“I came from a long line of revolutionaries, a long line of Panthers and strong fighters and soldiers who fought for social change and for the betterment of their people, and I said, well, what better way for me to have a career than to make my mom proud, make my people proud and speak out, you know what I’m saying? Be a part of the solution.” — Tupac Shakur (1991)
Having been a diehard fan of Tupac Amaru Shakur for a majority of my life, there are few interviews left of his that I haven’t seen or heard (and that’s saying a lot, considering how much content related to him has been released throughout the years). However, a few months ago I stumbled upon something that I had never heard before: a 1991 promotional interview recorded around the release of his debut studio album, 2Pacalypse Now.
Many know about Tupac’s revolutionary family roots, and how these roots influenced not only his music, but his greater mission as a public figure and artist living in America. This is at the core of what inspires me today as not only a creative, but a human being as well. Still, listening to the linked interview above had me moved and motivated to another degree.
Within around 40 minutes or so, a 20-year-old Tupac states a number of important things that I had always assumed he believed or stood for, but in terms much more clear and explicit than anything I had ever heard from him before — terms that resonate with me deeply now as Black man living in America.
Despite the rage and aggressive tone of much of his earlier, more revolutionary music, he speaks in incredibly rational and nuanced terms about a range of interrelated topics in this interview. Here, I’d like to share ten highlights from the interview along with some of my own thoughts and a closing statement as someone who is not only deeply inspired and influenced by the art and actions of Tupac Shakur, but as someone who has been trying to find a way to honor his legacy for years.
Although the interview begins with topics that many reading this article may already be quite familiar with, I’d like to ask you for patience. Eventually, Tupac begins to introduce some incredibly important concepts and ideas that were not shared by many of our most popular artists then, and that haven’t been shared by many of our most popular artists since. Most of said concepts are relevant now more than ever before (most notably beginning with the ones mentioned in highlight number three and onward).
1. Tupac on Black Love
One of the core subjects that Tupac addresses in the linked interview is the great racial division that we faced in 1991 — the same racial division that we are facing today. At one point towards the beginning of the interview, he speaks on Black Americans loving themselves as Americans first, before loving themselves for their African ancestry (or as “African Americans”).
“I see the young black male in a… I’ll say it like everyone else is saying it: in a state of emergency. This is true. It’s been said 30 million times, but how do we get out of the [cycle]? I see it as… by showing us our own strength… Showing us our own history. Not just the history from Africa and, you know, how we used to be kings and queens, but how we used to be fighters here, how [we’re] soldiers. You know, we damn near built this country, so therefore how could you not love being black?! How could you not wanna build more?! I know if we built this country, we could build ourselves back up… That’s what Tupac is about. It’s about being that spark to start the fire again… I wanna just bring renaissance back for black people. I just want everything to be ‘beautiful black’ again. Not being without white, but just where black is beautiful…”
At the time that this interview took place, the Pan-Africanism movement was virtually in full effect. Many Black Americans (especially young ones) felt the desire to completely denounce their American history in an effort to cultivate a new identity tied to the perceived traditions and cultures of their African ancestors.
Tupac felt it was important that we as Black Americans remember the role that our ancestors played in the development of this nation; not erasing our past within America, but understanding our collective strength in making it through all that we have faced — a strength that, if truly understood and realized, could be used to empower us in all ways moving towards the 21st century.
Tupac emphasizes that he wants to represent the catalyst for this, and for Black Americans to be perceived as “beautiful” as opposed to a stain on the fabric that is this country. As linked audio towards the end of this piece suggests, Tupac would later go on to understand the importance of political engagement in solving many of the issues plaguing Black Americans, but at 20 years of age, his understanding of self-perception amongst Black Americans was crucial.
The idea of Black empowerment helping to unite and empower the people as a whole is another idea that Tupac discusses more directly later on in the interview, specifically with regards to the FBI and its role in destroying the Black Panther Party movement under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover.
2. Tupac on the Term “African American”
With this topic, Tupac shares a view on the term “African American” that I’ve held for many years, but in doing so, also shares sentiments that are used to argue that “black culture” or something inherent about Black Americans perpetuates racial inequality within America. Don’t let his words here fool you, though.
It may appear that Tupac pulls from the culturalist tradition in some areas, but he brings great clarity to the previous point on self love, explaining how it in turn can lead to a greater love amongst everyone, and unite people in a greater fight against injustice as opposed to strengthening a separatist position. Tupac states that he is an integrationist and in speaking on what he feels are solutions for us as Black Americans, reveals that he views our problems through the structuralist framework later on in the interview.
