America created its ghettos with deliberate, surgical precision.
Out of the weedy lots and ramshackle houses, poverty stacks on top of poverty. Crime rules the night. Life is cheap, and few things are precious. Corner markets offer the only nearby source of food, but with massive markups and no nutrition. Gangs go to war. Children get caught in the crossfire.
One day your best friend is there with you. The next he’s dead, and there’s another funeral to attend. Eventually, your tears dry up from callousness.
Once life in the ghetto becomes normal, Malcolm X once said, you have no shame, no privacy.
But out of the slums, first from New York and then to California via Baltimore, emerged a young man seeking to expose the injustices in American society.
Was he hungry? He had a fire in his belly. Was he full of energy? There was hope in his heart. Did he have anything to say? The words flowed from his lips.
Tupac Shakur became rap’s most celebrated and controversial figure. To his fans, Tupac was larger than life: he represented a hope that transcends constant struggle. Others viewed him as a threat: the violent leader of a quickly emerging subgenre known as gangster rap.
Tupac died 20 years ago this week, on September 13, 1996. He was 25 years old. Hip-hop’s most iconic figure has been scrutinized over and over during the last two decades. His music —from remastered albums, to tracks unveiled from the vaults, to fresh remixes — has never really stopped hitting the shelves.
And a new biopic, “All Eyez on Me,” will be released late this year.
For all the controversy surrounding Tupac — from the alleged shooting of off-duty police officers and an allegation of sexual assault, to his alliance with Suge Knight and Death Row Records — one message nevertheless stood out in his music.
It’s a theme that shows up, in various forms, throughout his career, and it’s a back-against-the-wall, me-against-the-world-type of message: Even in the darkest night, there’s a bright day ahead.
Even now, it’s a powerful message. No rapper before or since has dealt so heavily with that theme. Tupac applied it to poverty, to the unfair treatment of black people throughout our nation’s history, to the injustice of the American legal system and to life in the ghetto.
Behind the melodic samplings and beats, the ones that still sound funky and fresh, is a dark, grim world.
Sometimes, listening to Tupac is like living on the edge of humanity, like being in a place where darkness threatens to envelop everything.
There are too many funerals and closed caskets. Everyone carries a gun, but everyone’s also suicidal. The stress to overcome poverty and be the top dog leads young men to commit heinous crimes, which leads to another type of living hell: prison.
His world is a place where no one pays attention to a pregnant adolescent teenage girl being exploited in her own neighborhood. It’s a place of constant shakedowns, of police brutality, of rival gangs and turf wars; a place where the hopelessness of the ghetto can cripple you if you let it; where the unfathomable depths of loneliness can swallow you whole.
But always, there’s a brighter day ahead. A way out of the darkness.
That’s the message of famous tracks like “Dear Mama” and “Unconditional Love” and “Still I Rise.”
By the time Tupac burst on the scene in the early 1990s, that theme wasn’t new in music. Rather, it was borne out of blues and then the American Songbook and carried on by the emergence of soul.
Striving against all odds has, for decade after decade, proved a powerful idea both in music and American literature. It’s not a hip-hop idea. Jack London used it. John Steinbeck perfected it. Maya Angelou famously wrote, “You may trod me in the very dirt. But still, like dust, I rise.” And Smokey Robinson once sang, “Brush your tears aside and walk away, for tomorrow is another day.”
He was born a distant extension of slavery and a product of the Black Panther Party. His mother, Afeni Shakur, had been a political activist and Party member. Afeni’s great-grandmother was a slave. So it shouldn’t have been surprising, then, that Tupac’s music was often marked by both violence and by the quest for equality.
“We asked 10 years ago,” he said in a 1994 interview. “We was asking with the Panthers. … We was asking with the Civil Rights Movement. Now those people that was asking, they’re all dead or in jail. So now what do you think we’re going to do? Ask?”
So his music was often the reflection of violent culture, an at-all-costs movement. He was well aware of his influence, of course. Didn’t children see the violence of Thug Life and the East Coast versus West rivalry and mimic it, he was invariably asked.
Tupac hadn’t figured out how to deal with that yet. Did it stop him from rapping about his experiences and the plight of those in the ghetto? Not a chance, because he understood his quest, to act as a storyteller, a reporter of some kind.
So at the zenith of his popularity, he took a message of peace and harmony to public schools in and around Los Angeles in an effort to keep poor kids out of trouble.
He rose from the ashes of poverty. So could they. “I was born not to make it, but I did. The tribulations of a ghetto kid,” he shouts on “Still I Rise.”
Twenty years later, there still hasn’t come along a musician, or a hip-hop artist, quite as enigmatic as Tupac. He had the ability to peel back the layers and expose the ugly underbelly of American life.
He attacked the root cause of poverty. He wasn’t afraid to call out politicians and took a stand against injustice. And all through his short rap career he caused plenty of stirs, had more than a few beefs and made enemies galore.
So this paradoxical figure moved around with a target on his back. Still, he hoped to make a difference. He would not be the person to change the world, he once said. But he guaranteed he could be a catalyst for that change. So over and over, he shouted and rapped that even though darkness lasts for the night, it doesn’t win. The light does that.
“My story,” Tupac once said, “is about ambition, violence, redemption and love.”