People who aren’t familiar with Tupac Shakur’s music still know about him. 24 years after his death, he continues to be regarded as one of the most influential and talented rappers of all time, but to people acquainted with his music and his life, he is so much more than that. Writer Kevin Powell summed it up best when he said, “When we think about Tupac Shakur… not just in hip-hop but popular culture, in America and globally, you have to think about Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Bob Marley. It’s that significant. He is one of the most important figures that we’ve seen in the last 25 years or so.”
His lyrics were so poetic as to inspire a University of California course entitled ‘History 98: Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur’, and later a Harvard University symposium called “All Eyez on Me: Tupac Shakur and the Search for the Modern Folk Hero”. It was the content of his lyrics – as much as their brilliance and cadence – that contributed to his status as “modern folk hero”. In them, Shakur often addressed police brutality, recidivism, and the violence of the inner city.
As one of history’s most intellectual and eloquent rappers, he was known for quoting William Shakespeare in everyday speech, and was incredibly well-read with bookshelves stocked with titles like Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens by Alice Walker.
However, his reality didn’t take place in an ivory tower; it took place on the streets. The violence he speaks of in his lyrics weren’t a fantasy. Shakur was a familiar face in the penal system, and the frequent victim of police brutality. In 1991, he sued the Oakland Police Department for brutalizing him over a simple jaywalking charge. He was involved in shootings, convicted of assault, and spent time in jail. Shakur’s life and early death represents the dichotomy and the trap of being a black man in America. The higher you go, the more effort will be put into tearing you down.
If he wasn’t taking part in violence, he wasn’t worthy of “street cred” and wasn’t “thug enough” to earn his reputation. As The New Yorker put it, “The more trouble Tupac got into with the law, the more credibility he gained on the street—and the more viable a rap star he became.” The same success he gained as a rap artist is what made him a target of police investigations, political censure, and sizable efforts to destroy his reputation and career. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Knowing there was a target on his back, Shakur continually acknowledged his impending death in his lyrics. His perspective is macabre and haunting. On All Eyez on Me, he wonders “how long will they mourn me?” and on another track called ‘Only God Can Judge Me’ he vividly details his last moments:
I hear the doctor standing over me
Screaming I can make it
Got a body full of bullet holes laying here naked
Still I can’t breathe, something’s evil in my IV
‘Cause every time I breathe, I think they killing me
I’m having nightmares, homicidal fantasies
I wake up stranglin’, danglin’ my bed sheets
I call the nurse ’cause it hurts, to reminisce
How did it come to this? I wish they didn’t miss
Somebody help me, tell me where to go from here
‘Cause even thugs cry, but do the Lord care?
Try to remember, but it hurts
I’m walking through the cemetery talking to the dirt
I’d rather die like a man than live like a coward
There’s a ghetto up in Heaven and it’s ours, Black Power
Is what we scream as we dream in a paranoid state
And our fate, is a lifetime of hate.
Shakur’s experience is especially poignant for this fraught time in society. On ‘Violent’, one of his most blisteringly honest tracks about police brutality, he raps, “If this is violence, then violent’s what I gotta be/If you investigate you’ll find out where it’s comin’ from/Look through our history, America’s the violent one.” If anything, the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests around the world have only served to emphasize his important role in the cultural canon.
Shakur was also a media star because of his brilliant interviews. In them, he never backed down from his mission of social justice, informed by a lineage that fought back against oppression. In a 1991 promotional interview for his album 2Pacalypse Now, he said, “I came from a long line of revolutionaries, a long line of [Black] Panthers and strong fighters and soldiers who fought for social change and for the betterment of their people, and I said, well, what better way for me to have a career than to make my mom proud, make my people proud and speak out, you know what I’m saying? Be a part of the solution.”
In the same interview, one of his most powerful points comes across loudly, “It’s been said 30 million times, but how do we get out of the [cycle]? I see it as… by showing us our own strength… showing us our own history. Not just the history from Africa and, you know, how we used to be kings and queens, but how we used to be fighters here, how [we’re] soldiers. You know, we damn near built this country, so therefore how could you not love being Black?! How could you not wanna build more?! I know if we built this country, we could build ourselves back up… That’s what Tupac is about. It’s about being that spark to start the fire again… I wanna just bring renaissance back for Black people. I just want everything to be ‘beautiful Black’ again.
The world has no perfect heroes, no flawless victors. Shakur can be a victim of the system, a perpetrator of violent crime, and an advocate for justice at the same time. His type of legacy is nuanced, but no less important for it. On his birthday today, we honor a man who spoke truth to power no matter what it cost him.