Friday, September 13, 2013

3 The Misunderstood Brilliance of Tupac Shakur

By: Marvin DeBose
September 13th, 2013

"Now I understand what you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
...They did not listen, they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will..." -Don McLean, Vincent

In 1971, folk singer Don McLean wrote the song, Vincent, which was a heartrending tribute to the talented, yet, personally troubled 19th century painter Vincent Van Gogh. In the song, McLean vividly describes the artistic talents of Van Gogh distinctly remarking on his "Flaming flowers that brightly blaze/Swirling clouds in violet haze".

Yet, what is most memorable about this song is how McLean speaks about Van Gogh's personal struggles from a voice of empathy and recalls how under-appreciated and misunderstood Van Gogh was.

The depth and raw emotion contained in this song would end up influencing the work of another artist who would become troubled in his own right. That artist, who, coincidentally was born in June of the same year in which McLean birthed Vincent, was none other than Tupac Amaru Shakur.

Seventeen years ago today, Tupac died at the young age of 25, at the height of his career.

However, when Tupac died on September 13th, 1996, I was only 6 years old, so I only vaguely knew of Tupac's work in his lifetime. I wouldn't really become familiar with his work until I was about 10 years old.

It all began one day when my dad picked me up from school, and in his car he was playing a hip-hop CD and I was awestruck by the sound of a rapper's voice.

The voice was loud, bold and full of rage with coarse, colorful language. Then, I heard the rapper start to go on a brutal, profanity-laced tirade, dissing famed rapper, the Notorious BIG, his crew, Junior Mafia, as well as his record label, Bad Boy Records.

As a loyal Bad Boy/Notorious BIG fan since the age of 5, I was shocked, and that's when the voice yelled, "...And if you want to be down with Bad Boy, then f*** you too!"

I thought to myself, "Who is this guy?" When we got the home, my Dad ejected the CD from his CD player and I saw that it read: TUPAC, Greatest Hits, Disc 2.

It turned out that I had just heard Tupac's classic 1996 diss record, "Hit 'Em Up".

I thought, "Damn, this is Tupac?" Even though I'd just heard him diss one of my favorite rappers, his fiery spirit and passion had just blew my 10-year old mind. After that, I began to listen to both CDs of the 2-Disc greatest hits set and I was amazed. Never before had I heard such raw emotion and versatility.

The same guy who could deliver lyrical death threats to his enemies was the same guy who could write a emotional tribute to his mother. The same guy who could playfully rap about "getting around" with the ladies could write a song about how we need to "heal our women" and "be real to our women". The guy who could write about the pitfalls of the street life could write a song comparing the activism strategies of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Like many people, at first, I just viewed Tupac as the bald headed, tattooed, bandanna-wearing, finger-gesturing caricature which is usually promoted in the media.

However, the more that I listened to Tupac's songs, watched his interviews, read about his life and how he dealt with police harassment, false accusations, and even family problems, I realized the complexity of who he really was.

Today, for many people, Tupac is nearly seen as the patron saint of hip-hop. Yet, during Tupac's career he was one of the most misunderstood artists of his generation, and to a certain extent he remains so to this day.

We often see the pictures of Tupac spitting at reporters, flashing his middle finger, getting arrested or engaging in behavior commonly associated with criminals. Yet, Tupac, a rapper who famously claimed, "I never had a [police] record until I made a [rap] record" was far from a criminal.

An angry Tupac spitting at reporters circa 1994
One of the biggest things which people fail to realize about Tupac is the fact that he was an intellectual. He was a voracious reader; a student of history, philosophy, poetry and literature. Despite the fact that he dropped out of high school in his senior year, he spent most of his life educating himself.

"There should be a class on drugs. 
There should be a class on sex education, a real sex education class...
there should be a class on scams, there should be a class on religious cults, 
there should be a class on police brutality, there should be a class on apartheid, 
there should be on racism in america, there should be a class on why people are hungry, 
but there not, there are classes on... gym, 'physical education', 'let’s learn volleyball'."
-Tupac Shakur at age 17 

Tupac was a scholar at heart, and for some, this fact might cause confusion. After all, this was the same man who flaunted a tattoo on his stomach that read "THUG LIFE". Yet, even those two words reveal another layer of Tupac's complexity.

The phrase he popularized "Thug Life", which was famously used and repopularized in the 2008 film, "Pineapple Express", actually held deeper community-rooted meanings, one of them being an acronym which Tupac said stood for "The Hate U Give Little Infants F**ks Everybody"I know, it sounds crazy, but it actually makes a lot of sense sociologically, hear me out...

What Tupac meant by the "THUG LIFE" acronym was that the negativity, violence and hatred which society feeds our youth eventually manifests itself in social ills.

Tupac also saw "THUG LIFE" as a philosophy of pride and dignity for the young, poor urban youth of America. He constantly argued that the idea of THUG LIFE was not a celebration of crimes or the dictionary's definition of "thug". Yet, this philosophy was similar to that of the Black Panther Party, of which his mother was a member, who mainly focused on organizing the "lumpenproletariat", the lower classes of society to get them to work for the advancement of their communities.

“To me 'thug' is my pride... Not being someone who goes against the law. Not being someone that takes, but being someone that has nothing and even though there is no home for me to go to, my head is up high, my chest is out, I walk tall, I talk loud. When I say thug ... I mean the underdog."
-Tupac Shakur

A common mistake that many people make when looking at Tupac's life is overlooking the fact that he was a work in progress. Like all of us, he had personality flaws and he made many mistakes. However, the man was much more than the sum of his flaws.

He was a young man who was still growing, learning, maturing and finding his way in life. Now that I'm in my early 20s, as Tupac was during his career, I realize how young he actually was to have such remarkable influence on so many people. Then, I think about what he could have been had he lived longer.

Entertainment icon, Quincy Jones, who knew Tupac well (based largely off of his romantic relationship with his daughter, Kidada Jones), once made this profound analogy related to Tupac's potential:

"Tupac died at 25. 
If Malcolm X died at 25 he would have been a street hustler, named Detroit Red. 
If Martin Luther King died at 25 he would've been known as a local baptist preacher. 
And if I had died at 25 I would've been known as a struggling musician, 
only a sliver of my life's potential."

So, my message to those who are interested in not only "2Pac", the artist, but Tupac Shakur, the person, is to learn about him and the image which the mainstream media often promotes as this one-dimensional "gangsta rapper" who "lived and died by the gun" (as many insensitive, unoriginal journalists were fond of saying after his death).

Learn about his mother's activism and his family's history, listen to his early songs, listen to his words, go beyond his image and learn about his message and then you can understand who he really was and what he was trying to say.

"Now I understand what you tried to say to me... 
They did not listen, they did not know how 
Perhaps they'll listen now..." -Don McLean, Vincent


  1. very well written article. i was heavily into his music from 1991 as an 11 year old growing up into a man. alot of my ideals on life come from this genius. because thats what he really was. and as he said, "i wont change the world, but ill spark the brain of someone who does"

  2. Fantastic article. Tupac was a visionary and faced opposition from all sides due to his often unflinching honesty. He was just realising the problems with his 'management' which may have have sealed his fate. I read in a Guardian interview recently that Kidada played 'Vincent' to Tupac in his final moments in the hospital as it was his favourite song, very moving. RIP Tupac, you will NEVER be forgotten.

  3. Tupac was honest to himself and to the community from which he was raised. I've had the opportunity in my life to encounter a lot of people in their "Tupac moment". A period in one's life where I'd say they are profoundly inspired by the rapper and share his views and music with those around him. As a black South African young male, I can say that even today Tupac is still relevant. __ Great article


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