“I understand the whole concept behind saying you’re ‘African American,’ making a more ‘global’ thing… And making it so ‘black’ is just a color. You know, you don’t want to be so limited. But that’s what I want to concentrate on: the color black. Because it’s the black people that’s killing black… It’s the black that’s causing so much red to flow through the streets. It’s the blacks that’s having teenage pregnancy problems.”
“It’s the blacks that’s on crack BIG TIME. Not just blacks, but it’s blacks that’s on crack big time. And that’s who I want to target… And once we feel in love [with] being black, we’ll definitely have a joy in being ‘African Americans.’ That’s no problem. That’ll come easy… But I feel like we have to make it more personal, so that when I see a black man, I feel love. Immediately…”
“I want it to be straight up. Real. And then we can grow and we can love white, ’cause we’ll love black. We’ll say, ‘These are our neighbors. They live here with us.’ I don’t think that white people are devils. I think that there’s evil and there’s a devil everywhere. [He] could be Puerto Rican. He could be black, white, whatever… You gotta watch for evil… Tupac ain’t about just seeing a whole bunch of black people in one spot, because there’s a lot of snakes out there… I want the GOOD in black folks, that’s what I want.”
I’d like to make it clear that Tupac is only speaking to Black Americans here. He states:
“Like I said, we’re in a state of emergency, and I’m talking to my people. I’m talking to my folks. That’s what the huddle is for, but everybody can listen, ’cause I’m not saying nothing that’s evil or [dangerous]… Everybody can listen…”
Acknowledging that Black Americans need greater love amongst themselves does not absolve white America and America as a whole of any sort of responsibility as it pertains to making the country a better place. It does not mean that America as a whole doesn’t need greater love and unity as well. It simply speaks to the fact that if Black Americans were to develop greater bonds and support amongst themselves, they could hold a stronger position within a divided nation.
Although I do not have direct statistics on hand for the degree to which Black Americans faced issues at disproportionate levels in the areas that Tupac mentioned above in 1991, we do know that America was approaching the end of the crack epidemic at this time. The mass drug use that took place within predominantly Black communities around this period (along with the effects of the “tough on crime” policies that were implemented by Bill Clinton and others in the years to come) has been studied at length over the past couple of decades, and we are more than aware of the impact that these events have had on the Black American population in particular.
That being said, more have acknowledged the myth of “black-on-black crime” by 2017 as having been conjured up through a certain perception of concentrated poverty paired with residential segregation. The Atlanta Black Star cites a 2014 FBI report that shows us white Americans not only kill each other more frequently than any other racial group in America, but that there is only an eight percentage point margin between the rate at which Black Americans kill Black Americans, and the rate at which white people kill white people (in 2014, a Black American was killed by a member of the same race 90 percent of the time while a white person was killed by a member of the same race 82 percent of the time).
All things considered, 1991 was a much more dangerous time in America, and Black Americans had (and still do have) poorer access to many things, from quality education, to quality housing and healthcare.
In the part of the interview mentioned above, Tupac is making a point to comment on not only the importance of Black American self love and the disproportionate amount of challenges facing Black America (he uses the expression “big time” to describe such disproportions, in my view), but on racial division as well. This — in addition to police brutality — is something that he speaks to at greater length later on, but listening to the interview is important, for in this moment, one can hear an awareness in his voice as it pertains to the “divide and conquer” tactics at play between Black and white Americans.
America’s long history of racism against Black and Native peoples is well documented and understood by now, but many in the media did (and still do) try to use the extreme statements of Black nationalist organizations and their leaders (such as the Nation of Islam) against Black American people and their progressive movements. Tupac was no stranger to media attacks and misrepresentation at the time that this interview took place, and this is much needed context for his statements about white people.
Many (not all) Black nationalists commonly and frequently refer to all white people as “devils.” Malcolm X himself found this to be inappropriate and false later on in his life following his trip to Mecca (before being assassinated), but the term “white devils” is still heavily associated with his legacy due to his earlier statements, and statements from other Black nationalist organizations/leaders throughout the years.
