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Tupac Shakur: Radical poet

On the sixteenth anniversary of his death, we remember a man who was the living embodiment of a contradictory career and politics.

A hologram of Tupac Shakur
A hologram of Tupac Shakur performing at the Coachella Music Festival. Photograph: Getty Images

On 13 September 1996 Tupac Shakur passed away in a hospital bed - the victim of a drive-by shooting six days before.  He had been shot several times in a rapid volley while reclining in the back seat of a car on Las Vegas Boulevard. The tragic death of young black men from drive-by shootings is, in the US, terrifyingly commonplace but Tupac’s life was anything but. At the age of 25 - the time of his murder - Tupac had realised a quite remarkable resume; he was an international hip-hop star, a critically acclaimed actor, a poet, a model, an activist and a budding script writer.  Quincy Jones throws this into relief by reminding us shrewdly – “If we had lost Oprah Winfrey at 25, we would have lost a relatively unknown, local market TV anchor-woman. If we had lost Malcolm X at 25, we would have lost a hustler named Detroit Red."

However, Tupac was also a figure steeped in controversy. He was perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the politicisation of rap music while at the same time embracing the "gangsta" lifestyle and glorying in much of the gang-land conflict it entailed. He wrote homilies to women struggling on welfare extoling their dignity and bravery yet elsewhere reverted to the depressingly familiar misogynist idiom of "bitch" and "ho". He reeled out screeds of poetry but would become infamous for his volatility and a reckless proclivity for violence. He lauded the values of community and social struggle while simultaneously embracing the individual wealth and material status his fame brought him.

Such paradoxes should be situated in a broader historical development. Afeni Shakur named her son Tupac Amaru for the Incan revolutionary leader who had fought against Spanish imperialism several centuries before. She was one of the leading lights of the iconic Black Panther Party, and both Tupac’s father and step-father were active in the movement. The young Tupac imbibed activism; as a teen he was sufficiently radicalised as to become a member of the Young Communist League. But the social reality of the projects of Baltimore where he grew up represented a malaise - a retreat from politics more broadly. If, in the late sixties the Black Panther Party boasted many thousands of members, by the early eighties it is estimated the number had fallen below thirty. The great civil rights movements had ebbed and abated with many of the most courageous militants either murdered or imprisoned.  

A form of rampant individualism and crass materialism rose from the debris of social struggle. If community activism cannot secure emancipation, then inevitably the onus falls on the individual to free themselves through their own resourcefulness, guile and entrepreneurship. The solution to empowerment more and more became a fiscal one; the ruthless, resourceful "hustler" who would use "Machiavellian" means in order to win wealth and power. This historical shift in consciousness attained a vivid resonance in hip-hop culture; figures like Puff Daddy would emerge and proclaim as a hero neither Malcolm X nor Angela Davies but rather Donald Trump.  

Tupac’s tragedy, and his brilliance, lies in the fact that he was the living embodiment of this contradiction. He carried within himself the conflict between the universal tenor of community struggle and the narrow horizon of personal acquisition and individual gain. Often Tupac would appear in videos decked out in gaudy gold amid a background of sleek supercars and semi-naked women - women who themselves appeared as little more than commodities, reduced to the status of props in a street theatre given over to the depiction of power and financial status. Tupac’s songs often carried the same unsettling fusion of misogyny and materiality; in one track he disparages a female target sniping – “Still lookin' for a rich man, you dug a ditch, got your legs up, tryin' to get rich."

But in his great works one can feel the moment of universalism once more; the hopes and aspirations of the community steeped in deep traditions of struggle and overcoming. Here Tupac sings about the heroism of single mothers on welfare for example, or his call for solidarity and internationalism which is the major theme of his anthem to revolution – Changes.  

Tupac’s voice was particularly raw; rich and deep but also throaty and unrelenting. It was something you had to acclimatise yourself to.  Like the voice of Johnny Cash, its starkness - a whisky-rich vocalisation often closer to simple speech than song - meant that there was no softening of the syllables by a sweeter smoother lilt; instead the emotion itself remains raw and unmediated. Its feeling was transmitted through the intense integrity, the purity, of the utterance, and in his beautiful homily to a son’s love for his mother – Dear Mamma - this is powerfully manifest. Tupac’s voice here is gentle, little more than a husky whisper, understated, yet at the same time the words resonate with such emotion that it is almost unbearable; you have the distinct feeling the singer is going to break down, to burst into tears, as he puts into perspective from the purview of his adult-self, just how meaningful his mother’s sacrifice was – “And I could see you comin home after work late. You're in the kitchen tryin to fix us a hot plate. Ya just workin with the scraps you was given. And mama made miracles every Thanksgivin’”.

It verges on the unoriginal to say how - in the face of someone’s death - they are with us still. But in the case of Tupac it feels genuinely apposite especially in terms of the cultural legacy he has engendered. Hip-hop artists of today, like Eminem for instance, often cite Tupac as their definitive musical influence. Moreover across the internet and the world something remarkable is happening. Tupac’s songs of struggle are being continually rethought and reworked, set against new social backgrounds and groups who register in Tupac something of themselves, whether it is the first  major Palestinian rap group – DAM - who emerged from the crumbling Israeli ghetto of Lod or the somewhat more salubrious setting of Harvard University which co-sponsored a symposium - All Eyez on Me: Tupac Shakur and the Search for the Modern Folk Hero – celebrating the late, great rapper’s work.