BERKELEY, Calif. -- Most people think of murdered rapper Tupac Shakur as just that, a rapper.
But 20-year old Arvand Elihu sees him for more than his rapping talent. To him, Shakur is an ideal study for students of poetry and history, as important as any of the great writers and social commentators.
"Tupac was literally blessed," said the molecular and cell biology major at the University of California at Berkeley of the controversial superstar rap artist. "Not only did his poems flow nicely, he painted perfect pictures for readers and listeners."
The prestigious university has given Elihu permission to teach a course on one of the world's most highly controversial rappers, the late Shakur.
Elihu is the student instructor of a two-unit pass/fail course entitled "History 98, the Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur." The month-old course, part of a program in which students can create professor-approved courses of their own design, has already drawn an overflow of 80 students (30 above capacity) to each of its twice-weekly meetings, with more waiting to get in.
Elihu, who was born in Iran and transplanted to Beverly Hills, Calif. at an early age, said he's always been interested in "artists who expressed their personal lives" in song. Once his cousin introduced Elihu to the work of Shakur a few years ago, Elihu said he began to think of the rapper alongside other favorite artists such as Bob Dylan and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, which led to his deeper look into the life of the Death Row Records artist who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas a year ago this Saturday.
"My cousin played the song 'Only God Can Judge Me' (from All Eyez on Me) and that line, 'got the doctor standing over me screaming I can make it/ got a body full of bullet holes, laying here naked,' just painted such an amazing picture. Which, of course, came true later as well," Elihu added grimly.
Shortly after Shakur's death, Elihu became a hard-core fan of his lyrics. While sitting in a course on medieval literature last year, he said he drawing parallels between Shakur's writing and historical literature. "I realized that he was misinterpreted and that he was literally blessed with the ability to put words together. I started making all these connections with his words and honor and bravery and I became convinced that his lyrics were poetry. That he's a modern, contemporary poet of our time."
Elihu said he became convinced that, in 300 years, when historians look back on late 20th-century society "no one could give a clearer picture of what was going on than Tupac Shakur."
However, Shakur's legacy of arrests and legal battles has some wondering whether the rapper's life is worth exploring. The controversy surrounding Shakur has continued more than a year after his murder with a lawsuit filed as recently as last week by Orlando Anderson, a suspect in the Shakur murder, for an alleged beating doled out by Shakur and Death Row boss Marion "Suge" Knight on the night of the rapper's murder.
"In some ways, yes, I have a problem with it," said Marilyn Merry, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLWU) and a long-time member of the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCOBW), a group whose chair, Dr. C. DeLores Tucker, has filed suit against the rapper for his lyrics and spoken out frequently in opposition to gangsta rap. "We've (NPCOBW) often said that we're programming our youth for destruction with this music. In an academic setting, he's giving credence to some of the garbage he (Shakur) wrote."
However, Merry, herself a poet, said she could see some merit in studying the later, more introspective work of Shakur. "There's a possibility that it may have some value," Merry said. "Because it is in an academic arena and some of the songs that he wrote, like "Keep Ya Head Up," for young women, I thought that was positive."
Elihu's enthusiasm for the class so impressed history professor Robert Brentano, that the medieval history lecturer agreed to sponsor it. "One of the first readings in the class of mine Arvand took was by the British historian Gildas," Brentano said. "He was terribly excited about how that kind of a writer helped us understand the society he wrote about. I'd never seen anyone so interested in this subject and Arvand quickly made a connection between Gildas and Tupac, which he explained to the class in a very invigorating way."
Brentano then invited Elihu to reprise his lecture in a two-hour version for another medieval literature class. The professor, who admitted to being vaguely familiar with Shakur only through his still-unsolved drive-by murder, said he has since listened to Shakur's albums, but is "not in a position" to comment on his lyrics.
Shakur's former manager, Leila Steinberg, was a guest lecturer at Monday's class, and Elihu said he hopes that Shakur's mother and sister will address the class in the near future. The course is held Mondays and Wednesdays on the Berkeley campus.
Despite Shakur's often graphic depictions of ghetto existence and frequently crass and misogynist language, Brentano said his decision to sponsor Elihu's course didn't ruffle too many academic feathers. "My peers didn't necessarily look askance at the class, although one professor didn't think it was appropriate. He accepted my judgment of its merits, though," he said.
Elihu said he did not have it as easy.
"It was tough to convince people at first," said Elihu, deflecting comparisons to widely-ridiculed recent university classes at other institutions on the works of Keanu Reeves, Madonna and MTV. "People didn't see the depth in his work at first. But I think after a few classes, people have gained a respect for him, not as a rapper or political figure, but for his raw gift of poetry." [Thurs., Sept. 11, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]