Here in this moment, however, Tupac is stressing that he wants Black Americans to acknowledge themselves as human beings worthy of a certain standard of living and justice, and to also understand that the “evil” (which I would argue are the effects of capitalism) works through people of all ethnic groups, despite the fact that white Americans hold the most institutional power. Tupac states the following towards the end of the interview:
“We can do anything… I gotta say this again, it’s not black against white. When I say ‘we,’ it’s the good against evil… If you right, and you got good on your side, I really, truly believe that nothing can stop you. And I’m using the same thing that America taught me. That’s what I’m using. The tools of this country: capitalism and imperialism, colonialism, I’m using all those against them…”
3. Tupac on Police Brutality
Tupac was no stranger to police brutality. In 1991, while walking across the street near 17th and Broadway in Oakland, California, Tupac was stopped by members of the Oakland Police Department for allegedly “jaywalking” before being told that he’d have to “learn his place.” Words were exchanged, and Tupac was cuffed and beaten unconscious before being taken to jail. He’d go on to file a $10 million civil suit against the OPD, and settle for $42,000.
On his first album, Tupac vents at length about his many frustrations with corrupt police officers and government agencies, and speaks to those who have experienced police brutality themselves. In doing this, he calls out many different people and entities by name and sends harsh words to major forces of oppression that played huge roles in not only making life harder for himself and other Black Americans, but infiltrating and destroying the very revolutionary organization that birthed him as well:
I gotta give my fuck offs
Fuck you to the San Francisco Police Department
Fuck you to the Marin County Sheriff’s Department
Fuck you to the FBI
Fuck you to the CIA
Fuck you to the B-U-S-H
Fuck you to the Ameri-K-K-Ka
Fuck you to all you redneck prejudice motherfuckers
That wanna fuck with me, fuck y’all!
As a result of this and other factors, Tupac found himself attacked by many different groups and people, including then Vice President Dan Quayle, who called the release of Tupac’s 2Pacalypse Now “an irresponsible corporate act” after positing that it was responsible for the death of a Texas state trooper, who was shot to death earlier that year by a suspect who was allegedly listening to the album in a stolen truck when he was stopped. Tupac addresses some of the responses to his album that he was receiving at that time:
“They hear the songs and they go, ‘Damn, he’s shooting police officers?’ But to me, come on, be real. Everybody knows that this is just a song about shooting police officers. Let’s talk about the reality of police brutality. Let’s talk about the reality of a situation like Rodney King, and let’s talk about the fantasy of a song like ‘I Don’t Give a Fuck’ or ‘Souldja’s Story’… Those are rebel songs. Just like back in the 60s, you had to have folk songs…”
“That’s what this is, it’s just soul music. It’s like music for us to carry on with. For us to move on. It’s battle songs. It’s songs talking about strong black men fighting back against an oppressor. You never hear me sing a song about me just walking up and shooting a cop. It’s always provoked. It’s always self-defense. And I want to get that strength back, where you CAN fight back. And that’s what I sing about… That’s what I rap about. I don’t rap about ‘we shall overcome’ and peace ’cause that’s a dream. And I want a piece of the dream too, but for me to get a piece of the dream, I have to have a piece.”
Themes of rebellion and empowerment continue throughout the interview, and following the above statements, Tupac begins to share his views on the idea of Black armed struggle, and being realistic about our enemies:
“Even though it’s [a state of] emergency, I don’t wanna panic people and just say ‘kill kill kill kill kill kill kill,’ ’cause that’s wrong, and that’s what we done already — we been through that. And we see what happens when black folks try to defend themselves through armed struggle without education, and without self-defense (mentally). We die… But if we start to join up, and start to be more united, and start being realistic about who the enemy is, then we’ll be better off.”
4. Tupac on Black Armed Struggle as an “Option”
Reading the lyrics to Tupac’s first single, Holler If Ya Hear Me, off of his second solo album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., it’s made very clear that he was far from one to fear the idea of using force to protect himself or his people. He would later go on to prove this in 1993, shooting two drunk off-duty police officers in Atlanta who were harassing a young black male in the street while brandishing guns logged as evidence in an ongoing case.
According to Tupac and his people, the police were the first to shoot at him and his crew. Looking back at the New York Times coverage of the incident, it’s easy to see how public perception of Tupac was being shaped at that time. Tupac would go on to escape any sort of charges or imprisonment for the incident, but one could argue that the negative reputation that would follow him as a result of press coverage for this event (along with many others) never left him.2Pac – Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.
From the very beginning of his rap career, Tupac had many different groups coming at him, and from almost all sides. It would be hard to imagine anyone not wanting to be armed coming from an environment like the one Tupac was in.
