When it comes to “Hip Hop-inspired” anything, proceed with caution. The culture itself is still relatively young, yet replication of any kind often teeters on exploitation. Check out the countless soda and car commercials, where there’s graffiti splattered on a random brick wall prop, with dancers of all races breakin’ in outfits from Run-DMC’s closet circa 1987. It all looks so contrived. So to hear that Tupac Shakur’s music would be reimagined in the form of a musical, suspicions are obviously present. Hip Hop’s bad boy becomes a musical? Surely you jest. But Holler If Ya Hear Me isn’t some half-assed attempt to bring Hip Hop to Broadway. It’s Pac’s lyrics, brought to life in a way that’s never been done before, proving that the storytelling element of Hip Hop can do just that: tell a story.
For purists and lyrical sticklers, it’s important to note that Holler If Ya Hear Me is not “Tupac Karaoke.” The cast, led by the critically acclaimed Saul Williams, is not attempting to “cover” Tupac’s songs. Rather, they dig into the meaning of the words and apply them to the setting of an inner city in the Midwest. Williams plays the role of a man named John, a recently released ex-convict, who just served a six-year bid and heads home to find that the love of his life Corinne (played by Saycon Sengbloh, who’s also appeared in shows like Wicked and Fela!) is now with his best friend Vertus (Chris Jackson, most notably from In The Heights). That’s not all that’s changed. John witnesses the block getting hotter from a local gang who shoots Vertus’ brother Benny.
Benny’s friends plot to avenge his death, which plays out like a John Singleton movie from the beginning to the inevitably tragic end. The music of Tupac Shakur is the thread that’s woven throughout the plot, as songs like “I Ain’t Mad At Cha” and “Dear Mama” are reenacted beyond the parameters of any well-directed music video. Pac’s hypocrisy is inadvertently highlighted as well, as one scene in the musical involves the male cast members thrusting their pelvises to “I Get Around” while the women retort with “Keep Ya Head Up.” Certain lyrics are updated, i.e. “I don’t know why ya girl keeps pagin’ me” from “I Get Around” becomes “I don’t know why ya girl keeps textin’ me.” Surprisingly though, the line from “Changes” that says, “And although it seems heaven sent / we ain’t ready to see a Black President” remains in tact. The acting is believable, the music is powerful. To critique the quality based solely upon how much it reflects the original sound recordings Tupac made is a total injustice to the Broadway show.
Holler If Ya Hear Me is more than just a musical with a “Hip Hop-centric” theme. It’s a dedication to a Rap legend, who after almost twenty years since losing him, has now moved into a whole new phase of immortality. For years we’ve watched Rock music highlighted on Broadway; now it’s Hip Hop’s turn. What will it mean for other artists’ legacies going forward? Well, it’s up to them to create music as compelling as Pac’s to carry through an entire production.