October 7, 2009 12:04 AM · Michael Langston Moore - African American Entertainment Examiner
Rapper Tupac Shakur (Photo: Rolling Stone)
On June 16th, 2009, Tupac Shakur would have turned thirty-eight years old. Unfortunately, the rapper-actor passed away thirteen 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 of Shakur’s most well-known songs, “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,” “b---,” 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 City 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, 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 told 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 knowledge 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.”
Tupac Shakur (Photo: VIBE magazine)
On the incensed track “I Don’t Give a F---,” Tupac voices his displeasure at being stereotyped by both police officers and segments of White America, as he raps, “Walked in the store, what's everybody staring at/They act like they never seen a mutha f---- wearing black/Following a n--- and s---/Ain't this a b---/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---- weapons/And when we through sprayin’, then we steppin’/This is a lesson to the rednecks and crooked cops/You f--- with real n----, get ya f---- a-- 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 segments of White America viewed Black America, especially those in authoritative positions, 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.”
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 the crime was committed, but 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 describes 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 a-- 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 one step further as he wondered if he was not just a product of his awful environment, but a product of doomed genetics. 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” 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.”
Tupac Shakur (Photo: Interscope Records)
It’s easy to paint Tupac 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?’”
While music can affect 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—but 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 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 with a law school educated mother 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 guns, incarceration, and his sex exploits, Tupac happily embraced negative black male caricatures in the 1990’s that African-Americans are still stigmatized with today. 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.
But 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 had no father figure. Shakur was not just dealt a bad hand—he was playing against a stacked deck. He was a man who indeed triumphed against all odds, yet was, like any other person, a product of his upbringing.
Even with his complexity, Tupac touched many people with his infectious beats and emotional lyrics. Though it has been thirteen years since his death, his music is still relevant as it depicts the struggles of people across the country and 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—and far too 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.
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