On this day in 1996, rap artist and actor Tupac Amaru Shakur died from gunshot wounds at the age of 25. A controversial figure in life and in death, Shakur (also known as 2PAC) influenced millions of working class young people, and subsequent hip hop artists, with his music.
Shakur was influenced by the left and nationalist politics of his parents, Afeni Shakur, his mother, and Billy Garland, his father. They were members of the Black Panther Party in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was born a month after his mother was acquitted of more than 150 conspiracy charges of “against the United States government and New York landmarks” in the New York Panther 21 court case. His stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, spent four years on the FBI’s most wanted list, until his arrest in 1986, for bank robbery and aiding his sister, Assata Shakur, escape from a New Jersey penitentiary. Many Panther members were framed (or killed) by law enforcement and COINTEPRO operations.
While attending the Baltimore School for the Arts in the mid 1980s, Shakur joined the Young Communist League. He moved to the West Coast in 1988 and launched his debut album in 1992, “2Pacalypse Now,” in which he attacked social injustice, poverty and police brutality in three of the album’s songs: “Brenda’s Got a Baby”, “Trapped” and “Part Time Mutha.” He became known as one of the West Coast’s major socially conscious rappers.
While Shakur often staked out progressive themes in his works, including about women, he also reflected contradictions in some of his statements and actions. He was found guilty of sexual assault in 1995 and served time in prison.
At the same time he wrote in his 1993 hit “Keep Ya Head Up,”:
“And since we all came from a woman/Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman/I wonder why we take from our women/Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?/I think it’s time to kill for our women/Time to heal our women, be real to our women/And if we don’t, we’ll have a race of babies/That will hate the ladies, that make the babies/And since a man can’t make one/He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one/So will the real men get up/I know you’re fed up ladies but keep ya head up/Keep ya head up …”
The song “Dear Mama” released in 1995 on the “Me Against the World” album was selected in 2010 for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ national recording registry. “Dear Mama” addressed the issues of trying to raise a family as a single parent dealing with poverty and addiction.
Shakur also starred in a number of films, including “Juice,” “Poetic Justice,” and “Above the Rim.”
Many see Shakur as was one of a number talented young artists swept up in an artificially created rivalry between West Coast vs. East Coast hip hop (a rivalry that ultimately led to his death), and one that was fueled more by gangster culture and record company profits than artistic disagreements.
Despite these and other contradictions, the truths about racism and prejudice faced by Blacks and a vision of African American unity that Tupac Shakur was able to touch upon in his music and poetry are ones that still hold true today.
Photo: Tupac Shakur