Unfortunate Son: The roots of Tupac Shakur's rebellion

Illustration by Hunter Spanks

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Tupac Shakur, who was shot on Sept. 7, 1996 and died on Sept. 13, 1996. It also marks the anniversary of his album, "All Eyez On Me," released on Feb. 13, 1996. Shakur, who lived for a time in Baltimore at 3955 Greenmount Ave., is forever associated with the city. More than any other rap artist, Shakur infused a self-developed social consciousness into a bluesy and spirited variety of street rap that has a distinctive Baltimore flavor, even if he's not popularly thought of as a "Baltimore rapper." Razor sharp and inexorable, Tupac and Baltimore can both be seen as America in miniature; studying their histories gets you to the heart of what this country is all about, violence and revolution.

His music may very well be more relevant now than when he was alive. A self-declared rebel who put more value in books and knowledge than in cars and clothes, he saw himself within the grand tradition of political agitation: the art of gathering attention during a power struggle in order to facilitate dialogue and bring forth an alternative narrative.


On December 1, 1994, Tupac Shakur was wheeled into a Manhattan courtroom to face charges of sexual assault. The night before the hearing he was shot five times outside of Quad Recording Studios in an apparent robbery attempt. The culprits escaped with the rapper's gold jewelry, leaving the artist lying in a pool of blood. Photographs from the scene show a defiant Tupac being loaded into the back of an ambulance with his middle finger poked in the air like a dagger. He checked himself out of the hospital a few hours after surgery and was escorted to the courthouse guarded by the Nation of Islam.

A young admirer accused the rapper of forcing her into group sex with his friends at a hotel afterparty. He was found guilty of first degree sexual abuse and sentenced to prison.


"Merry Christmas to the press," Tupac said as he exited the courtroom, playing the role of Tiny Tim. "I appreciate the present you've given me. And a happy New Year to you, too. You did your job. I'm out of money. I'm out of all my resources." He began serving his sentence in February 1995 and celebrated his 24th birthday in solitary confinement; 60 days in the dungeon for smoking marijuana in his cell. He was bailed out in October of 1995 after serving nine months. Eleven months later he was shot to death in Las Vegas under mysterious circumstances. He was 25 years old.

Homo sapiens are storytellers. We mold our lives into myths that give us meaning and inspiration. To black folks living under slavery, the death of Jesus Christ served as a symbol of their own suffering. Lynchings were nothing more than modern day crucifixions and Exodus meant emancipation. Many black preachers viewed the texts of the Bible as living documents; holy tales elucidating their own hellish odyssey across the Atlantic. Fear is the greatest impediment to freedom and the hero of all mythology is the one who is able to transcend the fear of death. The savior's story inspires strength and courage. You only need speak to one of Tupac Shakur's millions of fans spread across the planet to discover that his legend has taken on a similar character.

Tupac's fatalism seemed to reflect the dark energy scattered in the ashes of the distinguished political hopes and aspirations of the '60s, making him a perfect conduit for the youth of the '90s to express their own agony and torment. Though his life was short, opinions on him are long and strongly divided: those who think he was the voice of the people that secretly sigh for a more equal share of life's blessings, and those who saw him as provoking violence and cynicism by carelessly prodding America's "Hidden Wound," as Wendell Berry called the legacy of racism and slavery simmering in the nation's subconscious.

Despite being labeled a California artist, Tupac's music is southern gothic at its core and owes as much to Shakespeare and the singer-songwriters of the '60s as it does to "Scarface." His visions of doom were a potent blend of direct experience and clairvoyance bursting out of the black psyche; poetic dispatches from a country James Cone has called "the land of death." His rap style is often considered unadorned or simplistic, but his genius wasn't in abstract wordplay; it was in powerful and dramatic performances that would have played as well to audiences at The Globe 400 years ago as they did on the streets of Baltimore in the '80s and to all of the hip-hop generation in the '90s. Tupac Shakur was one of the most talented folk artists of the 20th century, and surely its most captivating.


The essence of Tupac's music fits directly into the tradition of some of the earliest folk music in America. In "The Spirituals and the Blues" theologian James Cone explains that black music was part of a collective survival strategy; a form of passive resistance that rejected white cultural values. Rather than artistic creation for its own sake, black music was a "rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture." Just as the spirituals turned the misery of bondage into beautiful music, rap made millions out of misfortune using America's violent streets as a canvas upon which to paint portraits of its heroic outcasts.

Tupac himself saw his music within the tradition of folk singers like Western Kentucky's Merle Travis, who wrote about "owing his soul" to the coal operators in 'Sixteen Tons' and 'Nine-Pound Hammer.' Tupac described " 'I Don't Give A Fuck' and 'Soulja's Story' as " rebel songs" in a 1991 interview to promote his first album. "Just like back in the '60s you had to have folk songs, 'Sixteen Tons', that's what this is, it's soul music, music for us to carry on with."

