When I was 13 years old, I had a habit of spending my afternoons in this heaven of a place that used to exist: the local Walden Books. I would sit by myself, cross-legged on the ground, and rummage through every shelf and genre that piqued my interest. One day I decided to look through the poetry section, a part of the bookstore I rarely ventured into, and came across a book with Tupac’s face on the cover, The Rose That Grew From Concrete.
I recognized him from the little knowledge I had of ’90s hip-hop at the time and the MTV specials I’d watch every now and again, but I had no idea that there was a book of poetry written by Tupac. I flipped to the first page and read an introduction from his mom, Afeni Shakur, and was enticed enough to read through the first poem, which the book was named after. An hour later, I had devoured the entire book in one sitting from front to back.
I read every last poem before I even purchased the book. Then when I went home that night, I marked my favorite poems with bright fuchsia Post-It notes and re-read them over and over. I sent copies of individual poems to friends if a poem made me think of them, I made certain lines and rhymes my away messages on AIM, and I made sure to bring up the book in my seventh-grade language arts class. The Rose That Grew From Concrete was all I could talk about.
To this day, I can still remember the chills I felt and the tears that welled up behind my eyes while reading pieces like “Lady Liberty” and “Starry Night”; my heart and my mind were immediately connected and enlightened.
I loved reading about Tupac’s affection for his friends, and his confusion toward romance, his inclination to want to be alone and isolated. I could feel both his angst and his enthusiasm for life in every noun, adjective, and punctuation mark on the page, and I fell in love with the pain and the passion behind his words. I read his poetry book during some of my formative, coming-of-age years, which only further shaped my perspective on friendship, identity, and ideas about radical social justice and activism.
Up until I discovered Tupac’s poetry, I read the works of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, and William Blake — good writers by definition (and certainly the kind of poets who were taught in my Connecticut suburban public schools), but none of them had touched me or spoke to me on an emotional level, the way poetry is supposed to make you feel.
I fell in love with Tupac’s metaphors, emotion, and honesty. I fell in love with poetry, and Tupac Shakur is the first writer who made that happen.
While The Rose That Grew From Concrete was posthumously published in 1999, Tupac wasn’t far removed from the world of poetry while he was still alive. In 2013, Maya Angelou said in an interview that she met Tupac on the set of the 1993 film Poetic Justice. According to Angelou, Tupac was in the midst of an altercation with another man on set, but after some resisting she was able to reach him with some words of her own.
“When was the last time anyone told you how important you are? Did you know our people stood on auction blocks, were bought and sold so that you could stay alive today?” Angelou asked Tupac. “And finally he heard me and stopped talking, and started to weep. And I put my arms around him, and I walked him back into the arena. And he cried.”
Angelou also told Time Magazine in 2013 that when it came to the future of poetry, she remained optimistic. “All I have to do is listen to hip-hop or some of the rappers,” she said.
Like so many other times, Maya Angelou was right. Following Tupac’s legacy of brutal honesty and vulnerability in storytelling, Broadway will open its doors and shine its lights in the name of Tupac. Starting on June 19, Holler If Ya Hear Me, directed by Tony Award winner Kenny Leon, uses 21 of Shakur’s songs to tell the story of a community struggling with both individual and systemic issues around them. The show is yet another reminder of how the rapper and cultural icon — who would have been 43 years old today had he not been shot and killed in 1996 — left tremendously powerful words behind as a gift to the world.
“Lots of artists speak directly from their ego and it resonates with us because we all have egos, but Tupac spoke from his heart,” Saul Williams, a lead actor in Holler If Ya Hear Me who plays a character named John, told BuzzFeed via phone. “Tupac was never shy about admitting how many things made him cry. He realized what made him hard was his vulnerability and how large his heart was. He never tried to disguise his vulnerability; that’s what made his work resonate, like his poetry.”
Saul Williams isn’t a stranger to the literary community at large; in addition to acting, Williams is a veteran poet, screenwriter, and songwriter. If anyone understands the depth of Tupac’s artistry and importance, it’s him.
“Tupac spoke about humanity, compassion, and empathy,” Williams said. “In fact, he was trying to expose it all the time, which is why he could tackle such broad topics like single parenthood, teen pregnancy, and the criminal justice system. He rapped about a lot more than just dreams of being rich.”
While Holler If Ya Hear Me incorporates songs and poems that were written nearly 20 years ago, it’s is still able to take place in today because the themes and messages Tupac addresses are timeless. Actors can talk about Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War on stage and then jump into songs like “Dear Mama” and “Unconditional Love” because the ideas behind Tupac’s lyrics are still relevant. Even the show’s slogan reinforces this: “The music is Tupac. The story is now.”
Saul Williams noted that Tupac’s consistent relatability speaks to where we are, and how little we’ve progressed, as a society and culture as a whole.
“What does that say about us, if Tupac can write about 17 years ago and we wake up today and what he’s saying is still relevant? That’s not simply his prophecy, that’s our problem in this country.”
Saycon Sengbloh, another lead in the cast who plays the character Corinne, also told BuzzFeed via phone that she wants “people to walk away with some sort of understanding of the commonality between people” after seeing the show.
“We all have hopes and dreams, we all want love, we all want health, we all want wealth,” Sengbloh continued. “The line from the song ‘Ghetto Gospel’ — ‘If you take the time to hear me maybe you can see me’ — it’s a simple line, but it means so much. Whether people want to cheer you and have an educated answer instead of just presumptions depends on if they take the time to do so.”
The universal themes and messages in Tupac’s poems that traveled from his brain, soul, and notebook all the way into my hands decades later — with so many years, miles, and differences in between — have changed my life for the better. They played a key role in shifting my social consciousness and opening my heart to an entirely new realm of literature. Tupac remains a powerful force in the world because he expressed a narrative that had been traditionally ignored and gave a voice to so many human beings who had been otherwise rendered voiceless, and now Broadway audiences of all walks of life will be able to benefit from these lessons.
Saul Williams is excited about Holler If Ya Hear Me’s presence on Broadway because he thinks has the potential to change false misconceptions and preconceived notions people might have.
“When [audiences] take the time and see how his words are pushing the story along on so many layers of meaning, hopefully they’ll walk away with respect for Tupac, hip-hop, and the community from which it comes.”