Many diehard Tupac fans (myself included) do not believe that it was a coincidence or a surface-level byproduct of being a “popular rapper” that drew dangerous entities towards him throughout his career, and if you listen to his words with an understanding of how some of our government agencies have worked throughout the history of America, you’ll begin to understand why this is:
“I think that [armed struggle] needs to be an option. To say that it needs to be a part of the black struggle would predict violence. I say that it needs to be an option. We need to keep our options open as black people. And we need to keep our options open as young people. And we need to keep our options open as human beings.”
“So, for me as a black man, I have three different tasks. That’s why it’s not like I’m racist, but for a white man, he only has one of those things to worry about: getting himself together as a human being. I have to worry about getting myself together as a human being, a young man, and as a black man. So of course I’m gonna be a little bit more angry.”
“My words are gonna cut a little bit [closer] to heart because I got a lot more to fight about, and a lot more to cry about, and a lot more to get from this… And I really don’t care who’s offended, because how could you take offense to somebody trying to dig their way out of a hole? What’s so offensive about me surviving? That’s why I take great offense, because you’re obviously saying you want me to shut up and die…”
5. Tupac Speaks on the American People Being Divided Through Identity Politics, and Uniting to Fight a Common Enemy
When I hear the words of Tupac at this moment in the interview, I am reminded of the brilliant nuance that a 20-year-old Fred Hampton brought to his speeches when speaking on the people uniting against a common enemy:
“It wasn’t no thing for Ice Cube to be talking about killing in the hood, but [as] soon as he was talking about anyone else dying, it was problems. And I’m not saying that Ice Cube is the messiah, because he’s wrong for saying ‘kill a jew,’ because a jew didn’t do that shit. Let’s be realistic. Just like it wasn’t white people [as a whole] that beat me down in Oakland. It was two. white. cops. Two white, crooked cops.
That’s what that was… We have to be more realistic about our enemies. It’s easy to say ‘white folks is evil.’ That’s easy. But then you’re leading us into more of a slaughter, because we’re gonna find out all whites ain’t evil… And you can’t say that all black folks is inherently lazy and evil, because that’s not true either. I like to stand up most for black folks because we have more problems. We have more conditioning.
You don’t ever hear about anybody telling you about ‘white folks wasn’t allowed into this place.’ Never. They never had that problem. I did. So I have an upper hand. And you can’t tell me I don’t… Just like when America beat Great Britain for their freedom, they had the upper hand, because they wanted their freedom by any means necessary. That’s what scares America so much. They see them and us, except we have the right of cause on our side now, and they see that. They see themselves in the position of the oppressor, and they know what happens when an oppressed people fight the oppressor… The oppressed always win…”
Fred Hampton was murdered in 1969 spreading the same ideologies and sentiments that Tupac was tapping into here in 1991, speaking to how dangerous rhetoric used by certain figures divided the people instead of uniting them against our common oppressor.
In 2012, Reddit user Rob0tTesla wrote a comment that has since gone on to be referenced in countless forum discussions online, detailing all of the major enemies Tupac had developed over the course of his life, and the many entities that had been interacting with him in some way, shape, or form since the start of his rap career.
Virtually all of the information that the user mentions is easily verifiable — everything from his mentioning of how 3,896 out of the 4,000 FBI files on Tupac have been censored for “national security” purposes, to Jacques Agnant (aka Haitian Jack) being an FBI informant and setting him up with the woman who would later go on to accuse him of rape, to his concluding statement, “Dare I say it, he was born to die. And he knew it.”
Tupac expressed similar sentiments both directly and indirectly throughout much of his music and interviews over the course of his professional life, just as Fred Hampton did. At the end of the interview linked within this very article, Tupac goes into detail about the origins of his name, telling the story of how brutally the Peruvian revolutionary to which his namesake is owed was murdered fighting for his people, and explains what it reminds him:
“They was fighting the government, and they was really winning — these little fucking tribes was beating the government. And they said, ‘Okay, we want to stop fighting, we want to meet with Túpac Amaru.’
He came in and met with them, and they said, ‘We want to cease the fighting… [We’re] gonna give you what you asked for…’ He said ‘okay’ [and] told [his forces] to cease fire… Soon as [Túpac] said ‘cease fire,’ they cut his arms off, cut his head off, cut his legs off, and stuck him on a stake and put him in the middle of the village… So this is my reminder… That’s my reminder… Every time you say my name, that’s my reminder to never compromise myself and never quit.