But in order to understand Tupac and his music, you have to look at his belief system and upbringing, which are grounded in 1960's counterculture and intertwined in the larger history of upheaval in America. His mother, Afeni Shakur (1947-2016), became a prominent member of the Black Panther Party after successfully saving herself and 20 others from serving life sentences stemming from trumped-up terrorism charges. Tupac was literally born into the struggle.

Sweet Child Of Mine

Afeni Shakur was the star of Baltimore journalist Murray Kempton's 1977 book "The Briar Patch." Kempton (1917-1997) was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and started his career as a copyboy for H.L. Mencken. In the manner that moved David Reminick to hail him "the greatest newspaper columnist since Mencken," Kempton's book chronicled the trial of the "Panther 21," a ragtag offshoot of the Oakland, California-based political movement led by Huey P. Newton. In 1969, group members were labeled terrorists and accused of plotting a series of dynamite attacks and police assassinations across New York City. The scheme was supposedly inspired by Panther rhetoric and the 1967 film "The Battle of Algiers." Afeni's testimony was largely responsible for their acquittal.

Born Alice Faye Williams, Afeni Shakur was a country girl from the inner banks of North Carolina. In 1947, the year of her birth, Hank Williams' first smash hit was wafting over the airwaves all over the south and desegregation was still a decade away. Her grandfather, the Rev. Walter Williams Sr., was a sharecropper and preacher in the town of Lumberton. As a child, Afeni witnessed wars between white supremacists and a local Native American tribe. When a Lumbee woman was seen around town dating a white man, the KKK accused the Lumbee of undermining Jim Crow laws with their "race mixing." Veteran members of the tribe plotted a surprise attack on a Klan meeting after they burned a cross in the woman's front yard. The Lumbee stormed the gathering under the dark of night with guns blazing, sending the rednecks scattering in their bedsheets. Outnumbered and taken by surprise, the Klan leader hightailed it into the swamps where he was found and arrested on riot charges. The Lumbee burned the Klan's equipment and flags and danced around the fire until the police showed up. The Lumbee celebrate "The Battle of Maxton" as a holiday and Pete Seeger enshrined the story in a song.

Tupac's grandfather, Walter Jr., was a drinker and hellraiser who was once nearly stabbed to death by a girlfriend. "He was one of those drinkin', hangin' out on Saturday night people," Afeni recalled in Jasmine Guy's beautiful oral biography "Afeni Shakur: Evolution of a Revolutionary." Afeni described her father as a small but spirited man who was loved in the streets, but less so at home. "He was a fighting man. He was stubborn and arrogant. That's what Tupac and I got from my dad—the rebellion and the need to fight back and be recognized for being different." Walter uprooted the family when Afeni was a child and moved his family from North Carolina to Norfolk, where he worked as a truck driver. When Walter became physically abusive, Afeni's mother Rosa Belle decided to move with her two daughters to New York City to live with her sister. The last time he took a swing at her, she threw a skillet of hot grease in his face and hit the road.


In New York, Rosa Belle worked at a lampshade factory while Afeni and her sister Gloria went to school. Afeni was a tomboy and country girl. "I wanted some trees, some dirt, some rain, some sky. All I got was gray and soot." She was naturally tough and talented. Before dropping out of high school, she won awards for her work on the student newspaper and later helped publish the Panther newsletter. In 1962 she passed the entrance exams to the prestigious School of Performing Arts in Manhattan but dropped out after one term. "I couldn't relate to that," Afeni told a New York Times reporter in July 1970. "It was my first time out of the community. I couldn't afford the materials we were supposed to have. Most of the other girls had come from private schools. I couldn't relate to them, so I started hanging out."

From the New York Times, October 6, 1970
From the New York Times, October 6, 1970

She joined the Disciples, a women's street gang, and started drinking and experimenting with drugs. "We would do LSD and sit on the fire escape listening to Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone," she told Guy. She became a mail carrier for a time; one of the first women mail carriers in New York. She was aimless until hearing Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale speak on a street corner in early 1968. She joined the Panthers and married fellow Panther Lumumba Shakur in November 1968, changing her name to Afeni. "I never wanted to be just a housewife. I was too restless. But with my husband it was different. We did things together. I was a revolutionary and he was a revolutionary."

An explosion went off at a police station in the Bronx in the morning of Jan. 17, 1969, shattering some windows. Two police officers investigating the explosion approached a parked car across from the station. As the officers approached the vehicle, two men opened fire and fled. In the car, police found 19-year old Joan Bird, a Black Panther and associate of Afeni Shakur. Bird was taken to the police station, beaten, and questioned for 19 hours before confessing to a criminal conspiracy. According to the police, Bird claimed she was instructed to drive the two men to the police station where they would ambush and shoot officers fleeing a planned dynamite explosion.

