohhla.com/YFA_2pac and download the lyrics. What are the different perspectives Pac is coming from (Messenger, Observer, or Participant)? What is his message to you? Culture? Youth? How does listening in each of the three types discussed in the article change the way you “hear” the message and music?
  2. Pac was authentic, and so was Jesus. Jesus said that we are to make disciples of people and to teach them in His way. Pac agreed, so what does that look like in your context? What are the top 10 needs of your youth from their perspective? How might you be authentic enough to engage them? Are you transparent, and therefore authentic, with your own issues and struggles?
  3. Read John chapter 6. What can be contrasted in that chapter with the life of Pac (if you knew him, if not compare it to the 3 songs you just listened to)?
  4. If possible, take some time to study a Tu-Pac video, especially any of the songs listed above. What are his messages in there? What was he relaying to his audience via the video? Try to look past the obvious (curse words, women dancing, and drugs) and see what the real messages are of the video. What can a youth worker take from this particular video?
Dan Hodge

Dan White Hodge, PhD is a dynamic speaker, scholar, Hip Hop theologian, urban worker, & racial bridge builder that connects Urban popular culture with daily life events. Dan has been an active member of the Hip Hop Community for over 20 years and continues to not only study the culture from both an academic and practical perspective, but live it as well. He has over 16 years of urban youth work experience having worked for Young Life and now working with undocumented peoples in Los Angeles with his wife Emily. Dan’s books are “Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel and Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur” (VDM Academic 2010) and “The Soul of Hip Hop: Rimbs Timbs & A Cultural Theology” (IVP August 2010).


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