While Tupac Shakur is basically synonymous with rap, his legacy is much greater than music. When I was finally able to grasp the significance of his work it struck me that we had never even begun to discuss the work of one of the most important social commentators and historical figures in American history in any classroom that I had ever sat in. Okay, so he started a song with the lyrics, “that’s why I fucked your bitch you fat motherfucker,” had “thug life” tattooed across his stomach and became the first artist to have an album at number one on the Billboard 200 while serving a prison sentence. While all of these things are true, they don’t define who he was as a person and his untimely death did not assist in diffusing the many misperceptions people had about his character.
Sadly, Tupac may never get the credit for being the true visionary and political figure for his generation. However, I can say unequivocally that we would have benefited a lot more from studying his work than trying to figure out what the hell was going on in Hamlet.
This is not to undermine other important political figures in our nations history or to make some erroneous statement that Tupac is more important in the context of American History than John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Nonetheless, the political ideology and philosophy of Tupac were at the very least unique and worth examining. While the relevance of Tupac’s doctrine well after his death was the subject of a 2006 Chappelle’s Show comedy sketch, it is actually shocking how much his music and messages pertain to American society today.
The media portrayed Tupac as a violent criminal rapper and he was continually overshadowed by his legal and personal entanglements that came with being such a high profile person. It is unbelievably ironic to me that prior to having a successful rap career, Tupac had no criminal record. He didn’t get a record until he made a record if you will. Furthermore, while he was one of the first hip-hop artists in the history of the genre to be labeled as a “gangster” rapper none of his songs endorsed gang activity or promoted gang culture in any way.
The massive “thug life” tattoo across his stomach wasn’t meant to be a symbol to use to glorify a life of crime (“I ain’t never do a crime that I didn’t have to do”), instead it represented a very powerful ideology. To Tupac “thug life” meant the opposite of someone having all he needs to succeed and doing whatever they had to survive. It was also a powerful political statement about how the people that America viewed as thugs were simply the manifestation of a people being pushed through a system that existed to reinforce economic inequality.
As he stated in an interview in The Lost Prison Tapes released in 2010, “I have not brought violence to you. I have not brought ‘thug life’ to America. I didn’t create ‘thug life;’ I diagnosed it.” On the Tupac Resurrection DVD he elaborated on “thug life” as a political stance, “I don’t understand why America doesn’t understand thug Life. America is thug life. What makes Tupac saying ‘I don’t give a fuck’ different than Patrick Henry saying ‘Give me liberty or give me death’? What makes his freedom less worth fighting for than Bosnians or whoever they want to fight for this year?”
At the time these positions made perfect sense, yet in 2015 the United States spent almost 600 billion on the military while over 40 million people live in poverty.
While Tupac obviously had some very strong sentiments about the racial and socioeconomic oppression that plagued black people one of the things that made him truly unique was that he was willing to forgive and pleaded for greater understanding between the races. “I got love for my brother/but we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other/we gotta start making changes/learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers,” are lyrics from one of his most famous songs “Changes”. “There is no need for you to fear me/maybe if you take the time to hear me/you can learn to cheer me,” from “Ghetto Gospel” is another prime example of this thought pattern. Furthermore, I find his analysis of police brutality to be absolutely brilliant. In a 1994 interview with BET he stated,
“The main thing for us to remember is that, the same crime element that white people are scared of, black people are scared of. The same crime element that white people fear, black people fear. So we defend ourself from the same crime element that they are scared of, you know what I’m saying? While they are waiting for legislation to pass and everything, we’re next door to the killer, we’re next door to him you know. Because we up in the projects where it’s 80 n*ggas in the building. All them killers that they letting out, they’re right there in that building! Just because we’re black we get along with the killers or something? We get along with rapist’s because we’re black and from the same hood? What is that? We need protection too!”
This is a sentiment that simply can not be restated enough. His message was special because, while he advocated on behalf of oppressed African-American communities he understood that the key to our nations success and for that matter humanities success was bridging the culture gap. The evidence in his lyrics strongly suggests that he believed that, just because a person was black, didn’t make them good and just because someone was white didn’t mean they were evil.
Tupac’s introduction to social justice and politics undoubtedly had to have come from his mother, Afeni Shakur. His mother and aunt were both active members of the Black Panthers. It’s quite possible that if he had not been gunned down at age 25 he would have become a politician. If Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed at 25 he would have been nothing more than a preacher. That is why it’s chilling to hear the sample of Tupac saying, “Although it seems heaven-sent we ain’t ready, to have a black president,” used by fellow hip-hop icon Nas in his 2008 record commemorating the election of Barack Obama.
Tupac was certainly more parts Malcom X than Martin Luther King Jr. but the raw unfiltered voice that he brought to mainstream America was a jolt of reality that the nation needed. He was about as politically correct as Donald Trump. He didn’t care if people didn’t like what he portrayed, because in fact he wasn’t portraying anything he 100% true to himself. He represented an ugly side of racial oppression that so many people would rather pretend doesn’t exist.
One of my favorite quotes from him comes from an interview outside of a court house in 1994 where he states harshly, “Yes I’m going to sit here and say that I’m a thug that’s because I came from the gutter and I’m still here! I’m not saying I’m a thug because I want to rob you and rape you and things, I’m a business man!” His music platform gave him a unique platform that revolutionaries of the past did not have. While he never hesitated to give political commentary in any of his interviews, but his songs were artfully crafted and were the equivalent of well articulated speeches given by a politician.
