A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an
By Yousef Alqamoussi
Part 5 of 9
One evening in the summer of 2001, right before the start of my high school freshman year, I was at a friend’s house browsing Napster for the names of songs I’d heard on the radio: “Country Grammar,” “Bye Bye Bye,” “The Real Slim Shady.” I typed in a name I’d heard in passing but had never listened to before. It was called “Changes,” performed by somebody named 2Pac.
A flutter of piano introduced the track, and then this couplet: “Wake up in the morning and I ask myself / Is life worth living should I blast myself?” It went on to admonish selling “crack to the kids,” lament the “hungry mouth[s] on the welfare,” caution against “misplaced hate,” and defy police who “jack you up, back you up, crack you up, and pimp-smack you up.” The song ended and I played it again. Then again. I entered “2Pac” into the search bar and found another song: “Hail Mary.” Its opening declaration brought me to my feet: “I ain’t a killer but don’t push me / Revenge is like the sweetest joy next to gettin’ pussy.” I listened to that more than fifteen times in a row. I needed more: “Pain,” “Hit ’Em Up,” “Troublesome ’96,” “Me Against the World,” “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.” I might never have left if my parents hadn’t arrived and practically dragged me away from the screen.
Holy shit. 2Pac.
My sole mission that summer was to get my hands on a 2Pac album. To my relief, I had recently managed to upgrade my clock radio to a boom box with cassette and CD players, so half of the battle was already won. But how was I going to convince my parents to purchase a rap CD for me?
I wasn’t. I was going to have to do it myself.
I had been plotting the operation for weeks. I’d managed to sneak away from my mother while shopping at Target to scope out the shelves of the music department, and I’d found just what I was looking for: a two-disc album called 2Pac: Greatest Hits. From there, the plan was simple: take the forty bucks I’d been saving from my allowance, ride my bike the one mile from my house to the store, purchase the album, and ride back home before anyone could suspect anything. Since my little brother and I often went bike riding, nothing would seem out of place. The only obstacle I could foresee was my age. Since I was clearly under eighteen and trying to purchase a CD which brandished that infamous black-and-white PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT label, what was I going to do if the cashier refused me? I was going to have to risk it and find out, because there was no other way to get that album.
I casually approached my father one afternoon and said, “Jay and I are going to ride bikes. We’ll be back in an hour.” My unsuspecting brother came along only to find himself pulling up to Target after an unusually hasty ride.
“Watch the bikes,” I instructed. I wasted no time and permitted no distractions. I darted to the back of the store, grabbed the album, raced to the cashier, and, appearing as casual as possible, handed the attendant the album and a pack of gum. She rang it up, cashed me out, and offered a receipt. “No thanks,” I stammered as I ran out of the store, stuffing the album into my pants. We were there and back in less than forty-five minutes.
Disc one of 2Pac: Greatest Hits begins with a “holla to [the] sistas on welfare” and asks, “since we all came from a woman . . . I wonder why we take from our women / . . . do we hate our women?” It continues with a toast to gangsta recklessness, a plea to God from temptation, an ode to the dead, a phantasmagorical resurrection, and concludes with the most ruthless diss track of all time. Disc two opens with a boast to all the troublemakers, a caveat on teen pregnancy, an apology to old friends, a call for change, and a tribute to a mother. The scope and range of human expression astounded me. How was gangsta rap capable of such magnificence? I saw myself reflected in every aspect of 2Pac’s music. His biblical references and Christian iconography validated my passion for my own faith and the Qur’an. His iconoclastic vigor and lust for vengeance fueled my rage against social and religious conformity. His odes to friends and family epitomized my aspirations for love and friendship. 2Pac was proud to be a man, an individual, a force for truth and change, and I loved him and idolized him for it.
I tried to tell my father about “Changes” in the car one day, tying in his career as an accountant with the themes in the song. After working at the gas station for several months, my father found a job as an accountant at a juice distribution company, a task which was consistent with his professional training. He had studied and worked as an accountant in Iraq. Later, he managed accounting departments in Kuwait and the Emirates before immigrating to the United States. Since then, he has owned and operated his own accounting and bookkeeping business in Dearborn.
“He talks about the government and taxes and everything,” I told him, “and about how to make society better.”
“Haatha very good, bes shino hal kalam,” my father countered with a wince. “Why this language?”
“That’s his reality,” I explained. “That’s how they talk in his world. It’s not his fault.”
“Yes bes you can say it without the bad word,” my father insisted.
“It’s not bad words!” I said. “He’s just telling it like it is. He’s being real.”
“There is no need,” he scoffed. He couldn’t get past the “kalam,” the “words,” and his fixation on them was preventing him from seeing the bigger picture: that 2Pac’s music transcends all kalam and speaks directly to the heart. It is a burst of raw truth. “‘Ayb hal kalam,” he added.
I rolled my eyes and stared out the window. He didn’t understand. Nobody did.
But 2Pac understood. He’d been dead for five years, but his words still addressed the crises of the present age. I would watch the pan-Arab operetta al-Hilm il-Arabi (the Arab Dream) on our satellite Arabic TV, and 2Pac’s words “Can’t a brother get a little peace? / There’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East” would resonate within me. His vitriol toward the injustice of American police paralleled my revulsion of the Israeli military’s oppression of the Palestinians. And his heartfelt advice “the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive” pushed me away from the traditional backdrop of my upbringing onto a new path of self-actualization as I entered high school: to speak the truth of life through rap.
By the fall of 2001, I had officially become a gangsta. Just like ’Pac, it was me against the world, and the only course of action for a troublesome outlaw was the Thug Life. So, with all eyez on me, I threw my hat on backward and pictured me rollin’ down to Hemlock Park to shoot some ball with my lil’ homies. My father practically keeled over when he caught me one afternoon.
“‘Ayb!” he cried. But life goes on.
I was producing rap songs under my new alias, Anonymous, and my latest eighteen-track album Aspects of da Corpse featured such self-declared hits as “Manifestation Theory,” “Repentance,” “Don’t Mourn Me,” and “Long Live Da King.” I was also running a makeshift mafia on the side under the name Snakeyes, and with the help of my associates—Bugsy, Wite-Out, and Chainsaw—we roamed the halls of Fordson High demanding kids to give us their money and pushing them out of their seats, which only resulted in a slew of tardies and the resentment of our peers. Our recruitment flyer read “Give it to us, or we’ll give it to YOU!!!” We even had a contract for new members.
Hostile, gangsta, and mafioso as I thought I was, my peers would’ve likely disagreed. They might’ve described me as nice or smart. I certainly wasn’t hot, popular, athletic, or funny—attributes I would’ve strongly preferred—but quite an agreeable and cooperative young man. I didn’t want to be.
Smart or not, I wasn’t shining as a student. I completed eighth grade at Woodworth with a 2.7 GPA, and by the time I arrived at Fordson that fall, I was all but completely checked out. I didn’t care about school, because being “smart” wasn’t exactly a badge of pride for a fourteen-year-old. What I really wanted was the validation of my peers. I was more interested in girls, friends, and basketball than I was in being smart. And so, due to my apathy in middle school, I didn’t advance to the honors courses with the rest of my classmates that freshman year. Instead, I was relegated to a special “team” where I was required to repeat my previous math class.
But I didn’t care because I was a gangsta. I had bigger things to worry about. I was updating my rapper name to ELKAMUZI, the gangsta-rappin’ OG from the D. I had traded in those Qur’anic verses for rap lyrics, dropped the bayati scale for the hip-hop tetrameter, and dreamed of a jannah in which Heaven got a ghetto.
It was all going great until I discovered allusions.