It’s a story I don’t really mind telling, but there have been times when the telling just wasn’t any fun.
Back when I was freelancing for the Cleveland Free Times, I drew the assignment of lining up an interview with Tupac Shakur in advance of a major concert tour in late 1995. His adventures with the penal system had recently ended, and he’d signed on with Suge Knight and Death Row Records. The tour was billed as a tribute to N.W.A. co-founder Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, who had died of AIDS, and featured his most successful protégés, Cleveland natives Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, plus Tha Dogg Pound, already gaining a rep as the latest rap act to threaten the morals of civilization. Having done interviews of this sort for various acts across the pop spectrum, nothing about this one seemed particularly complicated.
Yeah, right. First the tour was postponed, then the Cleveland dates were pushed back, and then it snowed in Ohio in the beginning of January, which apparently caught everyone off-guard. In all this time no one could ever pin down the 30 minutes or so I needed to ask Tupac the boilerplate questions (“What’s the new album like? How’s the tour going? Is Suge Knight as scary as everyone says he is?”) and churn out the article. After a couple of weeks of this adventure, the chase became far more compelling than the interview, so I pursued it to the bitter end.
I pursued it to the point of actually catching up with Tupac while he was waltzing through a downtown Cleveland shopping mall, clutching an open bottle of E&J brandy and proclaiming, “right now I’m shopping”. I pursued it to getting credentialed at the stage door an hour before the show, watching all manner of wannabees and hangers-around blithely stroll past. I pursued it to watching Tupac’s set that night, as he spent more time getting ready to fight the knuckleheads who kept throwing ice cubes at him than actually performing any material. And I pursued it backstage after the show, when his voice was finally too shot to speak at all.
Trust me, that’s the short version. But there’s one part I’ve left off that story, one part about what I wished I could have said to him. See, after I asked all the typical rock-star questions and gotten enough quotes to hammer out half a page of copy, I would have turned off the tape recorder, put away the notepad, and kicked it with him, brotha to brotha. I would have spoken for all the brothas on my day job back then, the brothas slinging mail for the US Postal Service. I would have spoken for the four of us Ali, Tim, Dennis and me who were sorting mail and listening to the radio one afternoon when “Dear Mama” came on. Dripping with emotion and pathos, it embodied Tupac at his most personal, most poetic. It was only a year or so old, but already it was a song for the ages.
And there the four of us were, hearing the song again, and the same thought struck us. Boy, what we wouldn’t have given to have just a taste of Tupac’s success, just to have one great song under our belts. We wouldn’t have let the temptations of the fast life, the street life, the thug life, seduce us away from the rarified air we’d be breathing. We all had good jobs, we were taking care of our families, but we knew that there was more out there, and knowing all too well about the working world, we wouldn’t have pissed away months of our lives chasing after tail, ending up in situations and around people likely to stage a bullet-laden ambush, finding ways to lay waste to the amazing gifts we’d been given.
That’s what I would have told Tupac, had the moment been there. I would have urged him, brotha to brotha, not to blow this opportunity, to appreciate how special and fleeting it was. I would have told him I had his back, and to stay strong. I would have ended up, probably, quoting one of his own song titles back at him: “Keep Ya Head Up.”
But the one thing I had no way at all to anticipate was that less than a year after that encounter, he’d be dead.
I can’t say that I was surprised when I heard that Tupac had been shot after a boxing match in Las Vegas 10 years ago this September. Surprised, no. Disgusted and saddened, most definitely.
There was no surprise for me simply because it was Tupac. He’d long since earned his rep as a magnet for trouble, as evidenced by his arrest record, the growing litany of incidents that landed his name in the papers, and the sense that all of it was feeding into the mythology that followed him (and, some would argue, helped kill him). And as much as I hoped he could have found a way to steer clear of the dark corners where bad things and bad people reside, I harbored no optimism that he’d actually do that, or that such trouble would cut him some slack.
But I was disgusted and saddened because the whole thing seemed to be such a stupid waste. His murder marked a tipping point in the bicoastal rap feud that, unfortunately, became one of hip-hop’s signature moments of the ‘90s. As with so many long-running conflagrations, the genesis of the East Coast-West Coast, Bad Boy-Death Row beef gets blurrier with every passing day. All we remember is that Tupac was gunned down because he landed on one side of the conflict, and that six months later, Christopher Wallace, bka The Notorious B.I.G. or Biggie Smalls, was gunned down because he was on the other side.
