Shakur, Tupac (1971-1996)

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Shakur, Tupac (1971-1996)

Rapper, film actor, and poet Tupac "Amaru" Shakur, also known as "2Pac," was one of the most influential and greatest rappers of the 1990s, who launched his rap career when he appeared in the Digital Underground's "Same Song" video in 1991. After the video aired, rap fans across America were asking who the young man was in the African outfit with beads beaming down his chest like an "African King." Critic Armond White has noted that it was after his appearance in the Digital Underground video that Tupac Shakur "first realized the thrill of putting a rhyme on tape and getting it to the public." As a solo artist, Tupac Shakur burst on the rap scene with 2Pacalypse Now (1991), a 13-rap-song album that was destined to change the face of rap music in America and the world over. Through this album, Tupac Shakur vowed to use his poetic power to tell those stories from the streets and the ghetto that the mainstream media refused to talk about, including the plight of black males and other African Americans in America, police brutality, and poverty. In the rap song "Rebel of the Underground," Shakur foreshadowed the conflict between him and the police/media by arguing that they cannot stand the reign of a man like him "who goes against the grain." Furthermore, not only did he characterize himself as "cold as the devil" and "straight out of the underground," but he called himself "the lyrical lunatic, the maniac MC," and asserted that "the most dangerous weapon" is "an educated black man."

Themes of police brutality, black-on-black crimes, the American Dream deferred, black males in America, and the African-American struggle and survival permeate songs like "Trapped," "Soulja's Story," "I Don't Give a Fuck," and "Words of Wisdom." While in "I Don't Give a Fuck" and "Soulja's Story" Shakur rapped that he does not give "a fuck" about the police and other American officials and institutions who oppress African Americans, in "Words of Wisdom" he charged America with the "crime of rape, murder, and assault" for "suppressing and punishing" his people. Additionally, he accused America of falsifying black history and of falsely imprisoning black males by keeping them "trapped in the projects." He concluded the song by warning America that it reaps what it sows and that he is "2Pacalypse, America's nightmare." The rough side and revolutionary stance of 2Pacalypse Now are what later misled music and popular culture critics to label Tupac Shakur a "Gangsta Rapper" and his music "Gangsta Rap," thus blaming the messenger for the message.

Critics who labeled Tupac Shakur a "gangsta rapper" and called him controversial and confused failed to see that his music always contained two sides: a tough side bristling with the realities of the ghetto life and a didactic side endowed with positive messages. Such was the case with "Brenda's Got a Baby" from 2Pacalypse Now, one of Shakur's best known rap songs. The song described the carelessness of a cousin who impregnates Brenda, the ignorance of Brenda who tries to throw the baby in the garbage can, and the callousness of the community that fails to realize that Brenda's plight affects the whole community. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (1993), Tupac Shakur's second album, contained a song called "Keep Ya Head Up" in which he both debunks some black men for their misogyny, sexism, and irresponsibility, and advises black women to keep their heads up no matter what the situation is. Furthermore, Tupac Shakur showed his softer side yet again on Me Against the World (1995), with "Dear Mama," a tribute to his mother, Afeni Shakur. Autobiographical in nature, "Dear Mama" chronicles the Black Panther days of Afeni Shakur and how she struggled to keep her family together. Also, Shakur reminisced about the stress he caused a mother trying to raise him while struggling with drugs, and how, in the absence of a father, he turned to the streets in search of love and fame.

In 1996, the music scene changed when Tupac Shakur became the first rapper to release a double album, All Eyez On Me; it reached number one on rhythm and blues and Pop charts and was certified seven times platinum within ten months. In the late 1990s, All Eyez On Me remained the best selling rap album of all time. The most notable and famous song on the album was "California Love," Shakur's single, a song which, according to Armond White, "certi-fies a level of achievement, of rap triumph, and American commercial bliss." Both Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur create "a sense of belonging that neglects rap protest, preferring an affirmation that is vaguely patriotic." Other work of Tupac's include two posthumous albums, Makaveli the Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (1996) and the double album R U Still Down? [Remember Me] (1997).

Shakur influenced the Hollywood film industry by starring in six films in five years: Juice (1992), Poetic Justice (1993), Above the Rim (1994), Bullet (1997), Gridlock'd (1997), and Gang Related (1997). Except for Poetic Justice, a film in which he starred beside Janet Jackson and which shows his romantic and soft side, all the other films look like they were written out of Tupac Shakur's tough lyrics; they exploited and contributed to his "gansta" and "thug-life" image. Though his life was cut short on September 13, 1996, Tupac Shakur has become a legend—some people still think he never died—and his legacy will live forever through his released, and still to be released, records and poems.

—Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure

Further Reading:

Alexander, Frank, with Heidi Siegmund Cuda. Got Your Back: The Life of a Bodyguard in the Hardcore World of Gangsta Rap. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Scott, Cathy. The Killing of Tupac Shakur. Las Vegas, Huntington Press, 1997.

Vibe magazine editors. Tupac Amaru Shakur, 1971-1996. New York, Crown Publishers, 1997.

White, Armond. Rebel for the Hell of It: The Life of Tupac Shakur. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press, 1997.