The morning of April 2, 1969 five police officers stood outside the Shakurs' apartment, lit a rag, and yelled fire. Afeni and Lumumba Shakur along with 19 others were arrested in raids across the city and charged with 196 felonies related to the conspiracy. The New York Botanical Garden, five Manhattan department stores, and several police stations were the alleged targets. Lumumba Shakur was singled out as a "menace to society" with a "shocking" criminal record. "These defendants are not ordinary run-of-the-mill criminals. They are terrorists," claimed the prosecutor.

During the trial, Afeni goaded him by softly singing Hank Williams lyrics into his ear, ("Your cheatin' heart will tell on you") the country music of her childhood stuck in her head.

Afeni faced 312 years in prison if convicted. The district attorney suggested that the attacks were not just aimed at the power structure, but also targeted whites at yuppie midtown department stores Bloomingdales, Macy's, and Abercrombie & Fitch. The police had caught them in the nick of time, he said; they had planned on executing the scheme on the day of their arrests.

Evidence of the alleged conspiracy hinged on the forced confession of Bird and the testimony of two undercover police officers who embedded themselves within the group. A book titled "Urban Guerrilla Warfare" and a shopping bag containing several small pieces of brass pipe were confiscated in the raids, along with 10 guns (some of which were purchased in Baltimore). The items in the shopping bag were interpreted by the prosecutors as the makings of a pipe bomb, but no physical evidence linked Afeni to any crime, much less a conspiracy.

The undercover officers assigned by their superiors to infiltrate the Panthers, Ralph White and Eugene Roberts, were later found to be employed by a covert F.B.I. program dubbed "COINTELPRO" (Counterintelligence Program) tasked with destroying the political group and other "key agitators" such as the American Indian Movement through false incrimination, harassment, and in the case of Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton, assassination. Roberts was also a former bodyguard of Malcolm X and some speculate he conspired in his assassination. Albert Woodfox, a Black Panther falsely convicted under COINTELPRO, was released in 2016 after serving 43 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana's Angola Prison.

Afeni was released on $100,000 bail when a group of women from the labor movement raised $66,000 in cash and used church property as collateral on the rest. While out on bail, she gave speeches to raise money for the Panthers' defense and in October she became pregnant with Tupac.

After the judge's house was bombed by the Weathermen and two of her co-defendants jumped bail and fled to Algeria, Afeni was called back to court to possibly have her bail revoked. On Feb. 8, 1971, pregnant and pleading, she asked the judge to consider the life of her unborn child before sending her back to prison. "She spoke as though she were bearing a prince," Kempton wrote. "The facilities are not bad anymore; they are ridiculous. Women should not be put in there." The conditions at the Women's House of Detention were inhuman, she argued. There was no hot water, no toilet paper, and the food was spoiled and inedible. Judge Murtagh wasn't moved and Afeni was sent back to prison only to be bailed out again a short time later by the same group of women. She prepared to fight for both of their lives.


"I don't know what I'm supposed to say. I don't know how I'm supposed to justify the charges that Mr. Phillips has brought before the court against me," Afeni said in her closing arguments. "But I do know that none of these charges has been proven and I'm not talking about proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I'm saying that none of the charges have been proven period. That nothing has been proven in this courtroom, that I or any of the defendants did any of these things that Mr. Phillips insists we did do. So why are we here? Why are any of us here? I don't know but I would appreciate it if you would end this nightmare, because I'm tired of it and I can't justify it in my mind. There's no logical reason for us to have gone through the last two years as we have, to be threatened with imprisonment because somebody somewhere is watching and waiting to justify being a spy."

Within two hours the jurors came to a decision. Afeni began to cry as "not guilty" was repeated 156 times. It was the longest running trial in New York State history at the time. Afeni said her winning defense argument was based on, "fear, plain fear." She later cited Fidel Castro's "History Will Absolve Me" speech as the intellectual model. Six weeks after walking away a free woman, on June 16, 1971, her prince, Tupac Amaru Shakur, was born in East Harlem.

Afeni worked as a legal assistant and lectured at Harvard and Yale until black radicalism fell out of fashion in the early '80s; the Reagan years were here and people began to pursue individual survival strategies. What little culture of sympathy and solidarity was leftover from the '60s disappeared. Speaking fees dried up and Afeni lost her job. Now a mother of two, she fell into poverty. Her family became stranded without a home. She signed up for public assistance in 1984 and used the funds to move her family to Baltimore looking for better days. Tupac was 13.

