TEMPTATIONS

How Tupac Refused to Be Used as Another One of Madonna’s Black Male Props

In a recently released letter he penned from prison, the hip-hop legend wrote to Madonna explaining that he broke up with her because she was white. But it’s not that simple.

Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

We talk about Tupac so much these days you’d be right to wonder if he’s still alive. His passionate, controversial voice continues to ring out decades after his death. A letter to Madonna written in 1995 was released this week, launching a firestorm because Pac dumped Madge from prison because she’s white.

First off, let’s give Pac a little credit as a boyfriend. How many women these days are left enraged, annoyed or heartbroken because their man dumped them via text? This brother wrote his woman a long, thoughtful letter confirming how much he loves her in the midst of discontinuing the relationship. If you’re going to dump someone, isn’t this a pretty classy way to do it?

Many suggested that Pac dumping Madge because she’s white is somehow racist—but just stop. It’s so not. Racism is about oppression and bias. He’s not judging her, stereotyping her, or seeing her as less-than. And he’s definitely not oppressing her. He’s noticing the impact of his race and hers on his fame. He’s aware of how race functions in America. Noticing race is not racism any more than noticing fire makes you an arsonist. Color blindness is not progress; it’s another way of denying a part of my humanity. Progress is being aware and accepting others as they are. It’s also about building opportunity in education, jobs, and wealth creation as well as incorporating more actual justice into the criminal justice system, but I digress. 

In his letter Pac was looking at the world as a recording artist who’s acutely aware of how all of his decisions will impact his career. All good recording artists are constantly making such calculations. Would being seen at this club or doing that video with that artist be good for the career? Or would fans not understand? Like politicians carefully weighing how each word impacts their image, recording artists are constantly considering how each step they make impacts their image and their audience. And most artists tend to be risk-averse. That’s what you’re seeing here: Pac avoiding the risks involved with publicly dating this white woman.

He understands that for her, dating him would enhance her image. I’m sure he’s right. It would’ve definitely made her seem that much more edgy to have the biggest name in hip-hop—a famous, young Black man—as her boyfriend. But would dating her have damaged Pac’s career, as he suggests? I’m not so sure.

For some of his fans steeped in Black nationalism, it could’ve been hard to reconcile Pac’s Black Panther-inspired politics with dating a white woman. But given Madonna’s gigantic fan base in the mid-‘90s, being linked to her would’ve probably earned him more than a few new fans. Yes, some of Pac’s fans would be hurt to see yet another famous Black man choose a white woman. After all, Black love matters, and celebrity Black love puts it on a pedestal for all to see. But it’s not every Black star’s responsibility to nurture every emotional need his or her fans have with every choice he or she makes.

Pac was no ordinary recording artist. Fans didn’t simply love him for his product; no, Pac was a life artist whose life was his art. He was a performance artist whose stage was the world and he made every waking moment a reaffirmation of his power as a person. Would publicly dating a white woman have made his “me against the world, thugs unite, Black nationalism” seem hypocritical? Or would the hypocrisy have made him more compelling? Or would dating Madonna make him seem like he’d been sucked into the world of celebrity, and thus less authentic? Perhaps not. Pac’s personal power, his dominating nature, his ability to bend everything to his will could’ve made it seem as though he’d won over one of the most famous white women alive.

That said, Madonna is no normal recording artist either. She, too, is a life artist, with fans loving her for her bold life choices as much as for her music, shows, and movies. But, perhaps more critical to this conversation: Madonna has had a curious relationship to Black culture that surely would’ve complicated things. To many she’s a vicious cultural appropriator; a culture vulture who’s snatched elements from Black culture whenever she’s wished as if they’re just another costume. She has borrowed from all cultures, sure, but she has often fetishized Black men to make herself seem more edgy, more sexual, more powerful.

She has used Black men from Leon in her music video for “Like a Prayer,” to Big Daddy Kane in her Sex book, to Dennis Rodman, who she dated briefly but very publicly (around the same time she was dating Pac), to Drake, who she made out with onstage in 2015. In so doing she has perpetuated the ancient, hoary stereotype that Black men are sexual animals. Her proximity to them seems calculated to make her seem more erotic, more wild—as if she were draining them of their sexual mythos and injecting it into her own. For Pac to date her would mean him becoming part of all of that, which he notes. Perhaps Pac’s real thinking behind dumping Madonna was some “it’s not you, it’s me” reasoning—blaming the breakup on himself when in reality he’s uneasy about becoming another Black male prop in the Madonna show.