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.

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.   

A hologram of Tupac Shakur performing at the Coachella Music Festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Hilary’s last laugh

 Benn was born into and loves the Labour Party. His was a cry of frustration. Either he enjoys the last laugh or the lachrymose coup fails.

Observing a careworn Jeremy Corbyn, you may see in his lined face his sadness about his neglected allotment in Finchley, north London, as he imagines weeds sprouting in untilled beds and aphids multiplying, untroubled by organic pesticides. If you do, you would be wrong. Corbyn is keeping his fingers green even as militant moderates plot to snatch the Labour leadership from his weakening grasp and consign Jexit to the compost heap of history.

Broad beans are this year’s bumper crop and already on the table chez Corbyn. “I planted them in October and they’re very resistant to frost,” he proudly tells visitors. “There must be ten to 20 bags’ worth left to pick.” Either Corbyn is in denial, or he was full of beans as the shadow cabinet uprooted itself.

Cider, wellies and silent discos will henceforth always evoke resignations for Tom Watson. Labour’s deputy leader was throwing shapes at Glastonbury as the Labour balloon went up. Think of Peter Mannion standing on a children’s slide for a mobile-phone signal at Stewart Pearson’s Thought Camp in The Thick of It. Watson was scheduled to replace Corbyn in the Left Field chatterati tent.

Dodging paparazzi to head back to London in his shorts, Watson confided to comrades that this episode confirmed to him that politics is a grubby business. His first act was to shower, following a weekend without washing, before trying to clear up the Labour Party’s mess.

The mass walkout from Corbyn’s top team, triggered by Hilary Benn’s sacking, was revenge for the now former shadow foreign secretary. I can reveal that Benn was reduced to tears during last year’s long reshuffle, after Jezza’s apparatchik Seumas Milne demanded guaranteed opposition to military action in Libya. Benn was born into and loves the Labour Party. His was a cry of frustration. Either he enjoys the last laugh or the lachrymose coup fails.

More tales of the wannabe prime minister Boris Johnson’s unappetising behaviour in TV make-up rooms. An artist with the blusher complained that he grabbed, uninvited, one of two cakes that she had been given as a birthday gift. He stuffed it whole into his mouth. When she finished applying the cosmetics, he snaffled the second. The Blond Ambition displayed a similar self-entitlement in championing Brexit to pursue his premiership dream.

For weirdos, every tragedy is an opportunity. Following the assassination of Jo Cox, another female Yorkshire MP received an official-looking letter purportedly from a “security consultant”, with parliamentary and Special Branch clearance, offering to review her safety. A little alarm bell sounded. He was unmasked as a Walter Mitty. The visit of two burly coppers caused him an involuntary bowel movement.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies