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Muhammad Ali, Tupac Shakur & The Gladiator: What’s The Price of Greatness?

I’m about to turn 25 in 8 days and it’s given me a lot to reflect on and think about.

Life is complicated and to be quite honest with you, I never thought I’d make it this far. I don’t mean that in a sad way or anything, I’ve just grown up in turbulent environments in a turbulent way my entire life.

My childhood was beautiful but I'm Ethiopian born in Ethiopia, and growing up I lived in Nigeria, Sudan, Kuwait, & Toronto so I’ve seen a wide spectrum of the types of lives that are available to people around this world, and people who look like me, from people living in mud huts and war torn dirt floors to people living in villas and mansions. I’ve seen abject poverty and I’ve seen literal illuminati levels of gluttonous wealth.

I grew up with an innate understanding of the constant nature of change and the fickleness of our ideas of security. That’s why my entire life I loved art.

Pop culture was how I developed my idea of culture and it gave me a foundation for an identity that wasn’t tied to a local destination throughout a turbulent childhood.

Going to the movie theatres every weekend, watching shows on television, going on social media & YouTube, finding things I loved and represented me from songs, memes, clothes, vines, comics, stand ups, wrestling, skate films, tumblr pages, artists, all of these things gave me a foundation for this identity i was discovering, and it helped me build communities with people I might have otherwise had nothing in common with.

By proxy of loving great art I always wanted to be a great artist. I've been a creative my whole life and I can't help it, and the older I get the more I love it more than anything because I realize that I can be in the worst situation and I can still use my brain to express myself, solve problems & make and experience something beautiful that inspires me and those around me, and that has value everywhere in the world.

24 was a crazy year for me, and that’s on top of a crazy time in the world. I'm getting used to being an adult, i had my own space, I never went to so many clubs in my life, a lot of my year has been a haze of neon lights and trap drums.

I met a lot of wonderful people, spent time with people I loved, went to a lot of fashion shows, had some wild nights, went to a lot of museums and art galleries, did a lot of fun things, went to amazing parties and life changing concerts, went to wrestling shows and stand up performances, i watched more movies than I can count, I made over 11 beat tapes, sold some beats and had my first underground hit record, I made hundreds of paintings and did more graffiti, I had my first photography exhibit, I pitched a film, became a writer, a movie I wrote on premiered but I didn't get credit for it, I've had some of the most beautiful moments of my life.

In many ways it’s been the best year of my life, in many ways it’s been one of the most difficult years of my life, mostly, it made me evolve. I’m not even a dramatic person but it’s been a dramatic year for me and I swear every reaction I’ve had has been warranted.

What I realized this year is that I want to be great more than anything in life, but I also want to be good, and those things aren't always mutually exclusive. Sometimes this life presents you with opportunities where your morals and judgement come into question where you can achieve the perception of greatness instead of the reality of it.

My whole life people have been telling me what I have to do, how I have to talk, at what volume I have to talk, we just go from institution to institution, from authority figure to authority figure, and that would be okay if the world wasn’t in the condition it was in, and this is one of the first years I practiced true self sovereignty. My dreads grew out, I felt more confident, but I was still being pulled down by my environment.

I've had corporations and people steal my ideas and treat me as expendable, I've been underpaid, overworked, and uncredited, I've been treated like a burden by people I provided value to, and despite all of that I still tried my best and it just felt like my environment was inescapable and trying to pull me down at some points.

Sometimes it feels like the only people who get everything they want are the people who take it by lying, cheating, stealing and conquest. In a society built on colonialism, slavery and genocide, sometimes even if you wanna be a saint, your environment can literally bring you down to its level.

The cost of living is high, the murder rate is up, there's a mental health crisis, a housing crisis, a drug epidemic, a pandemic. I take the train with people who live there, people are addicted to various substances. Instead of feeding, clothing and educating the poor of the world many times over our governments are funding several wars actively happening. All of the politicians are corrupt, all of the corporations are corrupt, colonizers are committing genocides all around us, gangsters have all the nicest clothes and cars.

I’ve been good my whole life, I’ve been working in corporate America since I was 13, I've had more than 15 jobs, I’ve been trying to be a great artist since I was a baby, i have cartoons from when I was 10 years old available on YouTube right now, I used to skip school to go to libraries and movie theatres trying to get better because I wanted it so bad, and I’m not exempt from my environment. You know what happens to good guys? Ask Jesus Christ. It never feels like there's a real incentive to be good or great, only to achieve the perception of it.