Tupac Shakur and Afeni Shakur
Tupac Shakur and Afeni Shakur (Courtesy/YouTube)

The Miracle Of The Rose

"Growing up in America—I loved my childhood but I hated growing up poor, and it made me very bitter," Tupac said in an interview at Tamalpais High School in 1988. He was 17 years old. "We live in hell. We live in the gutter, a war zone."

The era in which Tupac ascended to fame was hell for young black males in America. The '80s and '90s witnessed the growth of the machine—what Michelle Alexander has coined "The New Jim Crow"—a covert state system of mass incarceration and legalized racial discrimination under the guise of the so-called "War on Drugs".

While the Reagan administration was ramping up the drug war, Tupac was in his wonder years, which mirrored his mother's in many ways. While living at 3955 Greenmount Ave., Tupac often sat on the stoop reading by the streetlights. He wore clothes that didn't fit and slept on a mattress on the floor or on friends' couches. Poverty was humiliating to him. After initially attending Roland Park Middle School and then Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, he was accepted into the Baltimore School for the Arts ("a school for white kids and rich minorities") as a theater major. He began attending BSA his sophomore year and dropped out right before his senior year.

He studied Shakespeare and the old masters at BSA, writing and performing, building his mind and improving his knowledge.

"We were exposed to everything. Theater, ballet, different people's lifestyles—rich people's lifestyles, royalty from other countries and things, everything," he said in the book, "Tupac: Resurrection," a collection of interviews assembled posthumously into an autobiography. The privilege of a good school—safety, resources, and guidance—fed an unusually curious and bright mind. Before he left New York, he had performed as Travis at age nine in a production of "A Raisin In The Sun" at a fundraiser for Presidential hopeful Jesse Jackson.

He made friends, started a rap group called "Born Busy" and performed at local competitions. His songs and poems from this time were centered on social-justice, teenage pregnancy, reading, and anti-violence messages. He wrote a rap called 'Liberty Needs Glasses': "I mean really, if anyone really valued life/ and cared about the masses/ They'd take em' both to Pen Optical/ and get two pairs of glasses."

Along with classics by Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, Tupac's personal library was filled with works of mysticism and philosophy. He read Timothy Leary's acid classic "The Psychedelic Experience," Catholic mystic Thomas Merton's "No Man Is An Island" and "Dark Night of the Soul," a mystical text from the 16th century illuminating the process of spiritual evolution and rebirth. Tupac's first manager, Leila Steinberg, has said that Tupac was fascinated by Aldous Huxley and psychedelic drugs, which largely deal with the idea of spiritual regeneration through near-death experiences and contemplation. "Tupac loved to read!" Afeni wrote after his death. "Books were a constant part of his life."

In Baltimore, Tupac was just beginning his artistic journey. Classmates and friends described him as "a compassionate, good-natured jokester who could bust a rhyme off the top of his head." He wore peace sign necklaces and ferociously devoured books and music—from Dire Straits to Doug E. Fresh—and he was particularly enthralled with Shakespeare and themes of heartbreak, destiny, revenge, and treachery, subjects that would later serve as a template in forming his own work. Tupac and his good friend Greg Schmoke (son of ex-mayor Kurt) would have pillow fights in his basement on weekends and cruise the Inner Harbor trying to pick up girls. In a Baltimore Sun article from September 1996, Schmoke recalled Tupac organizing a benefit to raise money for a mother whose son had been murdered. Schmoke remembered that Tupac was deeply affected by the incident, "to die for nothing and not be remembered."

Schmoke reminisced with Baltimore Sun journalist M. Dion Thompson about sitting on the porch of Tupac's home on Greenmount listening to singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman's self titled debut album. Chapman was a protest singer from Ohio who learned to play guitar watching Buck Owens on the country variety show "Hee Haw" and her music was a major influence on Tupac. "Tracy Chapman used to move me; she is an idol," he told MTV in 1992. "I know that's going to cause mass hysteria in the 'hood, but she is. I think she's beautiful, I think she's deep, I think she has a lot to say, and I think she has a lot of soul in her music." Chapman's 'Fast Car' is a depressing tale of a young woman trapped in life's vicious cycles. Schmoke said that Tupac was especially fond of 'Mountains O' Things': "Sweet lazy life/ champagne and caviar/ I hope you'll come and find me/ 'cause you know who we are/ Those who deserve the best in life/ and know what money's worth/ and those whose sole misfortune/ was having mountains o' nothing at birth."

