He's alive. Everywhere. You can hear his unmistakable voice as a car careens down the street in your neighborhood. You can feel his passion as someone with an iPod and headphones amps up their music next to you on the train. And you know the impact he left on a generation when you see his image plastered on someone's clothing at the local mall.
On June 16th, 2008, Tupac Shakur
would have turned thirty-seven years old. Unfortunately, the rapper-actor passed almost away twelve years ago on September 13th, 1996 after he was shot multiple times on the Las Vegas strip six days prior. Though many mourned, and others fell into denial, his death brought martyrdom. Like other artists who met an untimely demise, Tupac looms far larger in death than in life. While alive, the young rap star was accused of rape and the destruction of civilized society; in death he has become the poster child for the exuberant expression of those without a voice, especially in the black community.
While certainly gifted and no doubt beloved, it is also entirely fair to dissect the work of Tupac. Both in life and in death, many take issue with his complexity. How can a young man of such intelligence, charm, and vision appear so utterly conflicted and, frankly, contradictory? In one song, "Keep Ya Head Up," Tupac implores women to be strong in the wake of deadbeat dads, abusers, and insurmountable odds. It's as much an anthem for women as it is a call for men to take care of their responsibilities inside the family unit. On the track, Tupac wonders, "And since we all came from a woman/Got our name from a woman/And our game from a woman/I wonder why we take from our women/Why we rape our women/Do we hate our women?" In many songs, though, one could argue Tupac did indeed hate women. In "All About U," a track in which Tupac discusses groupies and music video girls, his references to women include the terms "hoochie," "bitch," and "ho."
It would not be fair, though, to place Tupac into a small box of judgment, nor is it reasonable to write him off as "just another rapper." He was far more exceptional and much more multifaceted. He was wise beyond his years, yet frivolous and disturbed. With the hopes and goals of a better future yet the constant premonition of his own death, Tupac Amaru Shakur is a man whose life and message require deep examination.
To understand who Tupac was, it is imperative to know where he came from. His parents, Billy Garland and Afeni Shakur, were both members of the Black Panther Party in 1970 when they met. A year earlier, Afeni was out on bail for multiple felonies, including conspiracy charges to bomb New York landmarks. At this time, Afeni dated both Billy and a low level gangster known only as "Legs." Born on June 16th, 1971, Tupac was named after an Incan revolutionary who led an indigenous uprising against Spain. After a few years, Billy faded from the picture and Tupac would not know of his true biological father until 1994. Constantly moving, and sometimes living in homeless shelters, Tupac came to believe that Legs was his real father. At age twelve, a young Tupac was enrolled in a Harlem theater group in which he acted in a performance of A Raisin in the Sun. Around the same time, Legs-who is said to have been connected to New York kingpin Nicky Barnes-had introduced Afeni to crack, an addiction that haunted her for years.
Afeni moved to Baltimore in 1986, where Tupac would soon begin his foray into poetry and rap. When Afeni called Legs to inform him on their whereabouts, she was informed that he had died of a crack-induced heart attack. In a 1996 Rolling Stone cover story about Tupac's life and death, writer Kevin Powell had interviewed Tupac prior to that fateful night in Las Vegas. Tupac said of Legs' death, "I couldn't even cry, man. I felt I needed a daddy to show me the ropes, and I didn't have one." There's no doubt that Tupac implemented his pain and anger into his music. On the track "Dear Mama" Tupac aches as he sings of his assumed father, "He passed away and I didn't cry/…They say I'm wrong and I'm heartless/But all along I was looking for a father, he was gone."
At age 17, Tupac's family moved to Marin City, California. It was here where his life would change dramatically. Tupac wouldn't finish high school, and got caught up in selling drugs and hustling on the streets. His relationship with his mother would rapidly deteriorate. Friends on the street became his surrogate family and Tupac would begin his rap career in 1989 when he met Shock-G, the leader of Digital Underground.
Though involved in rap music, Tupac also had a hunger for knowledge. He was very well-read, having read books by Niccolò Machiavelli, Sun Tzu's The Art of War and other works of political philosophy and strategy. Renowned scholar and often called a "hip-hop intellectual," Dr. Michael Eric Dyson's book on Tupac titled "Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur," discusses the rapper's voracious appetite for information. Dyson explains, "Tupac helped to combat the anti-intellectualism in rap, a force, to be sure, that pervades the entire community" (99).
Tupac used his book smarts and street smarts to speak to a generation who felt that they were on the periphery of America. He also expressed the sheer frustration of being fed up with a seemingly broken government system. This was highly evident on his first solo album, 2Pacalypse Now. This 1991 disc was a militant charged rebuke to society at large. In "Words of Wisdom," Tupac sounds as if he's delivering a sermon from the pulpit as he preaches, "This is for the masses, the lower classes/The ones you left out/Jobs were givin', better livin'/But we were kept out/Made to feel inferior, but we're superior/Break the chains in our brains that made us fear ya/Pledge allegiance to a flag that neglects us/Honor a man who refuses to respect us/Emancipation, Proclamation, please!/Lincoln just said that to save the nation." On the incensed track "I Don't Give a F*ck," Tupac voices his displeasure at being stereotyped by both police officers and segments of White America at large, as he raps, "Walked in the store, what's everybody staring at/They act like they never seen a mutha f-cka wearing black/Following a nigga and shit/Ain't this a bitch/All I wanted was some chips/I wanna take my business elsewhere/But where?/Cause who in the hell cares/About a black man with a black need/They wanna jack me like some kind of crack fiend."
Though Tupac rightfully despised prejudice and violence towards his own people, he seemed to have no problem feeding into the stereotypical narrative of the young black male. On the same album as the insightful "Words of Wisdom" is the livid track "Violent." No doubt inspired by personal experiences and his close family ties to the Black Panther Party, "Violent" comes across as justification for waging a gun battle against cops. At the start of the track, Tupac states, "They claim that I'm violent, just 'cause I refuse to be silent/These hypocrites are havin' fits, cause I'm not buyin' it/Defyin' it, envious because I will rebel against/Any oppressor, and this is known as self defense." As the song progresses, Tupac tells the story of being unjustly assaulted by police officers. By the end of the song, Tupac's mind is made up-it will be an all out war. Tupac raps, "But I looked up, and all I saw was blue lights/If I die tonight, I'm dyin' in a gunfight/I grabbed the AK, my homie took the 12 gauge/Load 'em up quick, it's time for us to spray/We'll shoot 'em up with they own f-ckin' weapons/And when we through sprayin', then we steppin'/This is a lesson to the rednecks and crooked cops/You f-ck with real niggaz, get ya f-ckin ass dropped."
But Tupac wasn't just some dumb rapper. He was one of the very few mainstream artists who, to put it simply, "got it." With that in mind, why would he put such a track on his album? Did Tupac feel violence was a necessary evil, or was it just that he was expressing his emotions? If he was so upset at how some segments of White America, especially those in authoritative positions, viewed Black America, why would he willingly feed into the "Thug Life" stereotype rather than rise above it? Vibhu Chandrashekhar, a frequent contributor to the Tupac Shakur online community at makaveli-board.net, has similar questions as he states, "It's unfathomable how someone of 'Pac's depth and intelligence could manage to get roped in by the gangsta image. How could someone so pensive and so cerebral become the icon for late 1990's gangsta rap? In hindsight, we can all say it was possible for him to get out of the thug lifestyle, but no one will know for sure what he could have achieved."