One constant of human experience is death; something particularly true in inner-city neighborhoods victim to high crime and gang violence. In the song, “I Seen a Man Die,” by Scarface in his album, The Diary, he analyzes the effects of murder and gang violence on the participants and communities surrounding them. The album is devoted to giving the listener the experience of crime in majority minority inner-city communities. He expresses the emotional maelstrom giving cause to so much rap music, and, in the words of NPR, “(H)e explosively deflates the stereotype of gangsta rap as empty nihilism endangering communities.” The Diary is arguably the magnum opus of his long and illustrious career, and he gives his most cogent and moving presentation of his cynical worldview in it.
The central idea behind “I Seen a Man Die” is the failure of crime-affected communities and the prison system to rehabilitate or disrupt the brutal pattern of gang violence. By seeing the world through the eyes of a convicted murderer, Scarface broadens our experience by humanizing and giving motivations behind an oft demonized group; in addition, he expresses his inability to live clean, as he is inevitably drawn back into the criminal underworld and pays the ultimate price for it. Scarface uses this intricate and moving song as a call to action to reform the prison system and combat cycles of gang violence in black neighborhoods.
Scarface uses several techniques to express this. First of all, his repetition of the eponymous chorus expresses his persona’s confusion over the gangsters values that have been inculcated in him.
I still got to wonder why
I never seen a man cry, ’til I seen a man die
By using this confusion as the refrain of the song Scarface is drawing attention to his community’s failure to keep young men from the gangster lifestyle that celebrates killing your enemies. The received values that say murder is admirable and respected in the gangster lifestyle are clashing with his real life experience of guilt, shame, and sorrow. He’s not a psychopathic or nihilistic man, rather he has been let down by the community, which has allowed the destructive gangster values to take root. This call to attention of the failure of the community to keep young men on the right path is further reinforced by his criticism of the prison and rehabilitation system.
And he’s young plus he came up in the system
But he’s smart and he’s finally makin’ eighteen
And his goal’s to get on top and try to stay clean
So he’s calling up his homie who dun came up
Livin’ like this now they dealin’ with the same stuff
And had that attitude that who he was was worth it
And with that fucked up attitude he killed his first mate
Now it’s different, he’s in dead dirt
Although he has been punished by the prison system, he still lacks any real way to make a living. Scarface draws attention to the commonality of this issue by discussing that his friend deals with the same issue. Seeing through the illusion gangster lifestyle, yet lacking any reasonable recourse, as prison has only alienated him more from his old community, he is forced back into crime. And as a result, he is shot and killed, as the narrator tells him to let go.
I hear you breathin’ but your heart no longer sounds strong
But you kinda scared of dying so you hold on
And you keep on blacking out, and yo pulse is low
Stop trying to fight the reaper just relax and let it go
Because there’s no way you can fight it, though you’ll still try
Scarface in this verse is making an allegory. He, in the garb of the narrator, is equating death and following the gangster lifestye; Scarface is fundamentally expressing the fatalistic sentiment that once you go down that path, death is the only reward. He is emphasizing that the gangster lifestlye leads to nothing but death, and that communities and institutions need to make a far greater effort to change it.
This song is a blistering critique of a worrying trend in black neighborhoods, and demonstrates an excellent example of a tradition of activist Hip-Hop.