Shakur, Tupac Amaru

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Shakur, Tupac Amaru

(b. 16 June 1971 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 13 September 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada), actor and an originator of the musical style called “gangsta rap,” celebrated for his songs about the black inner city.

Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams), was a member of the Black Panther Party, a radical political organization. His father, William M. Garland, also belonged to the party. At the time of Tupac Shakur’s conception, Afeni Shakur was married to Lumumba Abdul Shakur, another member of the Black Panthers, who had been incarcerated. Upon hearing of her pregnancy, Lumumba divorced her. During the pregnancy, Afeni Shakur was imprisoned in the Women’s House of Detention in New York City’s Greenwich Village, and she was subsequently acquitted of conspiracy charges involving a bombing. Afeni Shakur and her young son Tupac suffered financial hardship and moved frequently between 1975 and 1983, living in the Bronx, Harlem, and occasionally in homeless shelters.

Because of this urban-nomadic life, Shakur made no long-term boyhood friendships. “I was crying all the time,” he later recalled in an interview. “My major thing was I couldn’t fit in, because I was from everywhere. I didn’t have no buddies that I grew up with.” When the boy asked about the name of his father, Afeni Shakur would tell her son that she did not know who his father was. This lack of knowledge tormented the youth.

In September 1983 twelve-year-old Shakur was offered a role in the 127th Street Ensemble, a theater group in Harlem. He portrayed Travis in the play A Raisin in the Sun. He took to acting and felt that through his life experiences, performing came easily to him.

Meanwhile, his mother had become hooked on crack cocaine. Her lover, known simply as “Legs,” encouraged her addiction. Shakur “adopted” Legs as a surrogate father, but Legs died of a crack-induced heart attack at age fortyone.

Trying to make a fresh start in Baltimore, Shakur’s mother enrolled him in that city’s School for the Arts. He studied acting and ballet. He had already written a rap song under the name “M.C. New York.” Shakur’s teachers recognized the confidence and talent that would later serve him as a successful actor. Shakur remembered in an interview one teacher’s effort to provide some guidance: “Some old white guy, and I was a little black kid from the ghetto. It was beyond him to help me.” Before Shakur could graduate, his family moved to Marin City, California. He never went back to school. “Leaving that [Baltimore] school affected me so much,” Shakur commented. “Even now, I see that as the point where I got off track.”

Yet in a few years Shakur would be on tour as a dancer-rapper for the group Digital Underground. In 1991 he made his recording debut with Digital Underground on the album This Is an EP Release. The album was later certified gold. 2Pacalypse Now, released in November 1991, was hailed as a departure for R&B music and it catapulted Shakur to national recognition. On the album, he rapped to black youth about the world they knew, while a gunshot backbeat kicked with rhythm. There were narratives about teen pregnancy, gang banging, selling drugs, and about being cooped up too long in someone else’s dream. It was the voice of truth to restless and oppressed African American men at the end of the twentieth century.

At this time he formed a philosophy called “Thug Life” and had those words, an acronym containing a vulgarism, tattooed in huge letters across his pelvis. The philosophy contends that the hatred of children ruins everyone’s life. He felt that thugs were essentially unloved and were victims who had no choice but to carry guns to protect what little they had. On his back was tattooed the words “Laugh Now, Cry Later.” This was meant to scare anyone who felt that they could backstab Shakur and get away with it. Through these expressions, he sought to protect all that he had from being taken by a world he did not trust. When questioned as to why he became a “thug,” he answered, “Because if I don’t, I’ll lose everything I have. Who else is going to love me but the thugs?”

In 1992 Tupac earned praise for his big-screen debut in the movie Juice. In April 1993, amid other runins with police, the rap singer was arrested in Lansing, Michigan, for swinging a baseball bat at another performer during a concert. He was sentenced to ten days in jail. Shakur’s many scrapes with the law did not adversely affect record sales, and his Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (1993) went platinum. Also in 1993, the movie Poetic Justice, starring singer Janet Jackson and Shakur, was released. At Halloween of that year, Shakur was arrested for allegedly shooting two off-duty Atlanta police officers. These charges were eventually dropped.

Then, just eighteen days later, Shakur was picked up in New York City on sexual abuse charges after a teenage girl was attacked in a posh Manhattan hotel. On 10 March 1994 Shakur was sentenced to fifteen days in jail for punching the director Allen Hughes. That year, moviegoers saw Shakur playing a troubled drug dealer in Above the Rim. His real-life troubles continued in 1994, as he was shot and robbed in a Times Square recording studio. The case remained unsolved, and in early 1995 Shakur started his sentence in New York’s Rikers Island penitentiary for his sexual-abuse conviction. While behind bars, he learned that his new album Me Against the World had hit number one on Billboard magazine’s pop charts. On 29 April 1995 he married Keisha Morris while incarcerated, but the couple soon became estranged.

In prison, Shakur abandoned his violent philosophy, saying, “If Thug Life is real, then let somebody else represent it, because I’m tired of it. I represented it too much.” In October 1995 Death Row Records executive Marion “Suge” Knight paid a $1.4 million bond to release Shakur from prison. The performer immediately flew to Los Angeles to sign a recording contract with Death Row, and soon afterward released rap’s first double CD, All Eyez on Me.

Back in New York for the MTV Music Video Awards on 4 September 1996, Shakur managed to get into a scuffle. Three days later, on 7 September 1996, he was shot four times in the chest after leaving a Mike Tyson boxing match in Las Vegas. At five foot ten and 168 pounds, the twenty-five-year-old Shakur was diminutive compared to the massive 300-pound “Suge” Knight, who rode in the car with him that evening. Shakur’s shooting was rumored to be part of a long turf war between Knight and Bad Boy Records’ Sean “Puffy” Combs; this could not be substantiated, however, as the gunman was not found. Shakur was rushed to University Medical Center, where his right lung was removed. Six days after the shooting, Shakur was pronounced dead. His body was cremated.

Shakur’s death allegedly created an all-out war between the reigning gangsta rap record companies, Combs’s Bad Boy Records in New York City and Knight’s Death Row Records in Los Angeles. Six months after Shakur’s death, Biggie Smalls, also known as Notorious B.I.G., a 400-pound gangsta rapper with Bad Boy Records, was gunned down outside of Petersen’s Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. In early 1997 Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison for probation violation in connection with a fight. Fans, sickened by the violence promoted by this music and its impresarios, turned to other music and forms of entertainment. The bad-boy glamour had vanished in gun smoke.

Shakur’s use of lyrics laced with violent, sexual, and profane language, and his self-portrayal as a gangster and an outlaw, helped sell several million records, making him one of the most popular—and tragic—musicians of the 1990s. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson commented after Shakur’s murder, “Sometimes the lure of violent culture is so magnetic that even when one overcomes it with material success, it continues to call. Tupac just couldn’t break the cycle.”

Vibe Editors, Tupac Shakur (1997), chronicles the rise and fall of the rap star. See also Katy Scott, The Killing of Tupac Shakur (1997); Armond White, Rebel for the Hell of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur (1997); Newsweek (1 Sept. 1997) and Spin (Apr. 2000). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 14 Sept. 1996).

Louise Continelli