In the 1992 interview with MTV, Tupac shared a Christmas memory. "Well, one year, I thought we didn't get any gifts for Christmas. I was in Baltimore. We didn't get nothing. There was a knock on my door, and my sister's principal from her school came and had like this charity where they give the turkey to the poor family on the block. We was the poor family... Man, that's when I used to feel sorriest for my mother, because there was no man there. This was a woman, my mother, who had to make it merry. And there was nothing there. There wasn't even regular dinner, let alone a Christmas dinner. It's so hard to sell that 'All we need is each other' speech, especially when your stomach hurts. [...] Christmas to me is as many people as possible happy. So I'm not saying … peace on the earth and all of that. I'm talking about just like, you know, a house full of my homies, friends, youngsters, old people, OGs, everybody just having fun, just getting your drink on. Everybody is just celebrating, reminiscing, remembering the dead, the people in jail. That's the greatest, that's Christmas. That's what makes it real."


Tupac compared his approach to rap to that of a Vietnam war reporter. His words were the images normally left on the cutting room floor, the images of death, body bags, and people struggling to make it that don't make it onto the six o'clock news. Tupac knew TV montage was another form of coded racist language that spliced together footage of "criminals" and cops to suggest and reinforce a stereotype of black criminality. He knew that this edited program created an alternate reality of spectacle and fear that art didn't filter out. Art was an alternative breadcrumb trail to truth, he explained in "Tupac Resurrection": "So I thought, that's what I'm going to do as an artist, as a rapper. I'm gonna show the most graphic details of what I see in my community and hopefully they'll stop it quick." If he could only bring images of the war to people's homes, they would rise up and demand an end to the misery. "I've seen all of that—the crack babies, what we had to go through, losing everything, being poor and getting beat down. All of that. Being the person I am, I said no, no, no. I'm changing this."

In 1988, Baltimore was the seventh most violent large city in America with 234 murders. Afeni began using drugs regularly and dating abusive men. The family decided to leave Baltimore in the summer of 1988 to escape the violence and destructive behavior patterns Afeni had picked up. "I was broke. I didn't have enough credits to graduate. I dropped out. I said 'I gotta get paid, I gotta find a way to make a living.'...Then I came to California to escape that, escape that violence," he said in "Tupac: Resurrection." Alone, he caught a bus across America to Marin County, California to live with Linda Pratt, wife of the late Black Panther Geronimo Pratt. Afeni would soon follow. Tupac later cited leaving Baltimore as a pivotal moment, the point at which he'd got "off of the right track."

"You got a fast car/ is it fast enough so we can fly away?/ We gotta make a decision/ Leave tonight or live and die this way," Tracy Chapman sings in 'Fast Car.'

In Oakland, the people of the street became his patrons, encouraging him to keep writing. Again, from "Tupac Resurrection": "I was broke, nowhere to stay. I smoked weed. I hung out with the drug dealers, pimps, and the criminals. They were the only people that cared about me at that point. And I needed a father—a male influence in my life, and these were the males. My mom she was lost at that particular moment. She wasn't caring about herself. She was addicted to crack. It was a hard time, because she was my hero."

He met his future manager Leila Steinberg in Oakland at a park one day, and she eventually introduced him to Atron Gregory, manager of Digital Underground, who were touring on their hit song 'The Humpty Dance.' Touring with Digital Underground brought him all over the world and introduced him to Naughty By Nature, Queen Latifah, and all of the hip-hop stars of the day. He soon landed a record deal of his own.

Rebel Music

Even before Ernest Dickerson's "Juice" was released in January 1992, controversy surrounded the film. Like many of Tupac's songs, "Juice" was a cautionary tale couched in a caper. Marketed by the studio as an action movie/ghetto western, the poster is a portrait of a pistol gripping Tupac wearing a black hoodie wrapped around his face like a wise man's Phrygian cap. He looks like a religious icon. You can't tell whether the teens behind him are friend or foe, but the poster might also look like a cartoonish stereotype of black teens used to scare white people away from coming into the city. Theaters feared that showings would become violent as with "Boyz N The Hood" and "New Jack City," and some theaters hired extra security and installed metal detectors at the entrances of theaters—Alfred Hitchcock and William Castle would have been impressed.

Tupac the thespian was somewhat of a black Klaus Kinski, as hopped up on Huey Newton as Kinski was on Hitler in "Crawlspace." Some people believe he became possessed by the role; that he squandered his success and chance at assimilation on becoming too much like Bishop, the unhinged hoodlum. Tupac told his "Juice" co-stars that he was "blowing up" and would soon be a millionaire. The film catapulted him to a new level of fame and scrutiny.

Tupac's debut album, "2Pacalypse Now" was released two months before "Juice," around the same time that he was attacked and beaten by a gang of police officers in Oakland, California. He filed a $10 million lawsuit against the department and was eventually rewarded some of the money. His first record—a potent blend of agitation, motivation, and entertainment—didn't take long to create a firestorm.

