Tupac Shakur, Fifteen Years After His Death: Not Just A Thinker, Not Just A Thug
Fifteen years ago today Tupac Shakur died. In the time since, his legacy has been shaped by a ubiquitous moral contradiction: the man who wrote "Keep Ya Head Up" and "Changes" also wrote "How Do You Want It" and "Hit 'Em Up." As such, Tupac seems to embody the escalating internal conflict of hip-hop: a genre born to empower the disenfranchised and bring the struggles of the streets to the masses evolving into one popularly defined by misogyny and materialism.
This juxtaposition is both celebrated and reviled. Celebrated by those who note Tupac's willingness and talent to convey raw emotion and genuine thought, fearlessly displaying the good and ugly and shameful aspects of society and human nature. Reviled by those who suggest that Tupac is a narcissistic hypocrite who was never able to live up to the ideals he promoted.
Both of these perspectives, though, strictly distinguish between "the two sides of Pac," as if considering two screenplays by the same writer, rather than two acts of the same play. Consequently, the narrative of his intellectual evolution and the depth of his artistry gets lost.
One of the first songs Tupac ever recorded was an uptempo hyper-political jam called "Panther Power."
He opens his first verse:
"As real as it seems, the American Dream/ Ain't nothing but another calculated scheme/ To get us locked up, shot up and back in chains/ To deny us of our future, rob our name/ Kept my history a mystery but now I see/ The American Dream wasn't meant for me/ 'Cause Lady Liberty's a hypocrite she lied to me/ Promised me freedom, education, equality/ Never gave me, nothing but slavery, and now look at how dangerous you made me..."
The son of two Black Panthers, Tupac, at seventeen, came out the gates challenging the mythology of America, advancing the conversation about institutional racism and black empowerment. As such, his early albums reflected life from the perspective of the young black male striving to overcome the structural obstacles embedded in his socioeconomic existence: violence, teenage pregnancy, police brutality, absent fathers. The tone was controlled militance, an underlying frustration fueling ambition and empathy and optimism. A sentiment perhaps best captured on "Keep Ya Head Up," where Tupac raps:
"To all the ladies having babies on their own/ I know it's kinda rough and you're feeling all alone/ Daddy's long gone and he left you by your lonesome/ 'Thank the Lord for my kids, even if nobody else want 'em'/ 'Cause I think we can make it, in fact I'm sure/ And if you fall, stand tall and come back for more/ 'Cause ain't nothin' worse than when your son wants to know why his daddy don't love him no more."
He held babies in music videos, giggled and grinned and presented deep sociological ideas in interviews. Even his party jams like "I Get Around" and "If My Homie Calls" feel light and cheeky.
Then a Texas state trooper was shot by a kid listening to 2Pacalypse Now, and Vice President Dan Quayle, decontextualizing lyrics about violence, demanded that the album be banned from stores (a baton soon passed to the infamous C. Delores Tucker). And Tupac was subsequently black-marked as a "gangsta rapper."
On top of that, events in his life were tearing at his temperament and feeding into the gangsta public image. In 1991 he was beaten by Oakland police after jaywalking (he sued the department and they settled out of court). In 1992 he shot two off-duty cops in Atlanta when he saw them harassing a black motorist (charges against him were dropped). In 1993 he was charged and eventually convicted of sexual abuse, for which he would always plead innocence and claim he was targeted because of his fame. In 1994 he was robbed and shot in New York on his way to meeting Puff Daddy and Notorious B.I.G. In 1995 he served eight months in prison for the abuse charge.
And his music darkened, turning melancholy in Me Against the World and then brash and I-don't-give-a-fuck in All Eyes on Me and then angry and existential in The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. His public behavior reflected the transition. After signing with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, he stopped holding babies in videos and giggling in interviews, instead playing into the emerging Thug Life persona that would define him for the rest of his life.