My Review of “Holler If You Hear Me”

On Sunday, June 22, 2014 I had the opportunity to see the Broadway musical Holler If You Hear Me with my friend Juno (top right). About two months prior to reading John Potash’s book The FBI War On Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders. So as I walk out of the theater with my friend Juno, who do I see? None other than John Potash (top left). I told him how I thought the musical was interesting. He shared that he enjoyed it as well. However deep down I was hiding how confused I was by the whole story that this musical is telling. More specifically, I found a very interesting contrast between this musical’s book written by Todd Kreidler and Potash’s book The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders that I recently finished. Kreidler’s book to this musical has Tupac indicting more Black-on-Black violence as the main “culprit,” if you will, whereas Potash’s book indicts U.S. intelligence and its white supremacist ideology that helped to murder Tupac. I think that history, Tupac’s legacy will definitely side more with Potash’s book than Kreidler’s. John Potash writes that Tupac had “a precocious ability to communicate a Marxist analysis of America’s class system and other political issues. For example, in an interview for a video while he was a little known teen in high school, Tupac explained that “for the upper class,” George H.W. Bush was “a perfect president…that’s how society is built. The upper class runs [society] while…the middle and lower class, we talk about it” (50). According to him, Tupac read hundreds and hundreds of books as a teen, from socialist texts, to philosophical treatises, poetry, Shakespeare and contemporary books on feminism, historical analyses, and psychology (50). Part of the reason why the Broadway musical Holler If You Hear Me, written by Todd Kreidler is closing today, is because of its failure to show this intellectual depth of Tupac. It exposes Broadway audiences to the lyrics of Tupac, however within a very confusing story by Kreidler that only indicts Black-on-Black violence. This ultimately becomes a story that endorses white supremacy. It provides no measure of the political appeal of Tupac’s music that communicated “a Marxist analysis of America’s class system.” Kreidler’s book is a story of two brothers, Vertas and John. John’s main ambition in the play is keeping gainful employment at a car repair shop after leaving prison. We are not told why John was in prison. His brother Vertas’s ambition is more unclear. In the first act Benny, whom we are told is the individual that helped John get the car mechanic job is killed. We the audience don’t really get to know Benny so we have no sympathy for him. We have to assume he is shot because the customary Black-on-Black violence typical of urban Blacks, expressed by Kreidler’s enterprising white character Griffy who employs John. Kreidler’s best dialogue in this book is the exchange between Griffy and John when John demands more from his paycheck: it definitely uncovers deep seated prejudices that we don’t hear often on the Broadway stage. Vertas’s ambition seems to ultimately support to Anthony on his quest to help avenge Benny’s death by killing a member of the rival gang 4-5s. Gratefully, Kreidler’s book for this musical includes no character that is Tupac himself. This is a story of two brothers Vertas and John. John is a former prisoner whose paintings come to life, while Vertas is a street hustler whose mother Mrs. Weston refuses the money that his trade that “some crazy internet shit in Malaysia” is bringing in. Like James Baldwin’s critique of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, all of Kreidlers’ characters are subject to the same issues that Baldwin pointed out in Wright’s character of Bigger Thomas: “Bigger’s tragedy is…that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, that he admits to the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed to him at his birth” (18). In so many ways, both John and Vertas accept a theology that deny them life. Vertas says that “true power’s money.” John says at the end of the first act: “Two words: my paycheck. That’s all my life gets to mean.” The men in Kreidler’s book define their manhood by how much money and women they have. They show nothing of the political being that Tupac was. Vertas’s friend Benny tells the other men of their neighborhood, whom Kreidler’s script calls Soulja Boys: “I know a buncha ways to be a man. Got a list. Start with Amber then with Jasmine…” The play adulterates the Marxist-Leninst Black Panther Socialist Philosophy that helped shaped the radical thinking of Tupac Shakur. It adulterates the thinking of co-producer Afeni Shakur whose outstanding legal defense exonerated the Panther 21. Maybe no Broadway show is supposed to do this, however, Tupac’s legacy deserved more political insight than Kreidler’s book lends. Potash writes that Tupac Shakur attended meetings of the New Afrikan Panthers, a group that helped inspire his development of activism. This group included members of the revolutionary group, the New Afrikan People’s Orgnaization (NAPO). Afeni’s close friend, ex-Black Panther Watani Tyehimba, helped found NAP and served as its security director and Tupac lived with Tyehimba in 1985 and 86. (47-48). In his song “Wordz of Wisdom” from the 1991 album 2Pacalypse Now, Potash writes that Tupac called for armed rebellion to oppose racist and economic oppression of “the masses, the lower classes” by the upper class” (63). He did not employ violence for the sake of violence as Kreidler’s book suggests. In this musical’s book, violence is shown as irrational and not a necessary response to the racial and economic oppression that Black men like Eric Garner faced from the NYPD on July 17th. Anthony, a Soulja boy in Kreidler’s book, is the character who is most bent on avenging Benny’s murder. He tells the Street Preacher: “Fuck God’s plan! We want Action.” Kriedler’s script suggests that for one to believe in God, one must downplay or ignore the necessity of armed revolution to bring about social change. In Kreidler’s and his characters’ minds, there is no conception of a God that would support armed revolution in the American tradition of a Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Boukman Dutty or John Brown. Kriedler’s script panders to the division in the minds between God an armed revolutionary violence for the purpose of liberation from capitalist expression in the manner of antebellum theologians. John in reciting the lyrics of Tupac’s “Me Against the World” tells his love interest character in Corinne: “When Will I Finally Get to Rest? Through This Suppression/ They Punish the People That’s Asking The Questions / And Those That Possess, Steal From the Ones Without Possessions.” Corinne tells him “The Power is in the People We Address.” The lyrics in this exchange define Tupac’s life but nowhere do they play out in Kreidler’s book. Like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, Tupac Shakur is a Black man who is sympathetic to socialism and who is only honored and respected after his death. He is not honored while he is living because, as Maurice Bishop said in Bruce Paddington’s recent film about his life, his influence among the masses is feared by U.S. intelligence. Potash’s book says that Tupac is one of those who was punished for asking the questions. Whereas those who support the oligarchs like Samantha Power and Pierre Omidyar continue to “steal from the ones without possession” by justifying imperialism even after Tupac’s death and this musical’s death. Potash writes that Tupac is essentially murdered by U.S. intelligence through the workings of police informants, Suge Knight and Dave Kenner. Potash writes that Time Warner, housed in Columbus Circle, about seventeen blocks north of the Palace Theater where a the musical ran, had a long commitment to placing U.S. intelligence agents and carrying out psychological warfare against Black activist musicians as an extension of its COINTELPRO tactics (140). Like the murders of King and Malcolm X however, the murder of Tupac is not prosecuted, because of Tupac’s political beliefs that was grounded in a serious class analysis that Kreidler’s book completely misses. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times writes that the musical failed because it didn’t have “a market tested brand name” or it didn’t come from London. I think more than these factors is the commercial nature of Broadway, that demands astronomically high ticket prices from a population so crippled by austerity that the only audience members who can consistently support are same demographic that Tupac’s philosophy indicts. His music, unlike Broadway, was more about righteous class struggle than about entertainment. The climax of Kreidler’s book is Anthony’s over zealous murder of a Soulja Boy, Darius. Kreidler’s message is that violence is a youthful indiscretion that fades as one grows older and more accommodating to white supremacist capitalism. It was Anthony’s youthful zest for violence that is the culprit behind Darius’s death and Black-on-Black violence for that matter. However those who appreciate Tupac know better, and know that his music and legacy demands much more. –RF.

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