Today, September 13th, 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of one of Hip Hop music’s legends: Tupac Amaru Shakur. Known for the mélange of political consciousness, aggression, and existentialism that characterized his lyrics, Tupac was many things to many people. To his fans he was a great lyricist, a fearless voice for the disenfranchised, and the reason people threw dubs up whenever the DJ spins West Coast Rap. To the establishment, he was an unwelcome voice of revolution and the personification of its worst prejudices against the black community. Since his untimely (and still unsolved) murder on this day in 1996, there have been volumes of his music released. In fact, out of the 11 albums credited to him, 7 were posthumous releases, and much of that material was still pertinent to the issues of the times in which they were released. Some even argued that his work was prophetic (looking at you Dave Chappelle). Whatever your thoughts on Tupac were, there was no doubt that he was unafraid to make his known.
Tupac’s life was steeped in the struggle for civil rights since before the day he was born. His mother, stepfather, aunt, and several other relatives were members of the original Black Panthers. He was almost born in prison while his mother was incarcerated with several other members of the Black Panther Party for an alleged bomb plot. Fortunately for him and the rest of the world she was released in 1971 just before his birth. The mentorship he received in his formative years provided him with a strong foundation for his politics. Growing up after the decline of the Black Panther Party and living his adolescent years at the height of the (government-funded) crack epidemic of the 1980’s showed him the depths of desperation that the working class faced at the hands of an unscrupulous and corrupt oligarchy. During this time, music was his most powerful outlet. The depth of his political consciousness was apparent early in his career. His first studio album, 1991’s 2Pacalypse Now, was teeming with song lyrics that screamed his frustration through the speakers. Songs like Young Black Male, Part Time Mutha, and Trapped covered issues like proximity violence, sexual abuse, and the prison industrial complex.
By the release of his 1993 album Strictly for my N.I.G.G.A.Z. he had acquired the finances and platform to allow him to speak about the social injustices against the African American community with more effect. He was a vocal critic of police brutality, and his convictions in this area did not stay behind the microphone. A famous example of this was the shooting two off duty police officers in the process of beating an unarmed black male. He was also vocal about crime in the black community. He often decried the level of proximity violence in poor black communities while simultaneously arguing that the issue was bigger some manufactured cultural defect. It was a symptom of systemic violence against the poor. He was openly critical of the wealth and resource hoarding typical of the capitalist class, arguing that the inevitable outcome of the system designed to allow this will be an uprising of the masses. Tupac put actions behind his convictions on the subject. He was known for his philanthropy, contributing to several charitable organizations, and even allowing the homeless to sleep in some of his houses.
In most discussions about Tupac, his philanthropy and revolutionary politics tend to take a back seat to two things: his thug life image and the East Coast/West Coast beef that many credit with not only his death, but also that of his long-time rival and former friend the Notorious BIG. Tupac was noted as proudly wearing the title of “thug”. While to the establishment it referred to the criminal and violent, he argued that it meant someone that not only endured hardships, but thrived despite them. He wore the title like a badge of honour, refusing to change his tone, his message, or his personality simply because his music made him rich. When the rivalry between the East and West reached a fever pitch, it was that very image that was twisted against him, his associates and his rivals. What started as an interpersonal conflict grew into something no one had expected, and many believe resulted in Hip Hop culture being robbed of its two brightest stars. In many ways this rancour was used as a tool to define rap music as violent, criminal, and dangerous. Personally I believe that the deaths of Tupac and Biggie spelled the end (for a while at least) of politically focused Hip Hop music in the mainstream. While rivalries in Hip Hop music were nothing new (shout out to the Real Roxanne), this was different, and it changed the way we look at the genre and its artists.
So who was Tupac? What did he contribute to Hip Hop culture? While I am no KRS-1, I can say that Tupac’s influence can’t be defined simply. His politics were too developed, his music was too diverse, and his convictions were too strong. To me he was a teacher. He explored social, political, economic, and existential problems in a way that few rappers could in his time. His music gave me permission to examine my own fragility and be at peace with it. His music helped me cope with loss, celebrate triumphs, and escape my own personal struggles. His music was cathartic, raw, and honest. It was complex enough to demand that the listener think beyond the pace of the instrumental and the melodious cadence of his voice. He spoke to the different dimensions of the human condition. He spoke to the philosopher, the partygoer, the hoodlum, the priest, and the politician. There was complexity in his music, emotion in his poetry, and revolution in his politics. Tupac made classics for both lovers of thought-provoking lyricism, and lovers of a good tune to dance to. He was a teacher, he was a fighter, and he was a lover of humanity. He was both the untamed and the disciplined. One thing is for certain those of us fortunate enough to live in his time will likely never see another like him before our time is over. Perhaps the world will never see one his like ever again.
Rest in peace Tupac, thank you for your music, thank you for your voice and thank you for all that you were. 20 years on, you may be gone but still not forgotten.
Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
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Image Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/CierraGervasio/2pac-tupac/