New York, NY - June 16th was Tupac Amaru Shakur’s birthday. Although each year since his passing I’ve made sure to post and wish his spirit (perhaps in Cuba) well this year, I didn’t. Tupac isn’t someone you recognize for one day. Each day when I find myself blasting the sounds of Desiigner, Drake, Future or Young Thug through my Beats I’m reminded that for the rest of my life there will always be “Callllifforrniaa Love” and there’s nothing like being told to “Keep Your Head Up” when the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
Music for me has always been the voice of the universe reminding me that through sound and the greatness of human connection I can do be and have anything. Yet it is also juxtaposed with the stereotypes that being from the hood doesn't give you meaning, beauty is only defined by the male gaze and as a woman my body is my ticket to wealth. When Tupac rapped I didn’t just bob my head or gangsta shuffle, I cried, I persevered and I prayed for “Better Days” and the ability to keep my “Smile” while acknowledging all that was violent and destructive around me.
Two weeks ago I walked in my classroom and my students were playing Biggie Smalls. Another one my favorite rappers but even my students knew that he wasn’t above Pac, for me at least. They insisted that Biggie was better and I was somehow blinded by the lights of the West Coast but they lacked the understanding that the reason I consider Tupac to be one of the greatest isn’t because he was a rapper, he threw up the W or defined an era it is because he was an activist. In his early 20s Tupac was outspoken on the issues, a solider of the community and unafraid to be targeted for the truth he spoke. Few have that strength and it is admirable to say the least. Each day, when I listen to his music, I feel the nostalgia of the memories they are attached to. The funerals I've attend of those slain in the streets are synonymous with the sounds of "Life Goes On" my hope for "Changes" is a constant struggle when it is clear that America has yet to deconstruct its own painful past and rebuild the now growing divide between Black and White America. Even as I celebrate my graduations from multiple college institutions each degree has its on story of triumph that it was always "Me Against the World" and I couldn't stop thinking about the words from the song, "The power is in the people and politics we address / Always do your best, don’t let the pressure make you panic...”
The truth that Pac spoke on his records for many helped to cultivate a spirit of passion and desire for more than what they saw or all that their families had ever known in the inner city. It led to questions of authority and social structures and the formulating of artistry in the minds of some of today's most sought after artist including Kendrick Lamar. The legend is only as great as the legacy he leaves behind and it is clearly evident that Pac's music fostered an era of people who are so in tuned with where they come from, where they are and where they want justice to go. Did he also produce songs that objectified women and glorified violence, yes, some of those are my favorite too. I can't go a summer without playing "All About U" or "Toss It Up" when I'm frustrated I may pop on "Ride On My Enemies" or "Gangsta Party" but even my listening to those only helps further my understanding of the conflicts that exist with coming from places like where I do.
As a resident of South Central LA the things I saw and experienced constructed levels of sadness and aggression within me that took great self-work to control and daily research to systematically understand. Since his passing a culture has developed where the song, is life. Art has heavily become the lives that are led in inner cities across the nation. When I hear "Ride On My Enemies" I know that as I listen for inspiration so do soldiers in the streets. The goal shouldn't be to not support the music but to redefine who the enemy is.
I have gotten to a point where the violence and negativity I've known don't define my life but they do define some and it is for that reason that I listen to all Hip Hop music. It isn't just about being an activist its also about remembering the process of a diamonds development and how as humans we may do and participate in many negative things before we get to a point of strength, righteousness and become conscious to the world we live in. In remembering Tupac's music and listening to the lyrics from today's you can definitely gain some insight into our pain, perseverance and ability to triumph but more than anything a little clarity in a chaotic world.