I got mad this year. That anger evolved me in more ways than I could imagine, in some ways it was some of the best things that could have happened to me, even if i wish some of it hadn’t happened, it all made me reflect on who I am and what I want. Ultimately it made me realize that true greatness can't be faked.

2023 was a year that made me question my values, my ethics, my perspective on the world, it’s all been challenged in a real world sense.

I’m a thinky person and we can theorize certain things, but theory is different from application, and this year made me put all my beliefs into real life application. What do you do when presented with situations you’ve hypothesized and theorized about? How do you really live your life? What’s your level of integrity? Do you really want to live your philosophies and ideologies or do you wanna just talk about it? Do you really wanna be great or just look great? Because greatness is about what you are when no one is watching.

Life is like the Ridley Scott movie the gladiator. The gladiator has many characters that are archetypes of real life, you have the title character Maximus, a war general, turned slave, turned gladiator who the people rallied around because he truly lived every word he said, and everyone knew it.

Maximus was a man of upright character, values and morals, he was a skilled general and leader, he showed mercy against his opponents, he fought for a cause, Marcus Aurelius chose him as his successor to return the power back to the people and end corruption from the politicians because he saw the four virtues in him, wisdom, Justice, fortitude and temperance.

Maximus was courageous, he wasn’t egomaniacally ambitious, he fought for his nation, his family, his ancestors, and everyone saw those virtues in him and it made them admire him, but he didn’t do it for admiration, he was truly that great. The antithesis to Maximus was Commodus, Joaquin Phoenix character, the son of Marcus Aurelius, this conniving, driven, attention whore who killed his own father because he didn’t love him and because he wanted to be Caesar.

All of Commodus wishes consisted of a need to be loved and admired, even if he didn’t really live out the reasons why he was being admired, as long as he was being admired that was enough for him. He was concerned with appearing good more than actually being good.

These characters represent both sides of success and the signs of true greatness against the reality of ruthless ambition and success in the world.

Oftentimes in life, and especially this year, it can feel like the only way to get ahead is ruthless ambition, it feels like everyone running the world is a narcissistic sociopath that will literally kill people for their own selfish gain, our elites are literally a society of Caesars more concerned with appearing good than being great.

There’s not much incentive to be Maximus because Maximus ended up a slave, his whole family was lynched and burnt at the stake, he lived his whole life dreaming about a family and home he never got to see, but Maximus wasn’t great for the incentive, he was great because he was truly great, and the people understood that which is why they respected him.

As a slave and as a general he excelled because he was excellent. Maximus story reminds me of several great men, as well as many of my favourite “entertainers” and artists and I don’t think that was an accident.

Yasiin Bey has made allusions to how the entertainment industry is like the movie the gladiator and watching the movie with everything that's going on in my life recently made me see various ways how that was taking place.

The gladiators were a form of entertainment for the Roman’s, it was slaves that were being made to fight for their lives for the entertainment of the crowd, they had to win the crowd in order to win their freedom.

That’s why I like reading autobiographies of artists throughout history because it’s never just the art the person made, it’s the socioeconomic and global factors surrounding them that made them who they are. Artists and athletes fighting for their socioeconomic freedom literally have to win the crowd in order to win their freedom.

Some guys are the real deal like Maximus. Mike Tyson said that sometimes when God creates people he’s showing off. Every human has great qualities, but every once in a while there are people that are the real deal, their greatness reminds us there’s something else going on, they inspire us to reach our highest potential.

People like John F Kennedy, Tupac Shakur, Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, Kobe Bryant, they were like Maximus which is why people rallied around them. There's a place where integrity, sincerity, intelligence, talent, creativity, charm, charisma, work ethic, leadership skills, discipline and character all align to create this person with these transcendent traits that inspire the world.

There's an interesting place that certain people get to when they transcend their mediums and it becomes more than what they were doing, and we all realize it.

Tupac Shakur transcended hip hop, Bob Marley transcended reggae, Muhammad Ali transcended boxing, and it’s because their approaches were authentic ways of life, not something that could be constrained to a medium, it was a level of integrity and authenticity they lived by that reflected in the work they did and the lives they lived, and part of it was political, and part of it was spiritual, and part of it was racial, and all of it reveals something about humanity.

