Tupac Shakur: An Icon in Context

Please understand my history, a man of many acts

Lived the thug life, comin’ equipped with plenty gats

Maybe I was just a lost soul trapped in time

Livin’ in between life and the cracks, we’re blind

— Tupac Shakur, “Lost Souls”

When Tupac Shakur was murdered in 1996, I was devastated. Not because I viewed Tupac as a “role model”, as is often assumed of young people. Certainly, the horror of murder is reason enough to be upset, but it was also because I felt the loss of Tupac’s potential. Such is the case with anyone who leaves this earth “too soon”, but the loss is especially acute when it involves someone with so much talent.

While he was alive, I was impressed by his musical output. In saying that, I’m fully aware that I’m including his entire body of work. Some of his songs are silly, like “What’s Your Phone Number”. In that song, set to the groove of The Time’s “777-9311”, he displays his playboy-by-phone skills, and when the woman on the other end asks him if he wants to come over, he says, “[Does] a bear sh*t in the woods and wipe his ass with a rabbit?” I thought a simple “yes” would have sufficed.

Other songs are caustic and mean-spirited, like the infamous and venomous “Hit Em Up”. Most of his discography is nevertheless quite brilliant, which is all the more astounding considering the full range of his music (four solo albums, including rap’s first double album, and a group project) and films (including Juice and Poetic Justice). Tupac released a staggering body of work between 1991 and his death in 1996.

Through the years, the legacy of Tupac Shakur has been presented through books, magazine articles, photographs, foundations, statues and portraits, and even the study of his lyrics and poetry in college classes. It has all seemed so surreal, having lived through, and reacted to, his rise to fame. I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news that he’d been shot in Las Vegas, Nevada, the night of the Mike Tyson fight (“He got shot again?” people kept saying).

Then there were rumors that Tupac, after studying the Italian philosopher and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, had succeeded in faking his death. After that, fans speculated about his aspirations for social change (such as his own political party) and his entrepreneurial designs (such as his own soft drink).

Post-Pac life was surreal, I think, because he so obviously captured the public’s attention and imagination, in both positive and negative ways, and he personified the classic rags-to-riches story of a kid who went from homelessness to being a multiplatinum artist influencing an entire culture. In his lyrics, he said he wanted to be “a living legend” and wanted to live his life “a legend immortalized in pictures”. I suppose he succeeded.

At times, he seemed larger than life, so boisterous and unflappable on one hand, yet sensitive and unassuming on the other. His trademark long eyelashes and inviting grin clashed with tales of his quick temper. Moreover, commentators have equated him with the likes of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, and James Dean, characterized as a complex and ultra-talented soul whose intensity may have been too much for this world. There was still so much left for him to do.

How then, do you tell the story of Tupac Shakur?

Let’s not forget a major hurdle for anything Tupac-related: the audience. We (hip-hoppers) are overloaded with information, and we are quick to unleash it on discrepancies. There’s also plenty of material from or about Tupac, from his posthumous releases, to the biopic Tupac Resurrection and books like Michael Eric Dyson’s Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. We own his records, recite his lyrics, and hail him as one of the best to ever touch a microphone, though most of us try to gain some objectivity on this last point by adding, “But not the best ’cause that title belongs to Rakim” (or KRS-One, or Jay-Z, or Biggie, or Nas, or whoever fits the bill).

Even the haters acknowledge Tupac by hating on him so hard with extremely specific critiques: “He’s too inconsistent for me. I don’t like how he would do one song praising women, and then on the same album he’ll have another song dissing women.”

Many of us marveled at his ability to convey the truth of his emotions. Like Richard Pryor (whose comedy was sampled by Tupac) and Marvin Gaye (who was directly referenced in Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up”), he could transform the lessons of his tears into something celebratory. So what in the world are you gonna tell us know-it-all hip-hop fans about Tupac Shakur that we don’t already know? Good luck with that.

If those hurdles aren’t enough, there are well-known events in Tupac’s chronology that must be discussed for any account of his life to be considered relevant, let alone complete. These events, like the man himself, are sizable, and packed with the significance of repetition and common knowledge. You wanna write a biography about Tupac? Well, you’ll probably have to talk about his shooting on 30 November 1994 at New York’s Quad Studios.

Believing he had been setup, Tupac pointed the finger at Sean Combs (then “Puff Daddy”, now “Diddy”) and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace as being involved. Tupac’s friendship with the Notorious B.I.G. soured, leading to a rivalry between the two, and ultimately a bicoastal “beef”. Take note, because a Tupac or B.I.G. biography is a prime opportunity for comparing the two stars. You know the drill. Tupac is almost always the emotional one, part hardcore poser and part softy. B.I.G.’s the witty wordsmith and storyteller. Deep down, I think we (hip-hoppers, journalists, and so forth) are serious when we say the so-called East Coast-West Coast beef was blown out of proportion but as a practical matter, it’s an inescapable part of the time period.

It’s not just events that confound the rendering of our hip-hop icons. There are other personalities at issue. If you’re talking about Tupac, you can’t avoid talking about his mother Afeni Shakur, a powerfully complex and compelling figure in her own right. How much of her story belongs to Tupac’s? What about Marion “Suge” Knight and the fascinating goings-on at Knight’s illustrious and once-formidable Death Row Records? How do you tell Tupac’s story without drifting too far into the side stories?

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.