A Quest for Self-Discovery Through Shakespeare, 2Pac, and the Holy Qur’an
By Yousef Alqamoussi
Part 6 of 9
That year in English class, my teacher, Mr. Peters, was introducing our next unit about a play called Romeo and Juliet, written by a guy in tights named William Shakespeare. As Mr. Peters was distributing the worksheet, I felt it was appropriate to voice my opinion on the matter.
“Poetry sucks!” I declared.
Mr. Peters looked up. “It does?”
“It’s stupid!” I continued. “Just a bunch of old people moping about love or whatever. Why are we even reading this? It doesn’t even make any sense. We should be learning about life!” And then, rising from my seat, I proclaimed, “We should be listening to 2Pac!”
“2Pac,” echoed Mr. Peters.
“Yeah! 2Pac. He talks about life.”
Mr. Peters allowed me to finish, then carried on with the lesson. The next day, we found him standing at the front of the room with a boom box. A classmate distributed the day’s worksheet. When I got mine, I read the title at the top: “‘Dear Mama’ by 2Pac.”
I screamed and jumped up and down from one side of the room to the other. We took our seats and Mr. Peters played the song. I bobbed my head and rapped along to the amusement of the class. When it was over, Mr. Peters began the lesson.
“Now, everyone look down near the bottom of that first stanza. By the way, a stanza is what we call a paragraph in a poem. Notice how the sentences have numbers next to them. That’s because the lines in poetry are usually numbered. Would somebody read lines seventeen through twenty out loud for us?”
My hand shot up. Mr. Peters picked me.
“And even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was a black queen, Mama, I finally understand, for a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man.”
“Thank you,” he said. He wrote “black queen” on the board. “Now, does anyone know why 2Pac refers to his mother as a black queen?”
Someone responded that it was because she’s black and a queen is respected and appreciated.
“Good,” said Mr. Peters. “Any other ideas?”
No one answered.
“Well, back in the 1970s and ’80s, there were a lot of poor African American women on welfare. These women were sometimes called black queens.” Then, next to those words on the board, Mr. Peters wrote allusion. “If 2Pac is referring to this phrase, then we would call it an allusion, which is when a poet makes a reference to something else.”
On my worksheet, I wrote allusion.
“But that raises a question. If black queen means both respected woman and woman on welfare, then which meaning does 2Pac intend in this line?” The class broke out into discussion. Mr. Peters settled us down and suggested, “We can’t know for sure. But could it mean both of those things at the same time?” And then, under the word allusion, he wrote pun.
On my worksheet, I wrote pun. By the end of the lesson, I had added meter, rhyme, AABB, and refrain.
I went home and listened to “Dear Mama” again. It felt like seeing in color for the first time. This simple tribute was brimming with multidimensional meaning and complexity. “Mama catch me put a whoopin’ to my backside” is imagery. “Make it through the night there’s a brighter day” is a metaphor. The whole song was composed in AABB rhyming couplets of four beats per line, the traditional meter of rap. 2Pac’s music was more intricate than I ever could’ve imagined.
The next day, I asked Mr. Peters if we could listen to another song. “Sure,” he said. “What do you have in mind?”
I knew that most of 2Pac’s music was not school appropriate, but I had one suggestion. “There’s a song called ‘Keep Ya Head Up,’” I offered. “There’s no swearing and it’s full of positive ideas.”
“I’ll listen to it and get back to you,” he said. But the next day, Mr. Peters declined.
“Really?” I was surprised. “Why?”
“Well,” he explained, “that first line, ‘Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice’ . . . I’m concerned that it might . . .” he hesitated. “I believe that it’s referring to the fruit of a woman.”
“Which, if it is, would be a metaphor,” he grinned.
“Makaveli in this killuminati” is layered with puns and allusions. “Had a church of kids” is hyperbole. “Steal from the ones without possessions / the message I stress” is loaded with inner rhyme. One day, the truth of Mr. Peters’s lesson finally hit me:
Rap is poetry.
2Pac is a poet.
And I the rapper was in fact writing poems.
Alone in my room, the next words I wrote seemed to magically appear before my eyes:
Oh my Mariah, my candle, my moon
My chills in December, my warmth in June
A look in your eyes, and creation lies dormant
And you leave me bawling, incensed with torment
The angels look up, yet you still rise higher
But I swear I will reach you, my sweet Mariah
“My Mariah” was the first poem I ever wrote. Mr. Peters let me read it aloud in front of the class.
By the time we got to Romeo and Juliet, I had studied and learned all that I could about figurative language. One of the first things I noticed about the play was that the parallels between Shakespeare and 2Pac were unmistakable. Romeo and Juliet was composed almost entirely in pentameter, with lines slightly longer than 2Pac’s tetrameter. Shakespeare employed various rhyme schemes, including 2Pac’s AABB sequence and a more rigid form in the prologue called a sonnet. I borrowed Hamlet from the library, almost immediately pairing “To be or not to be, that is the question” with “Changes’” “Wake up in the morning and I ask myself / Is life worth living should I blast myself?” When I came upon Polonius’s advice to his son Laertes, I was reminded of something I had heard long ago, but it wasn’t 2Pac. It was the advice of Luqman to his son in Chapter 31 of the Qur’an. Come to think of it, the Qur’an had a rhyme scheme as well. In many cases, it followed AAA . . . , as in Chapters 19, Maryam; 20, Taha; and 55, ar-Rahman. And as for Chapter 48, Verse 10— “God’s hand is placed on theirs” —that’s a metaphor. So are the final verses of Chapter 59, al-Hashr. Chapter 24, Verse 35— “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth . . .” —weaves a breathtaking allegory. And Yusuf’s dream of eleven planets and the sun and the moon prostrating to him is symbolism. And foreshadowing.