"2Pacalypse Now" by Tupac

On the evening of April 11, 1992, 19-year old Ronald Ray Howard shot Texas State Trooper Bill Davidson in the neck after being pulled over for a broken headlight. The car was stolen and police found Howard's dubbed copy of Tupac's new tape in the tape deck, providing the police and Davidson's widow with a great story: Tupac's music was responsible for the killing. "There isn't any doubt in my mind that my husband would still be alive if Tupac hadn't written these violent, anti-police songs and the companies involved hadn't published and put them out on the street," said Linda Davidson in a Los Angeles Times interview.

The song 'Soulja's Story' was singled out as particularly unsettling. "They finally pull me over and I laugh/ remember Rodney King and I blast on his punk-ass," was the frequently cited passage in newspapers. The lyrics that immediately preceded it were conveniently omitted, removing the context of what is essentially a cautionary tale of two brothers and a prison escape (inspired by the story of Soledad Brothers George and Jonathan Jackson): "Crack done took a part of my family tree/ My momma's on the shit, my daddy split, and my mom is blaming me/ Is it my fault just because I'm a young black male?/ Cops sweat me as if my destiny is makin' crack sales."


Tupac prefaced the song with a dark vision: "They cuttin' off welfare/ They think crime is rising now/ You got whites killin' blacks/ Cops killin' blacks, and black killin' blacks/ Shit is just going to get worse." The consequences of the brothers blaze of glory is punctuated with a warning that "the fast life ain't everything they told ya."

The officer's widow focused almost exclusively on Tupac and his money. "I'm sure Tupac has no feeling for me or what happened to my husband," Davidson scoffed. "He obviously has a great anger toward law enforcement. All he cares about is singing his songs and making his money, no matter who he hurts." She filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Tupac for liability on the grounds that his music incited "imminent lawless action." Album sales were nearing half a million copies—kids loved it.

Fortunately for Davidson it was an election year. Vice President Dan Quayle seized on the tragedy, cynically exploiting the officer's death for votes by wielding the oldest and most reliable tool of division in American history. The New York Times reported that Quayle had discovered a new "demon" in rap music. His 1992 campaign was a "family values" crusade with Tupac and rap music as the whipping boys. "There is absolutely no reason for a record like to this be published by a responsible corporation," Quayle said after traveling to Texas for a media opportunity with the Davidson family. Tupac's rabble rousing had no place in a Bush/Quayle America. He cynically insisted that corporations have a greater responsibility than just making money. Tupac's music "had no place in our society." He and other public officials pressured Interscope to drop Shakur and ban his records.

Quayle's demonization of Tupac was within a grand tradition in America, bringing to mind the pervasive paranoia and fear of slave insurrections in the days of slavery. Tupac has a tattoo across his back, "1831"—the year Nat Turner unleashed a brutal slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia—inside of a Roman cross underneath the word "Exodus." Before his death, Tupac was planning a biopic based on "The Confessions of Nat Turner" with himself in the lead role. The idea of bringing Nat to the big screen, his drunken swordsmen sweeping through the swamps of southern Virginia ransacking plantations and chopping off the heads of their captors, must have been a dream for Tupac.

Tupac accepted the Vice President's condemnation like it was the Nobel Prize. His second album, "Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z...," is a jarring and noisy masterpiece of belligerence. Dead set on disturbing the peace, Tupac's anger and bitterness toward police brutality and mass incarceration boiled over into a volcano of fury and resentment. From 'Souljah's Revenge': "Niggaz get they neck broke daily/ tryin' to stay jail free/ What the fuck does Quayle know/ of young black males?" The album could have been made yesterday in Baltimore.

On April 29, 1992, when the police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted, a shocked and angry crowd formed at the courthouse and threw rocks at the officers exiting. Within six hours the city was on fire—the Los Angeles Uprising had begun.

Released nine months after the uprising, "Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z...," unpacks the rage manifested in the riots and provides the context you couldn't find on television.

The acronym in the album title is explained in the song 'Violent' from "2Pacalypse Now": "In every Jeep and every car, brothers stomp this/ I'm Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished." Reflecting the turbulent and violent commotion of the uprising, the album commences with a rallying cry. "Here we go turn it up let's start/ From block to block we snatching hearts and jacking marks."

Of the first four tracks, two are noisy and affected interludes: 'Pac's Theme' mashes up news coverage of the Quayle affair ("There is no reason for a record like this to be published, it has no place in our society") with Tupac's response: ("I was raised in this society so there is no way/ you can expect me to be a perfect person"). The words "They trying to ban me" are looped over and over in the background on top of sirens and drums. 'Something 2 Die 4' is the kind of screwed soliloquy Tupac was fond of making early on. This one is a requiem for Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl killed by a store owner during the riots.

