I had a chance to see he HBO biopic on the life and death of rapper Tupac Shakur (b. 1971; d.1996). It came out a couple of years ago but has been available only on HBO so access has been limited. I wanted to see the film because my son was a fan while in high school in the early ’90s and his mother and I never understood his fascination with a rapper using the language he did to express himself. When challenged, or son always defended Shupac for his social justice message and suggested we “get past” the words he used.
Tupac Shakur (aka 2pac, Pac, and Makaveli) was deeply influenced by his mother, a member of the Black Panther Party, his step-father, a black supremacist, and his biological father, an anti-racism revolutionary. Tupac went to te Baltimore Arts High School and fell in love with Shakespeare, landing a role as Hamlet while a junior. He never played the part because his family moved to Los Angeles.
On the significance of Shakespeare, Shakur once said in an interview:
I love Shakespeare. He wrote some of the rawest stories. I mean
look at “Romeo and Juliet.” That’s some serious ghetto shit. You
got this guy Romeo from the Bloods who falls for Juliet, a female
from the Crips, and everybody in both gangs is against them. So
they have to sneak out and they end up dead for nothing.
His analysis of Macbeth follows the same line.
Tupac started in the music industry at16, as a side man; he went solo at 19. His first album, “2Pacalypse Now,” shows his social consciousness, focused on inner city problems (injustice, poverty, and racism). It went platinum. Music journalist Chuck Phillips called him “brave, wise, and smart, wickedly smart.” Shakur was known for his clever rhymes, impressive rhythms, cadence, attitude, and protest message.
Tupac had more than his share of problems in his short life. He was brutalized by two cops for jaywalking. He sued for $1 million, won his case, and received $45,000, most of which went to his lawyers. He was involved in a street skirmish in which a six year old took a random bullet to the head and died. The gun was registered to Shakur but he was aquited. He was a ladies man, broke up with a girlfriend, but she seduced him three days later and cried rape (Tupac: “I didn’t rape nobody”); he was found not guilty of rape but was convicted for sexual assault. His sentence: 4-12 years.
Tupac was the first recording artist in history to release an album while in prison. It sold 250,000 copies the first week, setting a record. An old black inmate, a “lifer,” advised him to “survive” rather than get in constant skirmishes with felow inmates. His mother asked him “where’s your spirit?” and said “they can destroy your body but not your mind. Above all, to thine own self be true. Hold your head up.” He ended up serving less than a year of his sentence.
Out of prison he partnered with MC Big to manage the east coast rap scene while Big maneged the west coast. The idea was to reduce the rivalries, mostlyover money, and the subsequent violent conflicts. He was “robbed” and shot five times in the lobby of his studio. He “checked himself out” (i.e., pulled the tubes and IVs) and left the hospital after three days. It was never clear who was responsible for the shooting. Pac never thought it was robbery since the gunmen took his necklace but not his Rollex watch.
In prison Tupac had become interested in philosophy, especially philosophy of war, and military strategy, studying The Prince by Machiavelli (the source of his adding the nickname “Makaveli”), and The Art of War by Sun Tzu. His first album after prison was “The Don Killuminati: the 7 Day Theory.” Followers took it as a stark contrast with his early work. It was seen as emotionally dark, focusing on pain and aggression.
Vice President Dan Quayle lumped Tupac with “gangsta rappers” on national TV, suggesting that the government would put an end to rap due to the vile language. Tupac’s mom: “They’re afraid of your message, not your language. You’re a black leader.” Shakur represented rebellion pure and simple.
While pop music is poetry put to melody, rap is poetry put to rhythm. Tupac Shakur is the most copied MC of all time. Nine of his albums went platinum while he was living, seven more after his death. More than 75,000,000 recordings of Tupac Shakur have sold, and his work is still selling. There are murals of him around the world and statues in both the US and Germany. In 2012 a “hologram” of Tupac Shakur performed in concert with Snoop Dog at the Cochella Music Festival, so his influence –and popularity– continue. Perhaps substantive social criticism stands the test of time while entertainment seeking wealth is fleeting.