PARK CITY, Utah - Rapper Tupac Shakur spent just three years in Baltimore, but the time had a profound effect on him, according to a new documentary that premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
Tupac: Resurrection characterizes Shakur's stint from 1986 to 1988 at the Baltimore School for the Arts as an awakening for the performer, who would become a pop-culture martyr after his unsolved shooting death in 1996.
"It was his first time identifying as an artist," director Lauren Lazin said yesterday. "The school really gave him a window into a new kind of life."
Shakur's mother, Afeni, a Black Panther activist in the 1960s and '70s, lost her job in the Bronx, and the family went on welfare. After shunting through various homeless shelters, the family moved to Baltimore, where Afeni was promised a job as a data processor. As soon as they arrived at their home on Greenmount Avenue, the Shakurs got word that "Legs," Afeni's lover and the one semi-consistent father figure in her son's life, had died in prison of a crack-induced heart attack.
Shakur, then a teen, shook off the blow and flourished. After campaigning by his mother, he gained admission to the arts school. The curriculum introduced him to ballet, theater and Shakespeare while nurturing his musical talent. Shakur began to rap, scribbling his lyrics whenever the inspiration hit him.
Home videos and snapshots in the documentary show a beaming Shakur performing and mugging. One clip has him rapping on stage with fellow student Jada Pinkett, who became an actress and married Will Smith.
"Life would have been different if not for those experiences at the school," Shakur says in the film.
The arts academy was also one of Shakur's first exposures to privilege. The contrast between his pristine campus life and the violent neighborhood he returned to every night helped germinate the seed of outrage that his mother planted in him.
"His emerging political consciousness really began in Baltimore," Lazin said. "In New York, they were poor, but it was more of a personal thing. In Baltimore, he began to see that there's rich and there's poor."
When a boy in the neighborhood was killed in a gang shooting, Afeni moved Shakur and his younger sister, Sekyiwa, to Northern California. But their ghetto-ization persisted. Afeni became a crack addict, and Shakur's artistic fury mushroomed on the West Coast.
Shakur's "gangsta" rap made him a hip-hop revolutionary to his fans. To his critics - black and white - his music glorified the killing of cops, the taking of drugs and the abuse of women.
"I didn't create the thug life," he says in one of the film's more poignant moments. "I diagnosed it."