All Eyes on Him?
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper
Former Death Row Records CEO Marion "Suge" Knight stands 6-foot-3 and weighs in around 320 pounds, according to a 2008 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police arrest report. And during Death Row's 1990s success, when it was home to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg and grossed more than $100 million (according to a 1996 Lynn Hirschberg New York Times Magazine article), Knight was known to use his size and general Compton persona to intimidate. It was Knight, after all, who basically called out Sean "Puffy" Combs at the 1995 Source Awards, arguably the first shot across the bow of the '90s East Coast vs. West Coast rap wars.
And while these days Knight certainly doesn't truck the financial clout or muscle he once did (see: a 2007 Washington Post profile that reported Knight was "hopping aboard the positivity train"), the man and his label certainly cut a formidable profile in the popular imagination. Which makes local independent journalist John Potash's claim that Death Row was a U.S. intelligence front against black activism both initially hard to believe and absolutely unnerving. "I believe that Death Row Records, which included dozens and dozens of police officers at all levels, according to a high-level police officer that investigated them, was a front company and was trying to continue penal coercion and mess up [Tupac Shakur's] head," Potash says during a weekday morning phone interview. "Death Row, of course, published the most negative songs he ever produced."
It's a theory he develops rigorously in his self-published book The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders: U.S. Intelligence's Murderous Targeting of Tupac, MLK, Malcolm, Panthers, Hendrix, Marley, Rappers & Linked Ethnic Leftists and its accompanying self-produced documentary of the same name that screens June 16 at Cyclops Books and Music. Potash's Death Row argument stems from research linking CIA/Contra/crack-entangled drug trafficker Freeway Rick Ross to Death Row business partner Michael "Harry-O" Harris, as documented in the investigative journalism of Gary Webb (1998's Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion), Ronin Ro (1998's Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records), Craig Unger (2004's House of Bush, House of Saud), and New Yorker articles, as detailed in a few of the 1,014 endnotes that annotate The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders. The book-length argument involves a pattern of similar attacks and discrediting campaigns against black leaders and musicians that run throughout Shakur's career.
In other words, Potash is no ordinary conspiracy theorist pulling tangents out of thin air. The 44-year-old Baltimore native earned a graduate degree in social work from Columbia University and has worked as an addictions counselor on and off in Baltimore since 1989. At that time, he worked at Addict Referral and Counseling Center at 25th Street and Maryland Avenue, where he met a client whose father was a Black Panther killed by police back in the proverbial day. And those stories gave Potash, the founding publisher/editor of a short-lived social work newspaper called Social Justice Action Quarterly, the idea to write an activist novel about the use of drugs to undermine black activism from the 1960s to the present. So in the early 1990s, he started researching black activism, which led him to the New York chapter of the Black Panthers, which led him to the Shakur family, which led him to Tupac--sort of.
"I knew some rap--like Public Enemy," Potash says. "But I didn't really know Tupac Shakur at that time." Potash spent the early '90s researching the Counter Intelligence Program's (COINTELPRO) '60s and '70s activities against the Black Panthers when a single sentence in Malcolm Gladwell's Dec. 2, 1994, Washington Post story about the Shakur shooting at the Quad Recording Studios caught his attention: "In one of the many strange twists in the case, the officer who raced to the scene after Shakur's friends called 911 was the same officer who arrested him a year ago," Gladwell wrote.
It was the first time Potash started seeing a pattern in Shakur's media coverage and anti-activism tactics. "So I called [Shakur's] New York trial lawyer and said, 'Do you think they're targeting him in the same way they targeted his activist parents?'" Potash says. "So that's how I got into it all."
"It all" occupied the next decade of his life, as The FBI War research lasted until 2007. Both the book and the movie are inelegant documents--the documentary primarily still photos and documents with voice-over narration--less artful narratives than the prodigious synthesis of herculean document research. Potash has basically done the hard labor of a historian, assembling documents, investigative journalism, court records, and personal interviews into a somewhat linear narrative. It's rough and dense, and even though this writer has gone through both the movie and book a few times now, it's still hard to parse at times because Potash's information wall is so monolithic.
Does it convince you that Shakur was assassinated by a counter-intelligence operation? You need to decide that for yourself. What it does achieve, though, is presenting a completely different way of considering Shakur, one that feels entirely indebted to Potash not being a hip-hop head. Two intertwining narratives thread through his book/movie: 1) COINTELPRO activities against activists from the 1960s on, and 2) Tupac Shakur's life from birth to death taking place in the direct shadow of grassroots black activism.
And that's an important point of view to consider. Shakur's hip-hop life--and undoubtedly his death--is a popular culture event, manufactured, considered, and scrutinized by everybody from music journalists to bloggers to the dude sitting next to you on the bus. At one point, everybody had a theory, people took sides in the media-mediated East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop rivalry, and it became this unsolved mystery thing. It could be both a recurring motif for Chris Rock monologues and a hip-hop press evergreen subject, as witnessed in the Jan. 20, 2010 post at online streetwear magazine SoJones where some anonymous "west coast O.G." talks about Shakur's murder.
And when thinking about Shakur in this light, the idea that any intelligence community could care about a pop star sounds downright ludicrous. But what if Shakur was an activist first, using music as his message? What if Shakur was trying to turn actual gang members into activists? What if straight-outta-Compton hoods became armed community organizers? Remember, being "radical" in the American political spectrum doesn't necessarily mean advocating Red Army Faction tactics. Sometimes radical is just deciding to do something in ways the establishment--any establishment--finds unseemly. As Daniel Burton-Rose's indispensable Guerilla USA: The George Jackson Brigade and the Anticapitalist Underground of the 1970s (out soon) reminds, North Carolina organizer and Negroes With Guns author Robert Williams was ousted from the NAACP in 1961 shortly after he admitted to organizing his chapter with "some of the 'worst element' we could find." What if the actual story of Tupac Shakur, the thug life rapper, wasn't the same old, same old about a young black man from the inner city just trying to be about that paper?
"What I think it was was that he had become the most influential black man in the black community in the country," Potash says. "The CIA and U.S. intelligence, what they have to do is win the hearts and minds of the people. They don't want to control us by force, they want us to control ourselves by having us believe in a certain way--that we don't need national health care, for example. And here, Tupac was threatening to win over the hearts and minds of people, he was able to counter so much of the propaganda in the black community."
Make no mistake about it: Reading or watching The FBI War Against Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders is work. It doesn't move quickly, and you're asked to string things together over years and generations, keep track of numerous activist and law-enforcement and informant players, and distill it into a coherent, plausible theory that goes against just about every popular narrative you've heard about 1990s hip-hop. But when you finally make it through the forest, you start to feel a little like Kevin Costner's Jim Garrison after he meets with Donald Sutherland's X in JFK.
Of course, that was a movie that took great liberties with the reported record. Potash practically footnotes his every sentence. Maybe fiction, however, is the only place left where it's safe to consider what you don't want to believe could actually be true. As Thomas Pynchon noted in Gravity's Rainbow's "Proverbs for Paranoids": If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.
"Once I published an article in Covert Action Quarterly [about Shakur], people who were close to Tupac or people who were former Panthers and also did a ton of research, gave me their CIA documents that helped support a lot of what I was saying here," Potash says. "And so I published copies of them in the book and you see them in the film. I got loads of court documents, [Shakur's] lawyers led me to where I could talk to judges and try to get court documents when I was in New York. So it's hard to know what more I can and hope to get--except, sure, I would like to know who, exactly, it was that pulled the trigger. Where exactly they came from. But, you know, that will probably never be known."
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