Many community board members opposed at a hearing this week a plan to rename Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace’s old corner in Clinton Hill after him, DNAinfo reports. Their reasons were myriad: his drug-dealing past, his violent life and death, and his zaftig stature. “Physically the man is not exactly a role model for youth,” one member noted among other reasons. “I don’t see how this guy was a role model, and frankly it offends me.” I don’t think the Notorious BIG romanticized obesity, but he owned it, and you might say he could be an example to overweight youths, that they could still succeed in life despite their size.
Which, you know, is the other thing about Biggie: despite his troubles, he succeeded in the mainstream, trying to extricate himself from a life of petty illegal activity through art—finding an alternative to slinging crack rock through poetry. As I wrote last month,
To call Biggie a “drug dealer” is unhelpfully reductive, like calling Malcolm X a racist. He was an artist who found a creative alternative to being a “common thief.” As he says at the end of “Juicy,” “Damn right I like the life I live, ’cause I went from negative to positive.” Why wouldn’t we as a community want to spread a message like that?
Though he continued to live violently sometimes during his brief years as a celebrity, he also used his fame to advance the careers of childhood friends. Every man contains multitudes, good and bad, negative and positive. By honoring any single person, we choose what we want to celebrate about them. To name a corner after the rapper doesn’t mean we’re approving of misogynist lyrics or his criminal history. We could instead consider it an affirmation of a heavy kid from the rough part of town who mostly rose above the drug dealing and street shit to leave behind a lasting musical legacy, aesthetically innovative and often socially aware.
The renaming has been tabled until the local councilmember weighs in. So far, Letitia James, almost certainly the next public advocate, has remained silent.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart