Tupac Shakur in Baltimore: Friends, teachers remember the birth of an artist

At the height of his celebrity, Tupac Shakur chose to give author Kevin Powell some of his most revealing interviews ever — from a subdued, introspective conversation while the rapper was incarcerated to resentful provocations against rivals that fueled the escalating East Coast-West Coast rap beef.

Powell said that one topic came up often, when the recorder was on and off: The brief but formative time a teenage Shakur called a small apartment at 3955 Greenmount Ave. home.

“He talked about Baltimore a lot,” Powell said this month. His time here “foreshadowed Tupac Shakur the rapper, foreshadowed Tupac Shakur the amazing [actor]. It would not have happened — any of that — without Baltimore.”

Since the 1996 drive-by shooting that killed him at age 25, Shakur’s legend has grown across the world. Now he’s more than a rapper. He’s hip-hop’s Bob Marley, a transcendent black icon whose life and art continue to resonate with audiences young and old, rich and poor, American and international, black or not.

As the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame prepares to induct Shakur — the first solo rap artist in its history — on April 7, the people who knew him before the platinum records, many controversies and his untimely death are choosing to remember Tupac Shakur, the Baltimore School for the Arts theater student who never got to fulfill his obvious potential. What’s become lost in the conversation, they say, is Shakur’s humanity — his caring for others, his earnest sensitivity and his deep respect for art.

“I could have seen him as a Denzel Washington,” said Richard Pilcher, the BSA’s principal acting teacher who helped cultivate Shakur’s penchant for Shakespeare. “I think he would have become one of our finest film actors.”

His teachers and friends in Baltimore appreciated his music, but said they barely recognized Shakur the rapper, who tattooed “Thug Life” on his abdomen, partied hard and was convicted of sexual abuse that resulted in a nine-month prison stay. (Shakur maintained his innocence afterward.)

People from his BSA years still wonder if Shakur saw rapping as another acting role, one he got swept up in amid fame, money and controversy.

“[The rap persona] was nothing like the person that I knew,” said Becky Mossing, his classmate and friend at BSA who now teaches musical theater at the school. “I honestly believe he was playing a part that he probably was made to play.”

A new home

In 1984, a 13-year-old Shakur arrived in Baltimore with his younger sister, Sekyiwa, and mother, Afeni, the Black Panther Party member who moved her family from New York City to the neighborhood of Pen Lucy in search of a job and a better life.

Though Shakur attended Roland Park Middle School for eighth grade and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School as a freshman, he had heard about the BSA from peers, said Donald Hicken, the longtime head of the school’s theater department who retired last year.

Shakur walked in for an audition in 1986, Hicken said, as a character from “A Raisin in the Sun,” a play Shakur performed in years prior that first sparked his love of acting. The staff quickly recognized Shakur had “a very special gift,” Hicken said.

“The empathy, the mimetic instinct, the emotional connection, the vulnerability,” Hicken said. “He had all of that.”

Aside from Shakur’s raw acting potential, Hicken also noticed how attuned the teenager was to injustice and the plights of the underserved, especially poor black communities in Baltimore.

“He lived in a very rough part of town,” Hicken said. “He had a real clear, I guess you’d say, revolutionary perspective on the world.”

Shakur’s outward confidence, along with his ability to socialize with anyone, made him incredibly popular with students, said Mossing.

“He just had a magnetism that defied logic, and everybody was drawn to him,” Mossing said. “Everyone wanted to hear what he had to say.”

As he did as an adult, Shakur had plenty to say, constantly writing poetry and thoughts in a notebook and engaging in discussions of plays like “King Lear” and “Hamlet.”

E.D.I. Mean, a member of Shakur’s rap group the Outlawz, visited his lifelong friend in Baltimore around this time. He noticed a newfound confidence.

“I just remember him growing a lot artistically,” E.D.I. Mean said on the phone from Los Angeles. “He seemed a lot more sure about what he wanted to do and what direction he wanted to take his career.”

Then there was the rapping, the stylized rhyming and nascent music genre that captivated Shakur, and seemed destined to be in his future.

“He’d be humming something in his head. That was constant,” Mossing said.

Around BSA, Shakur earned the nickname MC New York. He and friends — including a young aspiring actress named Jada Pinkett — would face off in rap battles in an alley by the school, said classmate and friend Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell*.

“Stuff just rolled off his tongue,” said Fisher-Harrell, now an associate professor of dance at Towson University. “He could just flow.”

What the often gregarious Shakur didn’t share with everyone were his problems at home. Bills were a struggle to pay, Afeni’s addiction to crack cocaine worsened and Shakur often slept at friends’ houses, friends said. (Afeni died in May in California at age 69.)

Mossing, who remembers Shakur DJing dance parties-turned-sleepovers in her parents’ Pikesville basement, said Shakur was under pressure to make money, so he bussed tables and washed dishes at an Inner Harbor restaurant.

“When he wasn’t in school, he worked a lot of nights and weekends,” Mossing said. “It was very stressful for him.”

For Shakur, BSA — where the pursuit of art mattered above all else — was a sanctuary. It didn’t take long for him to develop deep appreciations for unfamiliar disciplines.

“I loved my classes. We were exposed to everything … theater, ballet, listening to different types of music,” Shakur said in an interview years later that was used in the documentary “Tupac: Resurrection.” “I started going, ‘Damn, man, I would have been a totally different person had I not been exposed to these things.’”

Leaving, reluctantly

In 1988, Shakur’s progress came to an abrupt halt. With his junior year coming to an end, Shakur cried in Hicken’s office as he delivered the news: He was moving to California with his mother and sister.

Hicken “had big plans” for Shakur’s senior year, which at BSA is dedicated to technique development through rehearsals and performances. He offered to find a host family so Shakur could stay for his senior year, but the student declined.

“His father was not in the picture, and he really was the man of the house,” Hicken said. “What he said to me then and later was he really needed to be there for his sister.”

Shakur moved to Marin City, Calif., which is where the story of his career began for much of the world.

Rap stardom came first, with poignant, storytelling classics like “Dear Mama” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” followed by the highly publicized feud with the Notorious B.I.G. and New York’s Bad Boy Records.

Albums like 1995’s “Me Against the World” and 1996’s “All Eyez on Me” solidified their places in rap’s canon long ago, thanks to Shakur’s mix of emotionally charged, unapologetic diatribes and poignant tales that vividly depicted the inner-city struggle.

“While the rich kids is driving Benz / I’m still trying to hold on to surviving friends / And it’s crazy, it seems it’ll never let up / But please, you got to keep your head up,” Shakur once rapped.

But as he ascended in hip-hop, negativity always seemed present, from his own doing and not. In 1993, he pleaded guilty for assault against another rapper during a concert. He was found guilty of assaulting movie director Allen Hughes in 1994 after bragging about it on MTV. That same year, Shakur was shot five times in a New York recording studio during a robbery.

This was the Shakur his Baltimore teachers and friends say they did not know.

“This persona that you saw, this ‘Thug Life,’ maybe that was a part of a larger act,” Fisher-Harrell said.

While those from his past had trouble making complete sense of his music, they immediately recognized Shakur’s acting prowess in movies like “Juice” and “Poetic Justice.” A moment of off-the-cuff dialogue between Shakur and Mickey Rourke in the 1996 crime-drama “Bullet” stuck with Hicken.

“Watching that scene, I thought, ‘Wow, there he is. There’s the creative artist. There’s the actor,’” Hicken said. “I watched him do it in class. … You could see him disappear into a role.”

Given his age and potential, Shakur has become one of the highest profile cases of “what could have been?” Powell believes acting was Shakur’s “true calling,” and had he not gone to California, he would have further honed the craft.

“If Pac would have stayed in Baltimore, he probably would have gone to a school where there was a theater program,” Powell said.

Instead, Shakur is known largely for his indelible, tumultuous rap career and his role in rap’s most infamous beef — arguably still the genre’s darkest moment. In September 1996, Shakur was shot four times in a drive-by in Las Vegas, and died a week later. (Six months later, his rival, the Notorious B.I.G., died from a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. Both killings remain unsolved.) Following Shakur’s death, his legacy grew around the world, and over time, he has become a symbol of perseverance and a voice for the oppressed.

Those layers of complicated greatness led to his upcoming Hall of Fame induction, an honor Hicken believes might have given his former student mixed feelings.

“The artist in him would be pleased with that,” Hicken said, “but the revolutionary in him would sort of eschew any kind of establishment recognition.”

Shakur once told Powell his only goal “was to hear my name on the radio one time,” he said. Powell imagines Shakur’s global impact, especially on people living through tough times as he once did, would make the late rapper most proud.

“I think he’d be blown away,” Powell said of the induction. “But I also think he’d realize his life — 25 short years, including that short period in Baltimore — had an amazing impact on so many Baltimores around the world.” 

wesley.case@baltsun.com

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*Correction: The name of Tupac Shakur's friend and classmate is Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, not Lisa-Denise Fisher-Harrell. The Sun regrets the error.

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