The uprising in Los Angeles must have looked like fulfilled prophecy to Tupac, who saw beauty in the destruction of passive behavioral structures that uphold a system of government he found wanting in its moral duty to provide an equal share of life's blessings and opportunities. "I hate to say I told you so but I told you so," Tupac said. "I was feeling beautiful to see all the unity. But then again I was feeling nervous because I know America is not going to let the riots go on long and I was worried we were gonna lose a lot of people. We can't find peace until we get a piece."

A little over a year later, in October 1993, Tupac opened fire on two off-duty Atlanta police officers after an altercation over a traffic dispute. Headed back to his hotel after a performance at Clark Atlanta University, Tupac was traveling in a two-car entourage when they encountered Mark and Scott Whitwell with their wives. According to the brothers, Tupac and company almost hit them as they crossed the street, but Tupac maintained he was intervening between the brothers and a black man they were harassing. Witnesses reported Whitwell drawing his weapon first and Tupac returning fire, hitting one in the abdomen and the other in the buttocks.

Tupac was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, but the charges were dropped after it was discovered that the officers were intoxicated and carrying firearms stolen from a police evidence locker. One month later Tupac was shot at Quad Recording Studios in New York. The shooting at Quad turned out to be the pivotal moment in Tupac's life.

"I think—just my opinion—after Tupac got shot, I just think that Tupac just kind of turned against everybody," his friend and "Juice" co-star Ed Lover told the New York Times in 1995.


Hell's Angel

"Jail is a big business. Believe me," Tupac said to director Ken Peters in a 1995 interview from inside Clinton Correctional Facility. He had now experienced from the inside the institution that comes to define the lives of so many of his peers: "This jail is in the middle of a town that feeds everybody. Everybody works here. This is the main income." He recounted spending the first eight months in solitude—"23 hours a day locked down, reading, writing." On March 14, 1995, one month after being incarcerated, his third album, "Me Against The World" was released. It immediately climbed to the number one spot on the Billboard charts, displacing a collection by Bruce Springsteen.

"['Me Against The World'] was like a blues record," Tupac said. "It was down home. It was all my fears, all the things I just couldn't sleep about." From prison, Tupac wrote a video treatment for the first single 'Dear Mama,' a tribute to Afeni: "Along with whatever ideas Mr. Hampton [the director] brings I would like to include pictures of STRONG supportive mothers throughout history." He listed Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, Afeni Shakur, Eunice Simpson, and the mothers of the 28 children killed in the "Atlanta Child Murders" between 1979 and 1981.

"These women embody the essence of my song and I believe this would bring great substance to the video." Tupac also wrote a letter to his family describing his vision for a family soul food restaurant in Atlanta. He included a sample menu for the "Around The Way Cafe" and envisioned a jukebox that played old blues and soul music. "No more ghetto shit, let's take it to the next level."

Tupac wrote a script about his life in jail and planned on starting his own film production company, record label, and recording studios. All he needed was the money to fund it. That opportunity presented itself in the form of Death Row Records CEO Marion "Suge" Knight and record executive Jimmy Iovine. Death Row Records were riding high from the release of Dr. Dre's "The Chronic" and Snoop Dogg's "Doggystyle." The company's five releases had all gone platinum and mostly number one. They offered to post Tupac's $1.4 million dollar bail for a three album deal.

The one-page contract was drafted in his cell with a pen and paper: "One million advance for 3 albums unrefundable and due upon signing." A few weeks before being released, Tupac replied to a supportive letter he had received from Public Enemy's Chuck D, thanking him and inviting him to collaborate on forthcoming projects. "I just signed to Death Row so I should be working on this album soon, thanks again Chuck! I do believe we can make a difference and I have every intention of doing just that. Stay Strong! Keep me in your heart and let's continue to offer and inspire stiff resistance."

Underneath his signature was written "Da Struggle Continuez!"

On Oct. 12, 1995, Tupac was released from Clinton Correctional Facility. He flew to California and immediately began working to fulfill his contractual obligations. Within two weeks, he wrote and recorded "All Eyez On Me," a double album (27 songs) and two thirds of his contract with Death Row. He said that freedom was his inspiration and that he couldn't write songs in jail, feeling like "a caged animal." If "2Pacalypse Now" was his folk record, "Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z…" was his punk record, and "Me Against The World" was blues, "All Eyez On Me" was old-fashioned sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Tupac fully assumed the role of the gangster playboy that defined West Coast rap at the time.

"All Eyes On Me" by Tupac

The CEO of Death Row, Suge Knight, a former football player and bodyguard of Bobby Brown, was six foot four and 315 pounds. His scouting technique was to track down their current managers, beat them to a pulp, and then threaten to kill their entire family unless they signed release papers. His retainment method added the panache of a pimp: Overwork and intimidate the artists, give them a little money or a car every now and then if they muster the courage to complain, and then threaten to kill them if they leave. Tupac's new boss, for three albums, was an unrepentant, hardcore street gangster who ruled by fear, violence, and intimidation.

