Why We Miss Tupac

While America Struggles, Few Rappers Seem Interested in Speaking Up

Born Lesane Paris Cooks in East Harlem in 1971, his name was changed a year later to Tupac Amaru Shakur, after the 17th century Peruvian revolutionary who led an indigenous uprising against the Spaniards. It must have been that Tupac’s mother, a Black Panther herself, saw something special in the boy that could change the world.

Undoubtedly he did. He was rap’s first superstar, and for the last 20 years or so, America has been unable to shake its fascination with the genre.

Late in his life, 2Pac began to promote two mantras whose ideologies are still of great importance in rap music today. These are: “Money over Bitches” and “Thug Life.”

Yet earlier in his life, he must have cared about much more than that. Tupac was an art school kid. He acted in plays, wrote poetry, and danced ballet. He read Shakespeare and Machiavelli.

His early musical work, too, has more than just a streak of intellectual activity. His first album, “2Pacalypse Now” covers everything from inner-city violence (“Trapped”), to child neglect (“Brenda’s Got a Baby”), to black liberation, (“Words of Wisdom”) and finally, to loyalty, trust, and tough decisions (“If My Homies Call”). These themes continued to develop throughout his next two albums, “Strictly 4 My N*****” and “Me Against the World.”

Tupac was an art school kid. He acted in plays, wrote poetry, and danced ballet. He read Shakespeare and Machiavelli.

Aside from the issues he was addressing in his raps, Tupac’s personal life was no picnic either. Prior to being shot dead in 1996, he was shot five times in November of 1994. He also served a nine-month prison sentence after being convicted of sexual assault, a claim he defended vehemently. Whether due to the trauma of being shot, time spent behind bars, peer pressure from his gangsta-rap-centric label mates, or simply the lure of money to be made, 2Pac took refuge in the Thug Life.

Sept. 13 marked 20 years since his death, and while we still remember “I Get Around” and “California Love,” some of his more down-to-earth tracks have become lost in our collective consciousness. The chilling reality is that much of what he was talking about in the early ‘90s is still plaguing America today.

Our movements today could use a soundtrack, and for all their fun-loving flare, it’s hard to imagine many of our contemporary, mainstream MCs coming to the fore.

Cover art: $amii | Flickr