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Drawing of Tupac Shakur

Drawing of Tupac Shakur, Photo: $amii, Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Rapper Tupac Shakur opened up a fork in the road for the music argues Mayer Wakefield

“Panther power! They kept my history a mystery but now I see the American Dream wasn’t meant for me. Cause lady liberty is a hypocrite, she lied to me. Promised me freedom, education, and equality. They kept my ancestors shackled up in slavery and Uncle Sam never did a damn thing for me, except lie about the facts in my history. Now I’m sitting here mad cause I’m unemployed, but the government’s glad cause they enjoy when my people are down so they can screw us around.” 

Stokely Carmichael? No. Fred Hampton? Not him. Angela Davis? Actually not. These are the words of Tupac, delivered at his first ever live concert appearance at the Marin City Festival in California in 1989, when he was just seventeen. While many remember Tupac as one of the figureheads of the ‘gangsta’ rap movement of the mid-1990s, his parenthood, upbringing, and early career reveal a very different truth. Prior to the corrosive influence of mogul Suge Knight’s Death Row Records and the violence that led to his tragic death, Tupac was someone determined to resummon the spirit of the Black Panther Party at its height and change the world while doing so. 

Tupac’s very name provides insights into his revolutionary roots. Born Lesane Parish Crooks, just a year after his birth, his mother renamed him Tupac Amaru Shakur in homage to the eighteenth-century Peruvian revolutionary (Túpac Amaru) who led an uprising against Spanish rule. This was no accident or gimmick. Afeni Shakur, whose last name means ‘one who struggles’, was a leading member of the New York Black Panther Party, and was imprisoned for her political activities whilst pregnant with Tupac.

A member of the ‘Panther 21’, Afeni served as her own defence lawyer during an eight-month trial facing charges of conspiracy to bomb police stations and other public places. Just two months after outright acquittal of her and her fellow Panthers, her first and only son was born on 16 June 1971. Both were survivors of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s brutal war on the Black Panther Party during the early 1970s.

Despite a turbulent relationship with his mother, described by Tupac himself as ‘a whirlwind’, it’s clear that he inherited much of Afeni’s worldview. As he described it in a rare 1992 interview:

“I always looked up to revolutionaries like Fred Hampton and Bobby Hutton from the Black Panthers. They weren’t saying or striving for anything much different from what we are saying and striving for today. They died for that. Right in their own beds. They were so young and how could you forget that?”

But the world in which he grew up was even more violent than the one his mother saw. As he put it: “I grew up in the Black Panthers but in my teenage years I grew up around hustlers.” The crack-cocaine epidemic, and Ronald Reagan’s deceitful ‘war on drugs’ that followed it, brought a tsunami of gun violence to black communities across the United States. An environment shaped by poverty, police brutality, and drug addiction was one Tupac had to deal with first-hand.  

Afeni moved the family to Baltimore to escape the trap of unemployment that she felt stemmed from her activism. Meanwhile, Tupac flourished at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where his intellectual abilities and acting talents took the school by storm. Not long after he began to write poetry and raps, and wrote in an English essay that: =

“Our raps, not the sorry story raps everyone is so tired of. They are about what happens in the real world. Our goal is [to] have people relate to our raps, making it easier to see what really is happening out there. Even more important, what we may do to better our world.”

In 1991, just a few years after that debut performance in Marin City, he released his first album as 2Pac with the title 2Pacalypse Now. Arguably his most overtly political album, most of its songs focus on police brutality and the effects of poverty. This isn’t surprising given that at that very time he was suing the Oakland Police Department, in a case that would eventually result in $42,000 pay-out for the young rapper, an unlikely outcome at that time.

Asserting his rights and speaking truth to power were central to who Tupac was, and this was further demonstrated when Vice President Dan Quayle called on his record label to withdraw the album following the shooting of a state trooper in Texas. It was alleged that 2Pacalypse Now was found in the tape deck of the accused, and the media reports highlighted the song ‘Soulja’s Story’ which is loosely based on the story of the radical Jackson brothers. Quayle went on national television to denounce the record, saying “it has no place in our society”. Tupac would later call out Quayle on several of his songs, and refused to be intimidated by this veiled threat from one of the highest offices in the land.

Despite this controversy, the album is best remembered for the emergence of a fresh, angry and rebellious voice in Hip-Hop. The standout track, ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’, was unique due to the fact that in his own words “no male rappers at all anywhere were talking about problems that females were having”. With its heartfelt and evocative storytelling, it remains a stone-cold classic to this day.

This is just one example of how Tupac changed Hip-Hop and created a political fork in the road for the artform. One many will remember in Britain is the 1998 remix of his 1992 track ‘Changes’, which was played repeatedly by the hugely popular music video channels of the period. These were largely devoid of any political content, so a whole new world was opened when you heard the first few notes of Tupac’s ‘Changes’. As catchy as it is meaningful, it is a song which would prove a gateway to many, not just to Hip-Hop, but to injustices faced by those in Black America and the wider world.

“And still I see no changes
Can't a brother get a little peace?
It's war on the streets and a war in the Middle East
Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”

His early work and life opened up a gap in which the likes of Dead Prez, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and many others would later stride through. While other parts of his life and legacy pose more complex questions, at his core Tupac was a revolutionary with a story to tell.

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