Tupac did achieve quite a lot, however. Though he was killed at the age of twenty-five, Tupac worked tirelessly. He amassed such a large amount of music by the time of his death that money is still being made off of his unreleased material today. In fact, since his death in 1996, there have been roughly eight posthumous albums released in his name, not including remix albums. He was also an actor, having starred in films such as "Poetic Justice," "Above the Rim," and most notably "Juice." More important than just being a rapper or actor, Tupac genuinely cared about his community. Twenty year-old Chantal Verhagen from Amsterdam, The Netherlands, a Tupac fan, agrees stating, "'Pac…was a social activist and was one of the greatest in advocating political, economic, social and racial equality."
The brilliance of Tupac, despite any contradictions, was that he told stories that the media simply didn't cover. While the local news station told the story of yet another black man committing a crime, Tupac voiced with a passion, and sometimes unbridled rage, not only why that crime was committed, but also what could lead a young man down such a treacherous path. No better song encapsulated this than "Changes," a song in which Tupac hopes for a better America but is resigned to the fact that life will always be the same. At the start, Tupac, a man who grew up in abject poverty, explains, "I see no changes, wake up in the morning and I ask myself/Is life worth living, should I blast myself?/I'm tired of being poor and even worse I'm black/My stomach hurts so I'm looking for a purse to snatch." Tupac further explains the mentality of living in a poor, violent neighborhood, as he states, "And as long as I stay black I gotta stay strapped/And I never get to lay back/'Cause I always got to worry 'bout the payback/Some punk that I roughed up way back/Comin' back after all these years/Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, that's the way it is." Tupac ends "Changes" with five simple words, "Some things will never change."
That was the unfortunate, and oddly ironic, circumstance of this gifted artist. With such intelligence and charm, Tupac still felt that his life was bleak. On the track "Troublesome '96," Tupac pleads directly to God, stating, "Need to take me in Heaven and understand I was a sheep/Did the best I could, raised in insanity/Or send me to hell cause I ain't beggin' for my life/Ain't nothin' worse than this cursed ass hopeless life." With family members addicted to drugs, friends affiliated with gangs and crime, underfunded schools, and the lack of knowing one's own father, it is easy to understand how one could feel, indeed, "cursed" and "hopeless." But Tupac took it a step farther, as he wondered if he was not just a product of his awful environment, but a product of doomed genetics, too. On the track "Better Dayz," he contemplates, "Guess we was evil since birth, product of cursed semens/Cause even our birthdays is cursed days/A born thug in the first place, the worst ways."
To be sure, Tupac was indeed a complex individual. One can certainly argue, and with a degree of merit, that he was a rapper who embraced drugs, gun possession, misogyny, and violence. All of the above were unquestionably intertwined within Tupac's music. Shakur boasted about being a "Thug Nigga" and fed into the persona and image that went along with it. But he was also a deeply pained individual. On the track "Death Around the Corner," Tupac explains his paranoia with death, stating, "I guess I seen too many murders/The doctors can't help me/Got me stressin' with my pistol in my sheets/It ain't healthy/Am I paranoid? Tell me the truth."
It's easy to paint someone with a broad brush, but how many people have truly grown up in analogous circumstances? In many ways, it's remarkable that Tupac emerged from such a harsh, uninhabitable environment, and was able to express his hardships through music so effectively. In a 1996 interview, only five months prior to his death, Tupac talked about this very issue, stating, "All I'm trying to do is survive and make good out of the dirty, nasty, unbelievable lifestyle that they gave me. I'm just trying to make something good out of that. It's like if you try and plant something in the concrete…if it grows and the rose petals got all kind of scratches and marks, you're not gonna say, 'damn look at all the scratches on the rose that grew from the concrete'. You're gonna say, 'damn! A rose grew from the concrete!' Well that's the same thing with me. Folks should be saying, 'damn, he grew out of all that?'"
The fact is that while music can affect one's own thoughts and perpetuate stereotypes, the best thing that can be said about Tupac is that he spoke the truth as he saw it. To him, a "ho" doesn't reflect all women, but a specific kind of female. That doesn't make it right, but that's how Shakur viewed the society around him. To him, violence and drug dealing wasn't inherent in one's being so much as it was a means to survive. That doesn't justify it, but it is how Tupac saw the world. The brutal truth is that many people, even the most beloved in history, can be called hypocrites. Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, yet he owned slaves. Martin Luther King Jr is one of the greatest Americans to ever live, yet he cheated on his wife. Contradictions of character happen as the mere result of being a human being. In Tupac's case, hypocrisy may indeed stem from him being a product of his environment. Having grown up in an urban war zone, and being the son of a former Black Panther, certain things became ingrained in Shakur. Had Tupac grown up in the suburbs and had a mother who was a lawyer and a legit father who was present in the home, his personality and outlook on life would be drastically different.
This isn't to excuse some of Tupac's lyrics or actions. Life is about choices, and though an immensely sharp individual, Tupac made some poor decisions in life. From assault and battery charges to rapping with bravado about being shot, incarceration, and his sex exploitations, Tupac happily embraced negative black male caricatures in the 1990's that African-Americans are still stigmatized with in 2008. Tupac failed to understand the fact that being followed in a store and instantly judged as a menace when all he "wanted was some chips" was, while certainly tied to skin color, a direct result of the image that he not only willingly manufactured and profited from, but a lifestyle that he genuinely lived, too.
While life is about choices, it's also very much about playing the cards that one is dealt. On the track "Thugz Mansion," Tupac details painful memories as he raps, "No one knows my struggle, they only see the trouble/Not knowin' it's hard to carry on when no one loves you/ Picture me inside the misery of poverty/No man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived." Tupac grew up poor with a mother addicted to crack, multiple family members and friends either in prison or murdered, and with no father figure. Shakur was not just dealt a bad hand, he was playing against a stacked deck. He was a man who did indeed triumph against all odds, yet was forever a product of the environment that he grew up in.
Even with his complexity, Tupac touched many people with his infectious beats and emotional lyrics. Though it has almost been twelve years since his passing, his music is still relevant as it depicts the struggles of people across the country and even world. Medina Maxim, a twenty-three year-old Tupac Shakur fan in Chicago states, "There was a time in my life when I felt like I just couldn't take it anymore. Tupac's poetry and lyrics were just the right amount of help I needed. I am stronger because of him." With this statement, there is no doubt that Tupac rose above the all too common, often forgettable, music in mainstream rap. He struck a chord in people that touched them to their very core. Tupac's pain and anguish, while not completely universal, was familiar to many who listened to his songs. He was much more than a rapper and far more important than an actor. Tupac Shakur was a revolutionary who allowed music to be his instrument of activism.
Story by Michael Langston Moore
Starpulse contributing writer