And why, exactly, was all this bloodshed and death necessary? Why was gunfire the only way to resolve whatever the beef was in the first place? No one has ever answered that question.
I don’t pretend to understand the gang life mentality, and I’m blessed to have never had to follow “the code of the streets” to ensure my moment-to-moment survival. But as a black man I appreciate, all too well, that when we kill each other like this, our humanity is diminished. Every time a trigger is pulled in the name of some petty affront, our shared heritage of triumph over pain and suffering takes a bullet, too. In a society in which so much has been stacked against us, black men should be the last people trying to tear a black man down.
Can we disagree? Of course. Can we not like others among us? Happens all the time. But what do we need to do to avoid crossing the line that separates life’s everyday hassles from funeral processions and anguished cries? In the 10 years since that nadir in hip-hop culture, the anguish over the murders of Tupac and Biggie has long since faded, but the bullet-ridden carnage hasn’t missed a beat.
I’m tired of candlelight vigils. I’m tired of spontaneous sidewalk tributes with teddy bears and high school photos. I’m tired of families having to wear T-shirts in memory of their slain children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. I’m tired of death tallies rising in Philadelphia, the reigning murder-a-day capitol of America, and in New Orleans, a city that’s seen more than enough devastation lately and, for that matter, everywhere else black men and women are made victims of senseless street violence and crime.
And specifically to this particular space, I’m tired that the murders of Tupac and Biggie remain unsolved, and that their fans don’t seem to care.
It should not fall solely to Afeni Shakur and Viola Wallace to walk the long, lonely battle for resolution. That is the ultimate burden of all mothers who see their children taken from them in the prime of life, but it should not be their burden alone. That there has been more than enough shadiness and corruption in the investigations of both murders to fill countless movies, books, and courtrooms hasn’t made their task any easier. But I don’t notice that anyone outside the immediate families is at all troubled by any of that.
Tupac has moved as many CDs, remix projects, and books in death as he did in life, thus fulfilling the initial speculation that he’d become the hip-hop Elvis. And Biggie has been no slouch himself on the Dead Celebrities Top 40, with a couple of high-profile cash-ins on his brief recording legacy. Their fans tend to light up the Internet over the propriety of such efforts, fearing that they’ll dilute the overall impact of the work they put down while they were living. They take them seriously as artists (as well everyone should), and venerate them as icons and ghetto martyrs joined at the hip in death.
But if they really want to honor their legacies, they’ll advocate as strongly as their voices, minds, and hearts will let them that the final chapters of those legacies get written, once and for all. Granted, theirs are but two among a multitude of unsolved murders in America, and just because they were rap stars doesn’t make their lives any more (or less) precious than the others whose killers still walk the streets.
But bringing their murderers to justice would bring more than badly needed closure to two long-grieving families. Because Tupac and Biggie were and are so famous, a massive cry for breaks in the cases would signal to the world that the Hip-Hop Nation, that amorphous band of young people blamed for all the ills of urban life from drugs in the streets to questionable taste in fashion, does in fact care about something bigger than bling. It would tell the world, whether the world (or the elders or the preachers or Bill Cosby) cares to believe it or not, that despite how many people get gunned down, metaphorically or otherwise, during the course of a 50 Cent CD, hip-hop values life and the health of our community above all else.
It would signal to one and all that violence is not an accepted, shrugged-off fact of life, but rather an affront to everything that hip-hop, and by extension the urban community, stands for and represents. It would underscore that in a civilized world, the “Stop Snitching” notion can never be used as an absolute credo or the foundation of one’s entire ethical construct (because surely, at this point, either somebody’s going to have to snitch, or some guilty person’s going to have to get religion for these murders to be solved). If the Hip-Hop Nation were to speak as one voice and demand justice for two of its most beloved figures, it would be a stronger proof of that love than stacking every CD and DVD and T-shirt with their images ever purchased straight up to the sky.
So on this sad 10th anniversary, I add mine to the voices imploring the Las Vegas Police Department to continue the hunt for the murderer of Tupac Shakur. And I implore the Los Angeles Police Department to clean up its act and work diligently and honestly to bring Christopher Wallace’s killer to justice. I will pray for their mothers and loved ones to continue to summon and find the strength they need to fight this fight. I will harbor no illusions that closing the book on these cases will make life immediately better for those most imperiled brothas and sistas throughout our ghettos, barrios, and reservations. But I will stand tall and resolutely to affirm that if we cannot have something like peace in our ‘hood, we should at least demand justice.
Like Tupac said, I will keep my head up.