Who was Tupac Shakur?
That question fascinated people during his lifewhile he was alive, but since his death, the status of Tupac's mystery and importance has become continually elevated—from star to hero, from hero to martyr and from martyr to "thug angel" and even "Black Jesus." After he died—murdered in 1996 by a shooter in Las Vegas—people started to say that he was still alive. His friends and family believed he lived on because of his broad influence, his spiritual presence, and his lasting work; before he died he recorded dozens of tracks, which have since been released on eight posthumous albums.
Tupac was a contradictory, controversial, and tortured figure. He was accused of inciting violence and encouraging negativity and misogyny because he used words like "n---z" and "hos" and rapped about murder and drugs. But after his death, some began to see his words as tragically prophetic. He seemed to have prematurely identified the end that awaited him, and wrote about death throughout his youthful career. It may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy: some say that Tupac lived the life he wrote about to tragic ends and took his attachment to the outlaw lifestyle too far. But others believe that somewhere inside himself, Pac already knew what he had coming. He lived on the edge because he never had high hopes for his own survival. His embrace of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. (which stands for "The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everyone" in the 2Pac lexicon) was an extension of his (albeit somewhat embittered) pride at having survived his own childhood and become a successful artist. Being a thug, he said, is "a phase we all have to go through." And, he said, "America is the biggest gang in the world."
A friend of Tupac's tells a revealing story about his view of language and responsibility. One time while he was sitting on a panel in front of a group of activists, an older woman asked him to change his offensive language. According to Karen Lee, his former manager, he turned to her and said, "I'm sorry if my language offends you, but it can't offend you any more than the world your generation has left me to deal with" (Dyson 152).
Tupac was more effective than probably any artist in history at bringing together his strictly street identity with a highly educated background (Pac was self-educated despite dropping out of high school, equally knowledgeable about his family's revolutionary history, spirituality and literature). "Black Panthers was built on education. And streets was built on wildness. When you put them together, it's like gunpowder…that's what he was," says rapper Big Syke (Thug Angel).
The impassioned, revealing sensitivity of songs like "Dear Mama" made Tupac a star during his life. After he was murdered at age 25, it was poetry like this that made him a legend. He had spent his life desperately trying to communicate the consequences of a lifestyle that many people in America did not want to think about. When he was shot, his life itself became one of the consequences. When he died a victim of a type of violence he had predicted in his songs and interviews, it left a permanent scar on the American psyche and on the psyches of people who loved and admired him. "He was one of the ones we just let fly by," says LaTanya Richardson, who acted with Tupac in Juice (Dyson 44). "And I think we're all held accountable for that."
Wherever the accountability lies, Tupac lives on, just like he said he would: "The only thing that can stop me is death," he said while in prison. "And even then my music will live forever."