Tupac Shakur, one of the most influential rappers of all time and a cultural icon in the Black community, studied ballet during his tenure at the Baltimore School for the Arts. The same man that portrayed the murderer Bishop in the cinematic masterpiece Juice loved the theatre, and cited Sinead O’Connor as an influence in his music. All of these facts are important details that helped shape his character and the masculine image he continues to portray to Black youth and hip-hop culture. Although these details may be more well-known within certain circles, mainstream white culture continues to focus on representing Tupac Shakur as a gangster immortalized by his “thug life” persona and harsh criticisms of the U.S. government. Sadly enough, this image has even trickled down to Black communities where Tupac’s love of ballet and musical theater has been long forgotten or dismissed. As both a performer of the arts and a Black man, my question is this: If one of the most hardened and idolized figures in recent history can openly express his passion for the arts, particularly ballet and theatre, then why are these pursuits still looked down upon in Black communities? Furthermore, why does a Black man enjoying or participating in ballet, music, theatre, fashion, or poetry often necessitate a derogatory label from his peers? If we wanted to press even deeper into this issue, we would need to ask ourselves what this mistreatment says about our own values as a community and the need for its individuals to placate to fixed gender roles or behaviors. It’s my daunting fear that the self-loathing and indignation prevalent within the Black community’s negative responses to Black men seeking out the arts, particularly from other Black men, stems from a lack of emotional clarity and empathy for navigating rigid roles of masculinity.
The popular stereotype of a Black man in America as a hardened thug is nothing short of problematic, especially given the lack of emotional intelligence and awareness associated with this stereotype. As inaccurate and demeaning as this stereotype is, it does raise some concerns over its conception and how Black men can ultimately embody the damaging characteristics of a “thug.” The lack of compassion and empathy commonly associated with this stereotype has its origins in the standardization of the inability for some Black men to express their trauma in a healthy capacity. The harmful emotions and violence Black men are subjugated to via racism, economic inequality, and toxic masculinity can be internalized and harshly projected onto our peers, friends, and lovers. These projections are a direct consequence of Black men being marginalized throughout United States history and pigeon-holed into cookie-cutter archetypes without the proper outlet to unload the weight of their emotions. For instance, I’ve been told time and time again from my father, brothers, uncles, and cousins that I was always too sensitive, or that I needed to “man up” when I would show my emotions. When I was sad or upset, I sought physical and emotional comfort from the men within my support system because I needed to learn and understand the complex emotions I harbored within me. Fortunately, I turned to the arts (like our friend Tupac Shakur) to vent my personal frustrations, and while this medium of catharsis was beneficial to my emotional well-being, many like me are unable to pursue this medium without derision. Attacks on our sexuality, masculinity, and general integrity are not uncommon, whether the attacks come from men we trust and respect or our peers still navigating through their own identities.
“What the fuck nigga? Why are you doing ballet? That’s some gay shit.”
“Oh, you like acting? Yeah, I bet your moms is real proud of you bro.”
“Why hell are you playing a clarinet? Did they run out of instruments for men?”
When young Black men receive this type of treatment from their peers, they are consequently put into an “out-group,” and othered into the negative stigmatizations tied to these problematic views of sexuality and masculinity. If they internalize this treatment, they can distance themselves from their ability to redirect these emotions and in turn, become hollow, apathetic husks of their former selves. Eventually, these husks devolve into troubled, aggressive young men with poor support systems and the inability to reconcile their trauma, a la Tupac Shakur’s character Bishop in the film Juice. This lack of emotional clarity combined with negative public and community perceptions limits the expectations Black men place upon their friendships, and without stable or healthy support systems, these Black men project harmful insecurities onto others that often lead to their own personal destruction.
What makes Tupac Shakur’s love for ballet, theater, and “feminine” pursuits impactful is its ability to redefine masculinity within the Black community and break the rigid gender roles Black men are often placed into. If a transformative figure like Tupac Shakur can embody these activities, then perhaps public celebration of this embodiment can lead to more acceptance of Black men pursuing their true passion within the performing arts and music. With proper education about the flexibility of masculinity and the importance of emotional support systems, Black men can be empowered to take active community roles and undo the damage of their predecessors. The precedent already established by artists such as Tupac Shakur, Prince, and Frank Ocean to dismantle the cultural and societal expectations of Black men should serve as role models for other Black men to follow. It is up to us as a community to empower and support each other, as colleagues, friends, and brothers. The next time a Black man approaches you with news about his ballet recital, orchestra audition, or anything else in the arts, support him. Be there to lift him up when racism, economic inequality, and white supremacy strives to bring him down. Strive to think outside of the box instead of limiting your life and masculinity within it.