Death Row Records was a volcano of money and violence that made anything at Sun Records look like Sesame Street. Funded by Jimmy Iovine (now with "Beats by Dr. Dre" headphones and for a bit a mentor on "American Idol") and a permanently incarcerated drug kingpin named Michael Harris, its reputation as the most dangerous record label on the planet was well-earned. The studio was stocked with Knight's posse of gang members, renegade off-duty police officers, rappers, singers, and producers who often never got paid. Knight's office at Death Row headquarters was outfitted with a piranha tank he fed live rats to and a monster Cujo-like German Shepherd named Damu. The studio where "All Eyez On Me" was cut, located in the Can-Am Building in Tarzana, California, 30 minutes north of Los Angeles, was a madhouse where violence and music merged into a macabre mood that had never been heard before or since.

This is the scene Tupac signed into in order to escape prison and he was well aware of it. The artist was reported to have been harassed while in jail by inmates and guards. His fourth and final album to be released while he was still living is tinged with the darkness and mayhem that surrounded Death Row. Tupac is a wild man throughout the whole affair, burning karma from both ends—the untamed passion of "The Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis meets the half-dead aura of Hank Williams' 'Angel of Death.' Flashes of his brilliance shine through in songs like 'Only God Can Judge Me,' 'I Ain't Mad At Cha,' and 'Heartz of Men,' but other tracks 'Whatz Ya Phone #' and 'All About U' indicate how quickly the album was produced and the speed with which he wanted to escape Death Row.

The production on the album was the finest Tupac ever had. Death Row's A-Team of producers (DJ Quik, DeVante Swing, Daz) all contributed to the project and Tupac pounced on the tracks they provided. Dr. Dre, who was "recruited" by Suge and had already sold 15 million records between "The Chronic" and "N.W.A.," handled only two tracks: the hit 'California Love' and the criminally underrated 'Can't C Me', which is perhaps Dre's finest production ever and displays Tupac's genius for conjuring and commanding impulsive outburst of melodious measure that perfectly encapsulate his surroundings and state of mind at any given moment. His thoughts—"visions of cops and sirens," money and murder—shoot out like lightning bolts that drape themselves around intoxicating and expertly programmed drum and keyboard patterns punctuated with George Clinton's crooning and scatting.

"The blind stares of a million pairs of eyes looking hard but won't realize that they will never see the P," Clinton announces at the beginning of the track. The whole thing casts a death spell as strong as any blues or backwoods spiritual.

Tupac's emotions, thoughts, and feelings twisted together and danced through an altered state of consciousness catalyzed by liquor and weed, across a fragmented mind that transformed and sliced them into verses that feel like transmissions from a divine heartache.


The album was released on Feb. 13, 1996, only four months after Tupac got out of prison. "It's just a gift for my fans that supported me while I was locked down," he said in "Tupac: Resurrection." "I had so much to say I figured this would be the best way to vent it instead of paying some psychotherapist like $50 million. I just went in the studio. It's cheaper." Viewed as a whole or single vision, the albums 24 tracks possess a subversiveness and gothic oddness that earn the flawed epic a spot on a shelf next to the best of Poe and Flannery O'Connor.

On the evening of Sept. 7, 1996, six months after the release of "All Eyez On Me," Tupac's friend, Mike Tyson, faced off against Bruce Seldon for the heavyweight title. A minute into the first round Tyson floored Seldon with a left hook, essentially ending Seldon's career. While exiting the event, Tupac, Suge Knight, and the Death Row entourage were involved in an altercation in the lobby of the MGM with a Los Angeles gang member, Orlando Anderson, allegedly over a stolen Death Row pendant.

On their way to a show at Knight's Club 662, Tupac and Suge were traveling down Las Vegas Boulevard when, at 11:15 p.m., as they stopped at East Flamingo Road and Koval Lane, a white Cadillac drove up beside Knight's BMW and opened fire. A gunman mounted on the back drivers side window fired 13 shots into the car door, hitting Tupac four times and Suge with none. Bleeding profusely, Tupac was rushed to the hospital, where his left lung was removed. His chances of survival were 50 percent. Don McLean's 'Vincent' (Tupac's favorite song) played on repeat in the hospital room where he lay on his deathbed for six days, drifting in and out of consciousness. "I feel close to Marvin Gaye and Vincent van Gogh," Tupac told Vibe magazine in 1995.

When Tupac Shakur died on Friday, Sept. 13, 1996, Murray Kempton wrote in the New York Post: "He was a chosen child and a testament to faith no less noble for having a reward no better than this."

Tupac Shakur's childhood home at 3955 Greenmount Ave.
Tupac Shakur's childhood home at 3955 Greenmount Ave. (Reginald Thomas II)

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