A Beautifully Flawed Humanity
Tupac Shakur: The Life & Times of an American Icon, by Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred L. Johnson, seeks to overcome these obstacles through its structural approach. McQuillar is the author of When Rap Music Had a Conscience, and Johnson is a history professor. Together, they offer a view of Tupac Shakur that is situational and tethered to the times.
It begins with the subtitle, The Life & Times of an American Icon, which positions Tupac alongside other cultural stars who’ve been crowned with legendary status, such as Elvis, Johnny Cash, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, and Josephine Baker. The title also suggests that no matter how much hip-hoppers like myself endeavor to secure an exclusive claim to Tupac’s memory, his experience and impact is widespread, cutting across gender, economic, ethnic, and musical lines. Like dead prez would say, he’s bigger than hip-hop.
The authors present Tupac’s life as a quintessentially American story. Although Tupac is described as a “symbol of the faded youth of the hip-hop generation”, American Icon fittingly scores his life to the tide of American history. The Civil Rights Movement, and similarly situated aboriginal struggles, keeps company with the Vietnam War and the shift in presidential ideology when Richard Nixon followed Lyndon Johnson into the White House. Drug addiction and economic policy during President Ronald Reagan’s administration are frequently cited.
The hip-hop records that might have influenced Tupac’s music—such as Boogie Down Productions, Slick Rick, Public Enemy, and N.W.A.—are scarcely mentioned. Actually, Scarface gets a nod for being ahead of the curve in perfecting the paradigm of the conflicted, crazed, and paranoid “gangsta”. To be well-rounded,
probably could’ve done more to analyze the musical traditions that influenced Tupac.
No doubt, it is a smart, though sometimes cumbersome, strategy to contextualize a monumental figure. In this way, Tupac’s towering visage and mythology becomes more manageable and perhaps more human, as well. The book culls an array of historical events and uses them to either add depth to the narrative or to enhance the comprehensiveness of its timeline. It’s kind of cool for a book about a rapper to include background about the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina waging war against Ku Klux Klan, alongside the Black Panther Party’s initiative for armed self-defense, and the affirmative action decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, among many other events and figures.
What shines through in American Icon is the degree to which Tupac, and ultimately people in general, are impacted by their surroundings. American Icon takes us through all the familiar highs and lows of Tupac’s life, starting with his birth as Lesane Parrish Crooks to Afeni Shakur (then Alice Faye Williams). At the time, Tupac’s mother was ideologically aligned with the Black Panther Party. She was pregnant with Tupac during her trial for allegedly conspiring to murder New York City policemen and blow up several New York landmarks. She defended herself and was acquitted.
With this background, along with his having Black Panther member Geronimo Pratt as his godfather and Cuban-exiled Assata Shakur as his godmother, we are alerted to Tupac’s connection to the Black cultural struggle and freedom movement. From there, we learn about his upbringing and his feelings of being a misfit because his family, consisting of himself along with his mother and sister Sekwiya, constantly moved and endured government surveillance.
The move to Maryland landed him a transformative opportunity at the Baltimore School for the Arts. There, he indulged his creativity and his thirst for the arts. He also befriended Jada Pinkett. Sadly, his stay in Baltimore was cut short, and he moved to Marin City, California, where he struggled against his mother’s drug addiction while getting his career to take off as he established industry connections through Leila Steinberg and got his turn in the spotlight with the rap ensemble Digital Underground.
The story gets a little hurried after that, and it also gets sidetracked with handling the Notorious B.I.G.‘s entrance into Tupac’s life. Yet all the while, McQuillar and Johnson attempt to provide historical and cultural happenings as a backdrop of influence and contrast. Each locale represents, or is summarized to represent, a specific frame of reference for the young rapper. In hip-hop, we are well acquainted with the importance of geography, as rappers give props to their locales and their crews boast that their neighborhood, borough, city, state, region, or coast is superior to all others.
His musical story is told mostly through his recognizable hit singles, such as “Keep Ya Head Up” and “Dear Mama”, with specific and rather curious interpretations of his lyrics. Lesser discussed album songs, such as “Papa’z Song” and “Can U Get Away”, don’t figure into the tapestry. Neither do songs released with his side group Thug Life, despite the fact that American Icon provides a critique of Tupac’s philosophy of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. (an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody”) that contrasts his attempt at creating a street code of conduct with the Black Panther Party’s “10 Point Plan”. I was surprised that the book would go to such lengths to present Tupac in a historical and contextualized way, thereby humanizing him, without embracing a significant portion of his creative output that demonstrates his wonderfully and beautifully flawed humanity in the first place.
Tupac the Artist is not the point of American Icon. Tupac the Man is the focus. American Icon searches for the cultural connections that might give us insight into the man, the inherent dichotomy of his truly Gemini persona, and maybe even some insight into his murder. As in other books and articles about Tupac, even his mother’s chosen name for him, Tupac Amaru Shakur, is placed within the context of its Inca origins. The Inca’s story was built on a fight to escape Spanish colonial domination, but filled with tragedy. The historical Tupac Amaru was the last Inca ruler, and he was captured and decapitated.
We are left with the significance of it all: a name that portends doom given to a boy who grew up to meet a frightful, senseless end. “Giving her son a name associated with such a bloody legacy should have given Afeni pause,” the book editorializes. I doubt we as readers are supposed to take this as anything more than irony, but there are times when American Icon‘s contextual approach offers the intellectual comfort of cause-and-effect relationships. Often, it is a false comfort, as chronology acts as a proxy for causation.
There is, however, some satisfaction to be gleaned from this technique. Through it, we are given a sense of understanding as we stitch clues from Tupac’s experiences and various friendships into a pattern of logic. It’s a lot like a rap album that samples heavily from a wide range of genres and styles. “Aha!” we might think. “Those shady dudes he hung out with in New York! That puts his first shooting in a different light.”
Some connections yield persuasive causal links. Others, not so much. Either way, it makes for worthy speculation and fertile ground for discussion, as long as we don’t mistake our timeline for absolute truth.