The Enduring Power of Tupac Shakur
Yesterday was Tupac Shakur’s 40th birthday. And though it has been 15 years since his untimely death, the continued fascination and adoration he conjures amongst black youth (and the world, at large) is a testament to an iconic, albeit brief career that truly transcended mere beats and rhymes. Subversive, contradictory and brutally honest, Tupac’s music told the story of the young black male coming of age in the 1990’s. It is a dichotomous story; one where an appreciation for unity and consciousness within the Black community collides with capitalistic ambition and the attainment of an American dream, by any means necessary. His work spoke truth to a racist, capitalistic power structure, while at the same time attempting to usurp and dominate that structure with its own values and tools.
And that’s what made Tupac’s music so powerful and dangerous.
Arguably the single most iconic figure ever in Hip Hop, Tupac’s very existence embodied the experiences of his generation, and this has been the key to a longstanding and ever-strengthening fascination with him. As Michael Eric Dyson once said, “Above all, Tupac was a transcendent force of creative fury who relentlessly articulated a generation’s defining moods—its confusion and pain, its nobility and courage, its loves and hates, its hopelessness and self-destruction. He was the zeitgeist in sagging jeans.” The son of two prominent former members of the Black Panther Party, Tupac’s connection to the Black Power Generation was overt, as was his connection to the bleak, hopeless existence many of his peers experienced as well; Tupac’s family grew up in poverty, and his mother was at one time addicted to crack cocaine. Tupac’s genius was his ability to convey that existence with insightful and at times brutal honesty.
And his defining statement just might be “Dear Mama,” from 1995’s Me Against The World. While on the surface addressing Pac’s relationship with his mother, “Dear Mama” also speaks to the disillusionment of an entire generation with how the promise and righteous fury of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements devolved into white (and black) flight, Reaganomics, and crack addiction. It is the sound of a generation coming to terms with a collective disappointment in the shortcomings of the previous generation. It is young black people saying, “you weren’t perfect, but YOU ARE APPRECIATED.”
As stated, contradictions abound in Tupac’s life and work. “Keep Your Head Up,” urges black women to love themselves and stay strong in the midst of obstacles from both the white establishment and black men, while “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch,” details the kind of misguided, immature behavior that drives some men to refer to woman by such a demeaning epithet. Provocative compositions like “White Man’z World” lament the systemic and institutionalized racism that perpetuates black poverty and suffering. But Tupac also makes a point not to gloss over the paranoia and fear generated by malevolence and violence from other black men as well, proclaiming “And they say it’s the white man I should fear/But it’s my own kind doing all the killing here” on All Eyez On Me’s “Only God Can Judge Me.”
Classic Gangsta rap tracks like “Ambitionz Az A Ridah” and the Snoop Doggy Dog-assisted “2 of Americaz Most Wanted” firmly root themselves in a desire to get rich or die trying, while songs like “So Many Tears” and “Changes” long for unity within the Black community, and relay an overwhelming despair at the way mass death and hopelessness reliably and disastrously follow this self-destructive quest for material wealth and upward mobility. The contradictions in Tupac’s work can be maddening to navigate, but so were the lives of the many young black men for whom he spoke with such eloquence and power.
Tupac fashioned fiercely complicated portraits of many elements of the post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power experience. “Blasphemy,” released on his 1996 swan song The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, perfectly captures the struggle between a spirituality that secures an ideal afterlife, and the religion of wealth and survival that permeates the American experience. He explains the “ten rules to the game,” alluding to the Ten Commandments, but subverts that concept, choosing to detail the rules of survival in an unforgiving, ghetto environment. Crucially, there is self-awareness to his words, and he consistently makes thinly-veiled biblical references that draw parallels between the experiences of today’s youth and those of biblical figures like Jesus Christ himself, iconoclastically demanding revision to the idea that context does not factor into God’s understanding of our actions; he proclaims, “They say Jesus is a kind man/Well he should understand times in this crime land,” and later “I leave this and hope God sees my heart is pure/Is heaven just another door?”
And on the mournful “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” Tupac meditates on change and upward mobility itself, detailing with loving approval the alienating changes a friend has made to his life upon leaving prison, explaining “Heard you might be comin’ home/just got bail/Wanna go to the Mosque/don’t wanna chase tail/It seems I lost my little homie/he’s a changed man/Hit the pen and no sinning is the game plan/When I talk about money/All you see is the struggle/When I tell you I’m livin’ large/All you see is trouble.” And as always, Tupac turns the lens on himself in the song’s final verse, plaintively and empathetically contemplating the way his financial success has estranged him from his own community as well, lamenting “So many questions/and they ask me if I’m still down/I moved up out of the ghetto/so I ain’t real now?/They got so much to say/but I’m just laughin’ at cha/You niggas just don’t know/but I ain’t mad at cha.” Here, as with much of his work, Tupac flawlessly captures the dichotomous experience of the post-Black Power generation appreciating a sense of unity and a protection of “blackness,” while reconciling that with a desire to find financial wealth and seize the American dream.
I won’t even go into the many opportunistic hacks that have pillaged Tupac’s image for profit, or the now-approving phonies who once tried to silence him. That’s just the way it is for true artists that leave us too soon. And it is proof-positive of his genius that his influence has been so pervasive. His legend will only grow stronger with each passing year.
And there will never be another like him.
R.I.P. Tupac Amaru Shakur
June 16, 1971 – September 13, 1996