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Who is Tupac?

By Angela Buenning.

Contributing Writer

Former Vice President Dan Quayle says the music "has no place in our society," but Tupac Shakur's raps are the subject of a student-initiated history class at UC Berkeley this semester.

After all 50 seats are filled, students sit on the floor and lean against the back wall to hear Arvand Elihu, a junior majoring in biology, lecture on "The Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur."

The class is sponsored by well-known history Professor Robert Brentano and has received grudging acceptance by conservative UC Regent Ward Connerly.

In his introduction to the course material, which consists of an inch-thick reader of articles and rap lyrics, Elihu challenges Quayle.

"I disagree with Dan Quayle, because if we were to ignore Tupac, then we would be ignoring millions of people," writes Elihu.

Elihu describes Tupac as a "contemporary historian representing the lifestyle and mentality of young black men raised in poverty by single mothers."

The two-unit class is offered through Democratic Education at Cal, a program allowing students teach their own courses with the approval of a professor and department chair.

DE-Cal classes are known for approaching nontraditional subjects. But Tupac Shakur is controversial even for a DE-Cal class.

In 1994, Tupac was the target of a public crusade against gangsta rap headed by C. DeLores Tucker of the National Political Congress of Black Women and former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett. In the same year, Tupac was convicted of sexually abusing a woman.

 But for Tupac, there is no such thing as negative publicity. While he served time in prison, his album "Me Against the World" reached number one on the pop charts. His 1996 release of "All Eyez on Me" went quintuple platinum. (C. DeLores Tucker later sued Tupac's estate for $10 million, claiming that lyrics on this album negatively affected her sex life.)

In 1996 at the age of 25, Shakur died from gunshot wounds suffered during a Las Vegas drive-by shooting. Some called his death emblematic of the violence in his music.

Since his death, Tupac's popularity has only grown. A book on the rapper's life is in its second week on the New York Times best-seller list, and "Gang Related," Tupac's final movie, opens Oct. 10.

"It's a little more pop and a little more contemporary than this department would usually take on," says Victor Rotenberg, undergraduate advisor for the history department, which sponsors the class. "For all Berkeley's reputation as being a radical place, a lot of the academic departments are pretty conservative ... and (history) is one of those."

But so far, Rotenberg says, he hasn't gotten any negative comments about the class.

Connerly says that giving students exposure to a range of perspectives is part of the educational process.

"While I might be outraged by his lyrics ... that does not at all in my view translate into saying, 'Don't give college students exposure to it for fear that it might do to them what it might do to 12- and 13-year-old children,'" Connerly says.

 Armed with Tupac's lyrics, most of which he has memorized, Elihu says he isn't afraid to confront Tupac's controversial side.

"People judge Tupac already. But people judge him without knowing, without having done any research," says Elihu.

He says that many of those who don't like Tupac don't know his music.

"The reason they dislike him is because of the information they get from the news, and the news isn't always honest," says Elihu.

Elihu opened a class on Tupac's portrayal of women by saying, "Let's put Tupac on trial today. Let's say we are the defense. The prosecution is going to say Tupac dislikes women, he hates women, he has no respect for women. We are going to use evidence to prove them wrong."

Elihu's mock courtroom was complete with real NBC news cameras and press photographers. The class has attracted so much media attention that Elihu often spends more time fielding press calls than preparing for the class.

Elihu presented four of Tupac's raps to prove his point. In one, Tupac thanks his mother for the sacrifices she made raising him alone on welfare.

Elihu's take on Tupac and women was well received by his students, many of whom are Tupac fans.

Hashim Ali Quarbaani, a graduate student taking the class, calls Tupac a revolutionary.

"He speaks the truth in the face of adversity. Even if people don't agree with him, he's not scared," says Quarbaani.

Quarbaani adds that like any revolutionary, Tupac is not perfect, but that he admires Tupac for acknowledging his mistakes.

Freshman Dawud Alim says that Tupac is a "window to the inner city." He says that it is too easy for people outside the inner city to ignore the problems there.

"Rarely does a white, affluent male have to migrate to the ghetto and understand what's going on there in order to succeed in society," says Alim.

Elihu and Brentano are unlikely partners for a class on gangsta rap. Brentano teaches medieval European history. Elihu, a pre-med student, grew up in Beverly Hills and is the son of Iranian immigrants.

Elihu says he was inspired to bring Tupac's raps to UC Berkeley during a class on medieval England he took from Brentano. Brentano was impressed with the connections Elihu made between Tupac and medieval warriors, So much so that he invited Elihu to give a guest lecture on the subject.

"(Elihu) made you see the way that Tupac is, for us, almost a classical kind of source, in terms of his being able to reveal qualities and areas in society ... that are not really easily available through a conventional source," says Brentano.

Brentano says he knew very little about Tupac before Elihu began visiting his office hours.

"I've been educated in Tupac by Arvand," he says.

Brentano says he doubts many of the professors in the history department are even aware that the course exists. As for the class being controversial, Brentano says that comes with the territory.

"Real history, if it's about things that are of any significance, is dangerous," says Brentano.