There’s no such thing as a ‘truce’ while people ain’t free, regardless of who it is. That’s why I have a problem with Ice Cube saying ‘jew’ and the ‘Killer Koreans,’ ’cause that’s wrong… It might be today we’re fighting against the white man, but next week it’s gonna be me and the Koreans fighting against Ice Cube, ’cause that’s wrong…
And how could you be teaching somebody wrong? We don’t need that. We had a gang of motherfuckers treating us and teaching us wrong. We need to be taught ‘right’ now. That’s why I’m not going out there saying I’m a role model… Fuck that… [This] shit you can get from me; get the rest from Fresh Prince… And the next from the next nigga… Learn from everybody. Learn from women and men alike, ’cause it’s some crazy shit out here. Everybody’s fucked up a little bit. Believe that, like you believe crack kills.”
The “Killer Koreans” comment that Tupac references is in regards to Ice Cube’s response to the senseless murder of Latasha Harlins in 1991 at the hands of a Korean convenience shop owner who, despite being recommended for a maximum sentence of 16 years by the jury, was sentenced to only five years probation, 400 hours of community service, and a $500 fine.
Tupac assessed the situation with a rationality that many still lack today, which is disheartening to say the least. There isn’t a day that goes by where the media (both TV and digital) isn’t painting an entire group one way based off of the actions of a few, subsequently leaving viewers/people on the internet (and in real life) to argue or “hate” each other within the confines of a divisive conversation founded upon what’s usually a false dichotomy or narrative.
Tupac finishes his statement by acknowledging that he is not perfect, something that many people (fans included) feel the need to reiterate when discussing his legacy and “contradictions” as a human being. It is for this reason that he encourages us to “learn from everybody,” a tenet that I live by through my personal studies of the greats before me.
6. Tupac on What “By Any Means Necessary” Means to Him, and Being a Revolutionary Through Music
No commentary needed for this section:
“If you got to take a bullet from a black dude who’s disrespecting a black woman, then that’s ‘by any means necessary.’ Not just dying from a cop, or fighting the government, or marching, ’cause marching really doesn’t help. Whoever don’t know that, ask any 40-year-old lady who was 20 when she was marching. She got the same rights now that she had before. And you gotta question any country that had to ‘free’ you.
I heard this Black History Month celebration, they was talking about Abraham Lincoln ‘freeing the slaves’ in 1992… He did not free me! Because no man — especially no white man — gon’ free me or hold me… The jails don’t work for us; the court systems don’t work for us, and until they do, we’re gonna have continual problems. We’re gonna have ghetto crime, we’re gonna have violence at the theaters, we’re gonna have gang warfare, we’re gonna have drugs, we’re gonna have teenage pregnancy…
All that comes from when things are not right. And I blame this country, because they could do it. Just like J. Edgar Hoover spent time infiltrating the Black Panthers and destroying them, he could have spent time infiltrating them and building them up, using them to make the ghettos a better place, making their message go further instead of cutting it off.
That shows me that somebody needs to pick up where the Panthers left off, because obviously they was dangerous. If the CIA who protects this country had to put their fire out so sloppy and so fuckin’ ruthlessly, something was wrong. We obviously was tripping onto something. And it was what [the] Panthers [were] teaching. And I said, ‘What was they teaching?’
For us to come together and for us to defend ourselves. They didn’t knock off MLK quick like that because he was talking that peace shit, so he had time on his hands. But whens someone was talking about fighting back? Them niggas was knocked off with a quickness. I know. I’m a product of those that were knocked off!
This is what me as a young man growing up… this is what I feel like my destiny is. This is my call. I inherited the family business.
That’s what I did. I inherited the family business, and that’s being a revolutionary. Terrorizing this country through my music. I know they would love for me to do it through violence so they can stop me, but I don’t feel like they can stop me through my music, because music is universal, and everybody loves soul music. I see white people listening to Marvin Gaye, and that makes me feel good, and then I see white cops beating down black folks, and that makes me feel bad. But you know, I take the good with the bad. I take the good white folks with the bad white folks. You gotta take them all, just like I take the good black folks with the bad black folks.”
7. Tupac on Checking Your Racism
Tupac was always one to put things into perspective and speak from various angles when describing the differences between the Black American experience, and the experiences of other ethnic groups within America. Taking the classic concept of American “liberty” and juxtaposing a Black demand for it next to the source of said virtue within America’s political lexicon, he does all of that and more within this interview:
“Why can Patrick Henry say ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ but if I say ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ you wanna censor me and I’m a terrorist…? But I gots to have it! I gots to have it! Damn it!!! And gots to have it in 1992! I gotta have liberty… In this interview, I’m talking about black people coming together in unity, everybody loving each other, however it gotta be, but FIRST, give me respect. In the next interview, you might be talking to me from behind bars because I had to put my principles to the test… That’s what I mean by ‘state of emergency’ — not just in a word, but I mean it.
