Like so many people, I have a lot of feelings about Tupac Shakur, a man and artist who needs no other introduction, so I won’t provide one. What’s kept me from sharing those feelings until now is that, as a white woman, I haven’t felt it entirely appropriate to muse about someone who so profoundly, beautifully, and tragically represented a world I can’t, no matter how socially conscious, ever truly comprehend.
And yet my whiteness makes me feel more compelled, in a certain way, to bow down in the presence of this flawed, broken, poet (in your mind you heard “boss playa,” didn’t you?), and echo my experience of him with humility, curiosity, and as much empathy as I can stand. It’s very clear that, decades after his death, the message of his art remains a constant need, especially for a culture that can’t seem to be honest with itself. Therefore maybe more white people need to be paying attention to what Tupac was about.
And I don’t mean by emulating his Thug Life persona, which has certainly seemed a convenient albeit wildly misguided way to praise the man. This wasn’t a persona Tupac chose; his toughness wasn’t a desire but a requirement. Thug Life was the armor behind which he protected himself from a world out to get him on every side, the way it’s out to get black men in America, still. He gloated about his grit only to the point it was needed to endure the day, which was a lot.
In fact, his lyrics painted the portrait of a deeply pained young man who experienced depression, paranoia, and suicidal ideation in the face of regularly burying friends and loved ones, combating police brutality and unjust social policies, and trying to stay sharp against peers who were doing the same. Living under the fears, pressures, and anxiety of oppression, Tupac’s community turned on itself. And then faced misrepresentation in the media, making nowhere safe. Tupac felt it. He addressed this conflict in his music often, notably in “Only God Can Judge Me”:
And they say it’s the white man I should fear, but it’s my own kind doing all the killing here. I can’t lie, ain’t no love for the other side, jealously inside, make ‘em wish I died. Oh my Lord, tell me what I’m livin’ for, everybody’s droppin’ got me knockin’ on heaven’s door. And all my memories, of seein’ brothers bleed, and everybody grieves, but still nobody sees. Recollect your thoughts don’t get caught up in the mix, cause the media is full of dirty tricks.
His often-aching lyrics served as a genuine portrayal of a man who seemed to fight like hell but had, in a lot of ways, actually given up, something he had no choice but to do. In 1993 Pac wrote: “my mama used to tell me if you can’t find something to live for, then you best find something to die for,” and it was increasingly evident that it was a rule he lived by.
Tupac would have turned 47 this weekend if his life hadn’t been on the line since the day he was born, and as someone more prone to celebrate birth than death, I thought now might be an okay time to pen this love letter to someone who shook me awake to a reality more easily slept through. Tupac’s music was never for me, and yet it still moved me; healed me in a human way, broke me in a human way, enlightened me, challenged me, and indicated to me when it was time for me to shut up and listen.
Don’t get me wrong, Tupac wasn’t a perfect man. He served time for sexual assault and a number of physical assaults. In his least poetic moments, he spit words of misogyny and violence. He was wrong for many of these things, and as a woman, I won’t shrug off his abuses toward women, if the accusations were, in fact, true. But I won’t condemn him for them either, because condemnation takes us nowhere. Even Pac didn’t want us to ignore his failings, stating in an archived interview “measure a man by his actions fully, from the beginning to the end.” I do struggle to revere a man who did bad things but I won’t dismiss him as a bad man. Sure, I wish he could have prevailed over his plight; that some of his actions didn’t prove him to be, in fact, the antithesis of tough. But that would be asking him to be someone he couldn’t be.
And it’s hard to believe that these behaviors weren’t some authentic response to a life on the streets, “death row for black men;” providing a glimpse into how fallible a human is when their back is perpetually against a wall. When violence and aggression become the only defense against desperation, your values come second to survival and you stop being able to distinguish your soldier from your civilian.
The rise of Tupac’s paranoia was evident when set against his earlier “Keep Ya Head Up”-like optimism and brutal honesty:
Cause I think we can make it, in fact I’m sure. And if you fall, stand tall and come back for more… we ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup, and even though you’re fed up, ya got to keep your head up.
As time went on, he found it difficult to live those words and trust those around him, becoming increasingly on edge. But as the saying goes, you’re only paranoid until you’re right. So after getting shot 5 times in a New York City recording studio and surviving, that flame of hope seemed to burn out. Believing that Biggie Smalls was behind the attack, Tupac released the angry, hate-filled diss track “Hit ‘Em Up” which, arguably, deepened the existing east coast/west coast hip hop rivalry, further isolating him from his peers: ‘
Who shot me, but you punks didn’t finish now you’re ‘bout to feel the wrath of a menace.
Soon after, he released “Me Against the World,” widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential hop hip albums of all time, but another indication that Tupac was falling away. The man who once pleaded for his brothers and sisters to keep their heads up seemed unable to maintain his sense of hope. He was 23 and in prison when that album was released, and only lived for another 18 months.
Still, Tupac had a sense of humor, a sense of humility, and a sense of creative brilliance that, personally, I haven’t yet seen truly paralleled. He took poetry classes as a kid and performed Shakespeare plays in high school. As an adult, he was a better actor than most expected. He loved his mama. And while wildly imperfect, Tupac lived out loud a certain vulnerability, an act which remains admirable. He allowed himself to be seen, for better or worse, and often tried to use that honesty to make change, to build awareness, to tell stories representative of his truth and the truth of many. His songs, which never expire, serve as a blueprint for how we can build a better world. I wonder when we will.