Tupac even touched on women’s rights in his music, as social issue that hardly any rappers in the last twenty years have mentioned. Tupac was certainly no Susan B. Anthony however, at the time no male rappers anywhere were talking about problems that women in the ghetto were plagued with Tupac’s recorded “Brenda’s Got A Baby”, about a twelve-year-old girl who became impregnated by her cousin and threw her newborn in the Garbage. It also talked about child molestation, it talked about families taking advantages of families, it talked about the effects of poverty, it talked about how one person’s problems can affect a whole community of people. It talked about how the innocent are the ones that get hurt.
In 2005 The Game revisited this classic on one of his most famous records of his career, “Hate It or Love It” writing, “Thinking how they spent 30 million dollars on airplanes when there’s kids starvin’/ ‘Pac gone and Brenda still throwing babies in the garbage.”
In 1993 Tupac also wrote “Keep Your Head Up,” a feminist anthem which voices empathy towards women who rely on welfare to support themselves and their children (often because the children’s father abandoned them) pro-choice politics and criticism of African-American men that treated women poorly.
Religion was among the other topics he chose to discuss. His family was not particularly religious and didn’t subscribe to any official doctrine or denomination, many of Tupac’s lyrics point towards Christianity. However, like many of the other topics that Tupac touched on he did not shy away from voicing controversial opinions stating in a 1996 interview with VIBE Magazine,
“I think some cool motherfuckers sat down a long time ago and said, ‘let’s figure out a way to control motherfuckers. That’s what they came up with: the Bible.’ Because if God wrote the Bible, I’m sure there would have been a revised copy by now.”
He spoke many times about his belief that god had cursed him to see what life should be like and why he didn’t fear death. According to him if God wanted him to be happy he wouldn’t let him feel so disenfranchised. He flat out said on numerous occasions that he did not fear death because, he believed that the light he was shining on social issues was God’s work and that the causes he was fighting for were bigger than his own desire to live a peaceful, wealthy and happy life. Religion can be a beautiful thing, but not when it divides. Our society as it stands today, just as it stood in Tupac’s day, caters to division.
Income inequality and the effect it had on education did not escape the list of issues he cared about. While living in Baltimore as a teenager, Shakur joined the Baltimore Young Communist League and was apparently dating the daughter of the head of the Baltimore chapter of the Communist Party at one point. While I certainly would not characterize Tupac as a strict communist the influence that this experience had on his beliefs are evident in a rant he made on MTV about wealth redistribution. “Everybody needs a little help on their way to be self-reliant…there’s no way [someone] should have a million-thousand-truple-billion dollars…these people have planes and there are people with no houses, apartments, shacks, drawers, pants…It’s not right,” he stated.
If we had listened to him maybe we could have learned not to feed our children lessons of a world that places greater value on property and material than it does on human life. Socioeconomic inequality leads to educational inequality as he pointed out in a 1994 interview with BET,
“I went to school the whole way and was ready to go to college the only thing that stopped me was money. The time that all the kids in my school was writing applications to go to college I didn’t have no lights or no electricity and that’s not my momma’s fault.”
I mean come on, those aren’t the words of a gangster. He wanted all of the basic things that every civil rights leader before him did.
Tupac didn’t believe that he could single handedly change the world but he firmly believed that he would be able to spark the brain of a person that would change the world. That is one of the primary reasons I think we are doing a great injustice if we do not examine his legacy more closely. Tupac was a man truly concerned with the plight of the poor and underprivileged. If he had lived, I could easily see him being a prominent activist (just like Killer Mike was) alongside Bernie Sanders against vested interests in America. Sadly, today’s rap stars barely involve themselves or are even conscious of what political and social movements are critical in this day and age.
You have Lil Wayne failing to endorse Black Lives Matter on his ABC Nightline interview and Kanye West saying that he would have voted for the controversial president-elect (internet troll) of our country (Russia?). If they can offer and elective course at Cal-Berkley only a matter of months after his death I think it is paramount to years later when we can see the impact or tragic lack of impact of his work to make him a part of history and political science curriculums. While I’m sure Tomi Lahren would rejected this notion (the same way Bill O’Reily did in the 90’s) that we should study an artists who’s lyrics were laced with profanity, violent rhetoric against his rap nemeses and accusations of police brutality (which we know isn’t real right?).
I would ague that you can say that Tupac was a criminal and thug all you want (as you ignore the fact that current President-Elect had to settle a 25 million dollar fraud case before he takes office) but that his legacy of arrests and legal battles should not be the barometer used to measure whether his life is worth exploring (it’s not like Martin Luther King Jr. was never arrested).
The fact of the matter is that Tupac is an ideal study for students of history and political science and is as important as any of the great writers and social commentators of any time period. What made him controversial? what truths were there in what he was saying? What contradictions did he represent? What role did the media play in the construction of his image? What level of intellect was he able to display without a formal education? What were his motivations behind his actions? His legacy created more than enough food for thought to ponder. Tupac said, “I see no changes” in 1996 referring to what he perceived as a society had never changed, and which was not ready to embrace change. We have made some great strides since then but, somethings sadly still have not changed.