A state of emergency. Everybody who hears this, it’s their job to carry it on. It’s your job to check yourself: Am I racist? What am I doing? ’Cause you’re part of the problem, or part of the solution… Check yourself. It’s cool, if you’re a racist, and that’s how you wanna live, cool. But you’re gonna be a victim of racism. That’s how America’s working these days. That’s how the world works. You’ll be a victim of racism, so it’s on them!”
Things haven’t changed much since Tupac’s statements on the Black American’s demand for “liberty” and the response that it evokes from white America. Aside from this one aspect of racism in America, there still seems to be an inability for most people to separate the individual experience from the collective experience, and this is mostly due to our country’s poor educational system.
Not only are most people thinking from a purely individualistic standpoint, and struggling to empathize with people who don’t look like them, but they aren’t informed when it comes to finding and understanding national statistics that explain differences in standards of living amongst different ethnic groups within America.
One would think that new technology and the development of social media in recent years would further people’s understanding of our collective existence as Americans, but on the contrary, many of us find ourselves on Facebook or Twitter engaging in a never-ending game of confirmation bias, seemingly speaking into our own “echo chambers” as opposed to thinking critically and challenging our own views.
Diversity in people and perspectives is important, and this is something that I’d argue Tupac believed in as someone who had the opportunity to study next to people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds in high school.
8. Tupac on the Value That Society Places on Entertainers
The unintentionally prophetical tone of Tupac’s words may not be more noticeable than in his following statements, for the American culture that valued “celebrity” over the merit of our educated (and educators) in a variety of fields back in 1991 pales in comparison to the monster that we’re dealing with in 2017 under a Donald Trump presidency.
Tupac was never one to hold his tongue on Trump, and one can only imagine how he’d respond to not only the value that the American public now places on the opinions of entertainers in regards to things like politics (or even medicine), but the value they place on the words and ideas of internet personalities as well.
“And we don’t need no more rappers. We don’t need no more basketball players, no more football players. We need more thinkers. We need more scientists. We need more managers. We need more mathematicians. We need more teachers. We need more people who care. We need more women. Mothers. Fathers. We need more of that.
We don’t need anymore entertainers… We need to concentrate on what happened to society. What if we did get [everything that we wanted]? We’d have a whole society of basketball players, football players, rappers, dancers, actors, and Michael Jackson to be our president. We’d be stuck! And all this politic stuff is crazy because, be honest: What the hell does George Bush know about 125th Street, Apollo Theater? Any of ‘em! Pick one! Pick any of ‘em! What do they know? And that’s really a bad message to send out for young America… young Black Americans…
Who’s there for them? They don’t say, ‘Bush, it’s wrong for you to be out here talking for young white kids. You need to talk for the whole country, so I want you to… move the White House to the ghetto.’ Why don’t they do that? THAT would be a good president… that would be a GREAT president! A president who felt like, ‘I’m gonna live in the ghetto…’ ’Cause he’s supposed to be of the people, right? So then how can I respect a man who’s not of me?”
9. Tupac on Reclaiming the Word “Nigga”
Anyone not already familiar with the concept of reappropriation should take a second to read the following Wikipedia article on it. I learned of this through my studies in university, and in researching the origins of the word “nigga” — a word that was and still is used almost regularly by myself and my peers in daily life.
It is a word that has become a mainstay/staple within hip-hop terminology and culture as well, which is now global. Here is Tupac explaining what reappropriation is to him in the interview, specifically with regards to the term “nigga” and its popular meaning in 1991 in addition to the acronym that he created for the word:
“I wanted to make [the word ‘nigga’] something that we can live by. I felt like there was no way I could stop calling myself a ‘nigga,’ just as sure as there was no way that motherfuckers was gonna stop calling me ‘nigga.’ So instead of letting them take that away from me, I took it from them. ‘Nigga’ is now mine. And when they say ‘nigga,’ they give me strength… So say it! Say it!