They all represent this form of enlightenment and this archetypal Renaissance man through maximizing the potentials of their crafts.

The point where the spiritual, the political, the human, the racial aspects of a medium present themselves through an individual is the moment when he transcends the medium and becomes this gladiator archetype.

These people show a level of sincerity and devotion to where they become manifestations of what the medium can be if taken to its full potential, Muhammad Ali showed what a boxer can be past just a person who beats people up for money, he can be a person of intelligence, integrity, character and discipline, the same characteristics that are necessary for training and to win fights, if you take the same approach into life then you develop yourself into this next level poetic erudite warrior.

And that’s what Ali was, and that’s what Tupac Shakur was to rap, he became the prototype, and that’s what Bob Marley was to reggae. They weren't interested in faking it like Commodus, even though they must have had opportunities, it would have been an easier path, there's many people that do everyday, but they chose to put their life on the line for their greatness. There’s a million rappers but how many Tupacs are there? There’s a million Pac imitators but there’s only one Pac, he was a unique set of circumstances that created a person, he’s a story God was creating that can’t be created in a lab.

We live in a cynical age of industry plants, steroids and manufactured art but every once in a while some people are the real deal, and it has nothing to do with how rich they are, what the marketing dollars are, they’re just undeniably talented and driven, and that's a choice we all get to make everyday. We can all choose between Maximus and Commodus, the perception of greatness versus the reality of greatness, and the reality isn't always easy or pretty, it can even be deadly.

These people that you can’t build in a lab, you can’t teach what they have, you can't fake what they have, you can’t take away what they have, you can have more resources, more military power, more strength, more intelligence, but just by divine decree, these people make it.

Sometimes the story that God is telling is way more interesting than the one society tries to create. Capitalism treats artists and athletes like circus animals but there's a reason why Queen Victoria said beware of artists because they can mix with all classes of society. Artists can speak to all human beings from people in the slums to presidents and emperors and that makes them the most dangerous people in society.

Entertainment has always been the infiltration method for working class artists. In an environment that stifles you, you need to use your talent for your economic freedom and once you’re in the door you can try to make changes.

Muhammad Ali had to box to show you he was the greatest, Bob Marley had to sing, Tupac Shakur had to rap, Dick Gregory had to tell jokes, but their intentions were always revolutionary.

They were all developing themselves as human beings in several ways outside of the medium to help them enhance their craft. And once you've achieved this level of self realization, you have this ability to speak with anyone anywhere.

They were all elite athletes, artists, scholars, poets, Bob Marley played soccer, Tupac spent time dancing, acting, and going to the shooting range, they were developing themselves in every aspect of life from business to nation building to religion because they understood that it was a whole lifestyle not just a moment or a song, it wasn’t about an album, it wasn’t about a fight, it wasn’t about a mixtape, it was about freedom, it was an exhibition of self realization and an attempt at reaching their full human potential, something the world realized and in various ways either worshipped or actively prevented them from achieveing, because everyone understood what they were looking at.

They became literal threats to the power structure. Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, was the embodiment of the power structures biggest fear, the fear wasn’t the Black savage with no rhyme or reason, the real fear is the young, civilized, cultured, intelligent, well spoken, beautiful, strong black man, because it revealed something about the nature of white people and the fallacy and the ridiculousness behind ideologies like racism and slavery.

Malcolm X said that the power structure had successfully created an image of black people as docile and feeble, and that seeing images of people like Ali who were confident, cocky and truly great would uplift other black people and thats what really made him a threat to the power structure.

In a world of manufactured stars, these people really worked at their crafts and themselves as humans, they really honed and harnessed their mediums to the point where they became so masterful at it that they were globally renowned, and practicing their mediums led them on a journey of self discovery, evolution and realization, it landed them against some of the most powerful entities in the world and it made them some of the most influential people who ever lived.

Ali practiced at two different gyms and raced his bus to school everyday since he was 12 years old, he had over 180 amateur fights before he ever went professional, by the age of 18 he had won the Olympic gold medal, become golden glove champion and AAU champion, all while he was poor and running the streets having to fight bike gangs trying to kill him. Ali was a man of integrity who would truly die for his beliefs, and everyone knew it.

