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Rap trend-hops like no other genre, and Tupac Shakur was ground zero for more than a few of them. But when he was murdered in Las Vegas, Shakur launched a mortal groove—of rappers dying at premature ages. Since Shakur’s death in 1996, at least three other professional MCs have been gunned down. Although the phenomenon is not quite an epidemic, rappers across the nation have certainly taken notice. Even the unbelligerent Mos Def recently rhymed, “Four MCs murdered in the past three years/I ain’t trying to be the fifth when the millennium is here.”
Publisher and playwright Kwame Alexander hopes that the dead-rapper trope is not Shakur’s final legacy. Alexander has penned a two-act play, The Seventh Son, which examines Shakur and the myriad contradictions he grappled with for much of his life. “I wrote the play to allow [Shakur] to say some things and address [his contradictions],” says Alexander. “The majority of the monologue comes from what Kwame Alexander would like to hear Tupac say. It’s the questions that none of the journalists were bold enough to ask.”
As an artist, Shakur was known for a lot of things, but consistency wasn’t one of them. He could display deep sensitivity toward women, with songs like “Keep Ya Head Up”; yet he could be as misogynistic as any rapper, with songs like “I Get Around.” But Shakur’s influence over hiphop is indisputable. Perhaps no other MC during the ’90s cast a wider shadow, as Alexander, who previously edited an anthology on Shakur entitled Tough Love, knows well. “I was in Philly doing a book sign, and two 10-year-old brothers walked by, and they glanced at the book and went wild,” says Alexander. “It shocked me, because a book isn’t supposed to be cool. But this reiterated to me that Tupac had a lot of influence on young people.”
Shortly after Alexander’s epiphany in Philadelphia, he wrote up a proposal for a grant from Arlington County to write and produce The Seventh Son. “I initially wrote it as a one-man show,” says Alexander. “But as I was writing, it was becoming cliche. You’ve heard Tupac in his interviews. You’ve heard him on CDs. So I wrote in some other characters.”
The play takes place in Shakur’s afterlife. Alexander isn’t expecting to raise Shakur from the dead, but, on the stage, he hopes to re-create the tragedy of his life.
“I think any time a young black man dies, it’s a huge loss,” says Alexander. “Tupac was a symbol of the loss we’ve collectively experienced in our community. But, because of his popularity, perhaps we can learn a lesson from him a little quicker than someone whom we don’t know by name.”—Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Seventh Son runs at Rosslyn Spectrum to Feb. 20.