And all those that say I’m wrong for saying it and wanna bleep it out, they wasn’t bleeping the shit out 20 years ago, so don’t bleep the shit out now. I still see Tom and Jerrys and Popeyes with black Sambo babies and shit; they ain’t bleeping that shit out, so I’ll be damned if I bleep out ‘nigga.’ And it’s gon’ be on just like that every time, and I’m gonna say it freely just like I say ‘dude’… NIGGA. That’s MY word…”
The use of the term “nigga” has been the center of much debate amongst Black Americans for quite some time now, the most notable critic of its usage being Oprah Winfrey. While I respect her opinion, the position that I and many other young, predominantly Black American millennials hold is closer to the position that Tupac held: We have reclaimed the word and now use it as a term of endearment amongst ourselves.
10. Tupac on the Government (F.B.I.) Spying on His Family as a Child
Many have made comments about the paranoid behavior that Tupac exhibited later on in his life after being shot and receiving constant death threats from various individuals. Understanding the childhood that Tupac had gives us insight into how and why he responded to the circumstances the way that he did and, even further than that, paints a more vivid picture of what the life of a child birthed from the revolution looks like
“I can remember being like, four, and waking up and going to my window and hearing the police going, ‘Yeah, the black bitch is laying in the bed, uh, we can’t tell who else is in here…’ on the walkie-talkies. They were watching our house. And I didn’t know that for YEARS! I heard that, my mother was asleep, everybody was asleep… I didn’t know what that was for years.
I remember later, after I grew up, I told my mother about it, and she told me what it was. But I didn’t even know it for years! Imagine that being one of your fucking memories! The police outside calling you mother a ‘black bitch.’ You know what I’m saying? That’s really not good. That’s not good. What America doesn’t understand is that they say that black people are lazy, unintelligent, but to me, America is the dumbest motherfucker out here, ’cause how could you not study your own history and not see the fate that you prepared for yourself?
They’re raising me to be a soldier. The more police beat me up, the stronger I get… The more they try to make me into a racist, the more of an understanding [integrationist] I become, I guess, because it’s all about survival… Shit, we a people… And I don’t want us to go back to Africa, ’cause we built THIS country, as great as it is. And it’s a great country, let me say, it’s a great country. Except it’s just the people at the top is fucking our money over, sending it to Iran and shit… We sending billions to take care of the starving people in Russia, but [there’s] people starving in South Central.
We got a lottery where ONE person can win 25 million, and there’s people who don’t have ZILCH… They’re showing me pictures of babies with big bellies in Timbuktu, and I’m seeing babies with big bellies next door… and [they’re] telling me to ‘be all I can be in the army,’ ’cause ‘you’re not gonna be shit in the streets’…”
The experiences that shaped Tupac as a child were very much connected to the real war that was waged by his mother and her associates (The Black Panther Party) against a corrupt government infrastructure whose agencies were hellbent on destroying any form of Black unification and empowerment. His earlier comments on “black love” make much more sense understanding this part of his life and lineage.
By age 17, Tupac himself was the youngest national chairman of the New Afrikan Panther Party. Not only was he organizing meetings and events in which he educated teenagers and young adults on the social and political conditions in which they were living, but he was doing press as well. Here is a rare and informative interview that he did with Bomani Bakari in 1989 that is also worth listening to in addition to the interview that inspired this written piece.
It’s important that people realize who Tupac was, not only as an artist, but as a human being in America. With Tupac, the conversation was never just about his music. “Hip-hop” itself isn’t just about music. It isn’t just about culture. It’s more.
Tupac proved that and he lived that. I have expressed to many of my closest friends and family that I do not and cannot hold any deep interest in anyone creating through the medium of “hip-hop” today who can’t embody the same tenants and principles that Tupac Shakur did (and I mean to the fullest). There are a lot of hip-hop artists claiming to be like Tupac today, and they still can’t seem to understand who he was as a human being.
People still can’t grasp the most important difference between Tupac and other creatives of our time… the difference between Tupac and many of these artists we consider “legends” today. Most of these “legends” may have helped each of their own respective mediums of expression progress, but I would argue that many of them are frauds for disregarding their consciousnesses and failing to use their platforms for the betterment of American society (and that’s assuming they actually know better). They’re almost all cowards.
I’m tired of certain artists playing with the notion that they’re somehow “revolutionary” when they’re too uneducated and afraid to even stand up and speak out on the most basic of social issues (Trump doesn’t count). They’re too afraid to sacrifice. Most artists today want to play it safe, and in playing it safe, those who know better are complacent in letting suffering continue.
It hurts to see artists I grew up listening to waste their platforms while people suffer. Hip-hop has wealth now. There’s no doubt about that. So much wealth, and yet people of color are still suffering, and our government doesn’t represent us. Some of our most popular artists even endorse politicians who have played major roles in the demise of our people throughout the decades!