He watched all old boxing videos in a way few fighters ever had up to that point, he borrowed footwork from sugar Ray Robinson and became the fastest heavyweight in history, he was a defensive genius, he took the grit of guys like Rocky Marciano and showed the world his iron chin and his intestinal fortitude as an older man.

Ali had to beat every Amateur in America to qualify for the Olympics where he beat the Russians and The Poles in order to win the Gold medal for the United States. By 22 years old he defeated Sonny Liston to become one of the youngest heavyweight champions in history.

In his spare time Ali would write poetry, do some independent research on pro wrestling, and borrow gimmick. He'd study religion, art, business, farming, travel the world, hang out with intellectuals, writers, poets and artists from Malcolm X & James Baldwin to Nikki Giovanni to Ed Sullivan to princes, Sheikhs and Amirs, he was able to be friends with anyone he came in contact with.

Ali would compose an album of poetry with Columbia records and make music with Sam Cooke and Liberace, then have meeting with Gaddafi. He’d go on talk shows and match wits with comedians who had been doing it for decades, to the point where if you watch any of those interviews you would honestly think 21 year old Cassius Clay with no formal education was the talk show host.

People like Ali are living proof of the effects of natural talent combined with a dedicated and disciplined pursuit of greatness, in every way, and there's no way to fake that.

This gladiator archetype is ancient, the story of the king David from the Abrahamic religions is one of a young shepherd boy with God given talent that rose from the slums to become a king using only his skills, talents and gifts, despite overwhelming odds and oppression. David defeated Goliath and became a king, he trained for years by defeating animals in the woods and playing instruments.

David was a polymath, he’s this hybrid musician, engineer, poet, military strategist that was divinely ordained these gifts. To be young and gifted in an oppressive environment is to be David.

He’s been an inspiration throughout time to the oppressed, downtrodden, underdogs of the world, that despite overwhelming odds and challenges you can make it out of any circumstance, and he’s been an inspiration to everyone to achieve their highest potential, ideals and aspirations, people like Michelangelo sculpted his perfection because they believed David to possess the best attributes of men.

The story of David is something I’ve seen in real life with people like Muhammad Ali, Tupac Shakur, Bob Marley, and so many great men that rise out of oppressive environments through their god given talent despite overwhelming odds.

Muhammad Ali looked better than everyone, talked better than everyone and could beat everyone up, at a time where he was supposed to be part of an inferior race. This infuriated the white power structure and it revolted against him for it his entire life, from talk show hosts to the Supreme Court, everyone was constantly focused on humbling young Ali because they understood what they were looking at.

Ali is the greatest but he’s not just the greatest boxer, it’s limiting to say that, none of us know how to articulate what Ali was but we know it’s a little deeper than just a person, or a boxer, or even politician, it’s something else that was going on with that guy and I think he felt it too which is why his entire life was a spiritual journey, he was trying to understand what it meant to have been him.

A person like Muhammad Ali by being as beautiful, intelligent, witty, talented, well spoken, outspoken and rebellious as he was in turn highlighted how ugly his society really was, and in turn beautified it by remaining true to himself and his own moral compass.

During Ali’s come up he wasn’t allowed to eat in restaurants because they were segregated even after winning the Olympic gold medal for his nation, he was being forced to clean toilets by his benefactors waving contracts in front of him, racist gangs were threatening to Lynch him.

Even after winning a championship his government threatened to imprison him and bankrupted him for refusing to participate in an unjust war due to his religious beliefs, he was being targeted from every angle, and yet he stood right in the middle of all of it, as though he knew history was watching, and he held his head high, won his fights, let them know how great he was, and let time be the deciding factor of his greatness.

Governments, heads of state, several assassination attempts, these people faced all of these things for trying to do their job because everyone understood what they were doing was more than just singing or fighting, it was tapping into something deeper in human beings and it was something that the powers that be couldn’t control, in the same way Caesar couldn't win the crowd like Maximus.

It was an authentic connection between the audience and the artist that was simultaneously enlightening both, because we understand the level of sincerity these people have, and their level of greatness.

Greatness can't be faked. Seeing greatness makes people realize their own potential, faults and value past what they can acquire materially, and see past their own prejudices in order to rise up and achieve their full potential. These people remind us of the value in ourselves and give us the ability to unlock our dormant potential, to standup for our rights and understand our own worth. You can't fake true greatness. True greatness is it's own reward & inspires everyone to be great. You can try to fake it but it just can't be faked.

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