“Since his death, Tupac has become an international martyr, a symbol on the level of Bob Marley or Che Guevara, whose life has inspired Tupacistas on the streets of Brazil, memorial murals in the Bronx and Spain, and bandanna-wearing youth gangs in South Africa.”
These words, penned five years ago by culture writer Eric K Arnold, are just as true today, a decade and a half after the African American rapper was shot dead on September 13, 1996 ― perhaps even more so.
If hip-hop has become a global phenomenon, an international culture of defiance, then the man known at Tupac Amaru Shakur has become something like its figurehead.
Like all figureheads (especially the ones no longer with us), there’s a tendency to raise 'Pac up on a pedestal, a static symbol frozen in time rather than a flesh and blood human being. In his case it’s almost literal ― statues have been erected of Tupac in Georgia and Germany.
Certainly, there have been countless stabs at watering down Tupac’s legacy to the point where he becomes little more than a sanitised marketing tool ― some more successful than others.
What stands apart, however, even as record labels and clothing companies still try to make a buck off Tupac’s ghost, is how firm the integrity of his message remains.
At first glance, it’s odd; dead rebels always seem destined for the dustbin of commerce. From Woody Guthrie to John Lennon, from Billie Holiday to even Martin Luther King.
Not so much for Tupac, though, and it begs the obvious question: why?
First and foremost is how well-known his roots are. Between his mother Afeni, his step-aunt Assata, and his godfather, one Geronimo Pratt, Tupac’s Black Panther pedigree was unmistakable. (The Panthers were an African American revolutionary group that arose in the 1960s.)
Indeed, it would be referenced frequently in 'Pac’s lyrics ― and lead him to join the Young Communist League while still attending high school in Baltimore.
Part of it must also be the time 'Pac represents ― right at the tail end of the Golden Age, when the line between “conscious” and “gangsta” wasn’t so well-defined. With the “war on drugs” transforming America’s already hurting ghettos into mini police states, the same forces that created “criminals” looked also to be breeding a generation of young revolutionaries.
It was a fluidity best represented in those brief weeks in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots when Blood and Crip gangs alike called a truce, trading in their colours for anti-apartheid ball-caps.
As the son of a Panther who had been forced to resort to street-hustling to survive, Tupac knew both worlds.
This volatile combination made for poetry that was complex, poignant and brutally honest.
The evolution from Tupac the art-school student into 2Pac the rapper wasn’t so much a transformation as it was a culmination of all the things that made him tick. He embodied the militancy of Public Enemy and the unhinged wrath of N.W.A all at once.
But underpinning it was an aching vulnerability that neither had ever reached for.
Marcus Reeves, in his 2009 book Somebody Scream! Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence In the Aftershock of Black Power, says: “[W]hat distinguished Tupac from his radically hardcore colleagues was his mindful expression of pain from living in the inner city. He didn’t just rap about the problems of the ghetto or decry the conditions; he took listeners into the lives and souls of people affected by the environment.”
Plenty of his boosters and detractors alike attempt to separate “good 'Pac” from “bad 'Pac,”, and indeed the veering contradictions that would turn up on his albums could be jarring.
Even on his first album, 2Pacalypse Now it was apparent ― where his moving portrayal of sexual abuse and pregnancy in “Brenda’s Got a Baby” was directly followed by “Tha Lunatic”, where he brags about being with “a new bitch every night”.
In a twisted way, these contradictions made 2Pac’s whole persona more human. But they also reflected the very real pressures being placed on him by a quickly ascendant hip-hop industry. Even Afeni, who worked as her son’s publicist, couldn’t smooth out this contradiction.
Herein may be yet another reason that 'Pac’s legend endures. The moment he came up in was one where rap had finally “made it”, when the mainstream had stopped regarding it as a novelty fad destined to fade and began to take the culture seriously.
With that legitimacy, though, came the wolves in suits whose safest bet was to emphasise excess and material over righteous indignation.
It’s the kind of juxtaposition that still keeps hip-hop philosophers up late into the night, and it can be heard probably most clearly by putting “Keep Ya Head Up” next to “I Get Around” (also on the same album), “Dear Mama” next to “California Love,” or even within the same song like “Bury Me a G”.
“Yes, I am gonna say that I’m a thug,” he would tell reporters. “That’s because I came from the gutter! And I’m still here!”
Statements like these reflected the reality behind politicians’ rhetoric of welfare queens and communities overrun by criminals. And in fact, ‘Pac’s own frequent run-ins with the law, along with the regular denunciations from cops and would-be censors, far from discrediting him, made his demands to reckon with the system more viable.
He made words like “Nigga” and “Thuglife” into uplifting acronyms (“Never Ignorant about Getting Goals Accomplished,” and “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody”). All of this put together added up to a worldview where those most forgotten by society suddenly had a voice.
To many of those most down-and-out, hearing 2Pac’s words was to hear their own humanity confirmed.
This continues in the eight-plus albums released since his death ― a staggering amount of material considering that he was only 25 when he was gunned down. Many of these songs are among his best; in fact it almost seems fair to say that these posthumous songs are the ones that have allowed us to get to know the real Tupac Shakur: “Ghetto Gospel”, “Soldier Like Me”, and “When I Get Free”.
Yet more reasons that 15 years later, he refuses to be sanitised.
It speaks volumes that among these songs are some that have become 2Pac’s most iconic, most notably “Changes”.
What stands out in this track isn’t merely the flow, the heart-on-sleeve delivery or finessed retooling of “The Way It Is” (a Bruce Hornsby song of all things). Ultimately, it’s how much these words resonate more than 15years after they were recorded: “And still I see no changes. Can't a brother get a little peace? There's war on the streets and the war in the Middle East. Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”
Listening to this today, it’s stunning really how little has actually changed ― especially in Black America. It would be easy to square up 'Pac’s declaration “we ain’t ready to have a Black president” with Obama’s White House and say that this solves it.
That 2Pac’s struggle ― and indeed, hip-hop’s whole reason for being ― has been fulfilled. We hear it coming from some of hip-hop’s better off. The facts on the ground ― from Troy Davis to skyrocketing Black unemployment ―paint a completely different picture.
Maybe that’s the most significant reason that the industry hasn’t succeeded in turning Tupac Shakur into a harmless marketing gimmick: because, despite what we hear parroted by pundits and spin-doctors, 'Pac’s words about what’s wrong and what needs so urgently to be done ring amazingly true.
Make no mistake, those who have always been most threatened by 2Pac still see him as dangerous.
Conservative writers such as Michelle Malkin still shriek from the hilltops when a teacher dares to use Shakur’s poetry in the classroom. His statue in Stone Mountain, Georgia, has been repeatedly vandalised, and in 2007 had a noose strung around its neck in direct mimicry of the one stung up outside a high school in Jena, Louisiana.
Perhaps there’s no greater compliment. After all, it’s not like all dead musicians stir such ire from the right wing.
One sign of good art is that is pisses off the right people, but Tupac was able to do so much more than that. At his best, he helped push hip-hop forward, staying true to its origins while helping it reach to greater heights. He pointed to those most marginalised in the world and declared that they deserved a greater voice precisely because they’ve been pushed to the edges.
That might seem like a contradiction, but then that might have more to do with the irrationality of this sick system than it does with Tupac himself.
[This article first appeared at www.sociarts.com . Alexander Billet maintains the blog www.rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com .]