Who is to bring the people to the light? Why am I and a few other artists the only ones who seem to feel like the future of America and the human species is important enough to fight for? To die for? Why did Tupac lay this out for everyone and yet still goes unheard and misunderstood? Over 22 years later!!!
Tupac was a revolutionary* (that’s not an exaggeration), not just because of his words, but because of the tangible steps that he was taking to unite the American people (of all ethnic backgrounds) and push them to take more political power and control. I can’t help but to hold other artists to this standard as someone who cares about both art and humanity. It’s incredible that even in these times, the greatest figureheads within hip-hop culture can get away with what they get away with. It’s incredible that they can sit comfortably while much of this pain continues. Some things really don’t change.
I’m realistic. I don’t expect all artists to change the world from a socioeconomic standpoint. Of course not. But I have a problem when some of these artists really do influence and shape large parts of American culture, and have power on so many levels, and yet aren’t using it to help people in need. Some of these same people use the image of a revolutionary like Tupac Shakur to sell merchandise, or to imply that they’re about the same causes. Tupac saw the direction that the industry was heading in, and if he had lived, he would have ensured that the capital and resources the culture wrought were used to support those in poverty.
As an artist who knows better, all I can focus on is myself at this stage, and this means building my platform so that I can lead and mobilize my people for greatness. That’s all that I can try to do right now as an educated artist with a voice. I am fairly confident that I’ll never reach Tupac’s level in terms of appeal, just because of my life story and background.
I don’t come from the same degree of socioeconomic hardship and could never stand as a “messiah” as he did, despite my textbook understanding of the conditions that manifested said hardship. Musically, I could never reach as many people as Tupac did unless I threw out part of my own artistic integrity in some sense. Still, I can guarantee that you’ll see me using whatever I have to speak out on our collective reality and move people towards action, just as Tupac did.
I want to end by stating the following:
People always claim that Tupac died for hip-hop (or something along those lines).
The truth is that Tupac didn’t die for hip-hop.
He died for us…
Let me clarify this statement, because I’d argue that many still don’t have a full grasp on what true sacrifice entails…
The way in which Tupac actually died was a senseless waste. The circumstances surrounding his death are the darkest part of what we can take from his life and legacy. That decision he made to be in Vegas for the Mike Tyson fight in September of 1996 was a decision that he didn’t want to make, but he was willing to put himself in this situation because he felt he needed to be loyal to those who had helped him (i.e. Suge Knight).
In bum-rushing Orlando Anderson with his crew at the MGM casino that night following the fight, the 25-year-old man who once lied in bed as a child with his little sister every night crying, listening to Just Once by Quincy Jones in the heart of an impoverished Baltimore neighborhood…
The 25-year-old man who once studied ballet, read Shakespeare, and developed a diverse group of friends at the Baltimore School for the Arts…
The 25-year-old man who once listened to Kate Bush and wrote poetry about Vincent van Gogh while attending that very same Baltimore school — a middle-to-upper class institution so close in proximity to his home, and yet light-years away from the darkness that plagued his poverty-stricken neighborhood…
This man felt he needed to show those fully immersed in the “street life” that despite this access and exposure to a higher standard of living that he was afforded in his personal life, he was not willing to leave those less fortunate behind, and in this, was willing to put himself at risk for them in the name of loyalty. Some of the individuals he put himself in the line of fire for were anything but deserving of his loyalty and courage, and Tupac himself should’ve chosen smarter characters to surround himself with…
Characters who, like him, were roses that managed to grow through the cracks of the concrete. Even in being active and around areas of poverty/violence, Tupac truly should’ve known better. But one could never really argue that he wasn’t being true by pushing himself into a vulnerable state in an attempt to build rapport with not only the most vulnerable in our society, but those who held the greatest clout and respect amongst the most vulnerable in our society — the figures with the greatest cultural influence over the people he wished to serve and mobilize for systemic change.
One could argue that his entire approach and plan was too risky or flawed. One could argue that he went about it all the wrong way; that he died flying too close to the sun. That’s fair. But it would be hard for one to not see that he was fearless and stuck by his word in his fight for Black American life, even over small matters that put him at big risk. He cared for Black American people in poverty, and America as a whole.
I love Tupac Amaru Shakur with all of my heart, and hope to make him and his family proud in everything that I do. The interview that inspired this very piece is just one of many great interviews, but it most clearly exemplifies how relevant and true those words from Don McLean’s 1971 song Vincent would end up being to the life that Tupac ultimately led…