Detroit-born journalist and friend to the late Tupac Amaru Shakur, dream hampton once had a vision about her comrade. In her dream, Pac’s in a car riding shotgun along a dark street. It’s late night, early morning. The streets are completely empty at this hour, but the car’s driver stops at a red light. Tupac chastises him for being so brainwashed by the government that he obeys its laws even when the enforcers aren’t around.
It’s 1993 and hampton’s dream is fueled by the enigma Tupac Shakur has become. At the time, he is embroiled in two heated controversies. One is an assault charge surrounding the shooting of two off-duty Atlanta police officers, which he swears is an issue of self-defense. The second involves a fight with sibling movie directors the Hughes brothers. Because the incidents occur about a year after a bat-swinging brawl during one of his concerts at Michigan State University, the rapper has quickly developed a reputation as a magnet for trouble.
Considering Pac’s penchant for weaving brutally honest social commentary into his music, folks begin to wonder if hip hop is looking at its first version of Fred Hampton, the young Chicago Black Panther leader who talked revolution and died walking the walk. Pac will emulate that, but will symbolize much more by the time he is murdered in Las Vegas, about three years later.
Now in 2001, it’s almost five years since his passing on September 13, 1996. In death, Pac remains the legendary poster child for everything right and wrong with hip-hop culture. His music touches nerves and hearts. His memory draws cheers and jeers. ’Til the End of Time, the latest offering in a seemingly endless catalog of unreleased Tupac material, has made him the highest-selling hip-hop artist of all time, and the 20th-highest-selling recording artist. He is still hip hop’s most enigmatic personality, and the adulation of his fans is more intense than ever. For what he is and ain’t, the man’s yin-yang has reached mythic proportions. To hip-hop culture, he is a martyr. But to much of the outside world, as comedian Chris Rock once said, “the nigga got shot.”
Stand on your preferred side of the debate. But judging by numbers, images on T-shirts, people who quote him in debate forums and now, with Web presence and universities sanctioning classes on his poetry, Tupac may have had a more significant impact on hip hop than Marvin Gaye had on soul.
It’s a bold statement that makes one question very necessary: Why was (and is) Tupac so important? He wasn’t an emissary, activist, policy maker or leader of some grand movement. Or was he?
Many adore Tupac’s character without having a clear understanding of his history. They know that he exhibited every side of his personality publicly, from being a thug to most to being a caring friend to some. But even some of his biggest fans don’t know the whole Pac. How many can trace his political and rebellious sides to a family circle that includes political prisoners Mutulu Shakur (father), Geronimo ji jagga (formerly Geronimo Pratt, his godfather), Huey P. Newton (family friend) and mother Afeni Shakur?
Arguably, Pac was part rowdy, part peaceful because he grew up in an environment where people wore their passions, politics and personal conflicts on their sleeve. The same parents who were activists are also recovering addicts and profound lecturers. Shouldn’t it be considered natural that a child of revolutionaries would himself manifest revolutionary tendencies as a man, even if his immature phases are played out on the public square?
Other little-known facets of Pac include his actions after signing with Death Row records. At “the Row” he portrayed the gangsta role wonderfully. But how many know that Pac signed a contract (hand-written in pencil by CEO Suge Knight), just to get out of prison and that, within months of releasing All Eyez on Me, he was turning over tables in the label office, demanding to see accounting records of his album sales which were being kept from him? Who knew that two weeks before he was killed he fired attorney David Kenner (also Knight’s attorney) and began a production company to make music with socially progressive messages? How many knew he’d intensified the fight to control his life?
When Tupac died, Detroit Muslim Mosque #1 Minister Dawud Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam, delivered a talk entitled “Who Killed Tupac?” Based on a rhetorical question, the talk dealt with the environment that raised Pac, not so much the hands that pulled the triggers on his life. When Muhammad planned to visit a school to discuss Pac’s life with a group of children, his daughter left him with a profound message: “‘Whatever you do, Daddy,’ she said,” Muhammad recalled, “‘just don’t say anything bad about Tupac. Kids love Tupac.’”
Discussing Tupac with a fan is like visiting Germany without attempting to speak the language. If you don’t at least try to talk on their level, you’ll be ignored and discounted immediately.
“When you look at Pac, do you see a piece of coal or an unfinished diamond?” asks Changa Bey, a poet and educator for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History. “When you listen to his lyrics, he’s not necessarily the most extraordinary (MC). But there’s a sincerity in his words. It’s like white people with Elvis. When you find someone you relate to, who speaks to your era, you don’t want to let them go. It’s almost like he was our Malcolm. You either loved him or hated him.”
When a rapper is compared to Fred Hampton, Marvin Gaye, Elvis Presley and Malcolm X in one article, is it far-fetched? Each iconic character was cheered for his impact, despite any perceived weaknesses. How possible is it that, a decade from now, Tupac Amaru Shakur may be widely accepted among these giants of history? Maybe the appropriate point to make has less to do with the virtue in his personal movement, and more with the fact that it affected an entire generation. After all, damn near every rapper and his mama is a self-proclaimed thug these days.
Through his music, poetry and posturing, Tupac captivated the world and single-handedly altered the course of hip hop. He was brash, imperfect and sincere, and willing to be a symbol of black America’s angst and America’s hypocrisy.
And as with Fred, Marvin and Malcolm, imagine what he might have become had he lived through it all.Khary Kimani Turner writes about words and beats for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org