Tupac’s been on my mind for a couple of reasons. First off, yesterday (September 7th), marked the 14th anniversary of the night he was shot in Las Vegas, an event that led to his passing six days later. Two, a lot of blog and news outlets were buzzing about what I originally thought was a seemingly offhand comment made by Mike Tyson in which he regretted never having smoked weed with ‘Pac. It wasn’t until earlier this morning that I realized that there’s a documentary called “One Night in Vegas” that explores a night that will entwine the two forever-after all, ‘Pac was in Vegas on that fateful September to attend a Tyson fight, and one of the theories about ‘Pac’s murder explores the possibility that a tussle in the lobby of the MGM Grand, the venue where the fight took place, between his camp and a gang member named Orlando Anderson is what eventually led to the shooting that took his life. My man GG discusses the documentary as well as his own feelings toward Tupac and Tyson in an excellent article on Sonicclash, an article that inspired me to write this piece, which I initially pegged as a short “Hump Day Flashback”, using Digital Underground’s “Same Song” (the track that marked ‘Pac’s rhyming and video debut) as the focal point.
Tupac’s legacy is more complicated than it seems at first glance, or more aptly, it’s more complicated than lowest-common-denominator journalism or revisionist history might lead you to believe. He’s undeniably an iconic figure in hip-hop as well as pop culture (this despite being, at best, a mediocre emcee). He was the first major rap star to meet an untimely demise, and the remnants of his legacy have loomed large over his chosen genre-after all, ‘Pac was the guy who made the “thug” pop-friendly. Everyone from Ja Rule to DMX to Eminem has used portions of the persona ‘Pac created to build their own iconography. ‘Pac was also the dude who brought the “live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse” ethos to urban popular culture. For better or for worse, Tupac also started the trend of incarceration being a good career move for emcees, a trend still duplicated these days by T.I. and Lil Wayne. Safe to say, at least from a pop-culture standpoint, Tupac’s death was every bit as important, actually-probably MORE important, than Kurt Cobain’s just 2 1/2 years before.
However, that’s just kinda the surface. Tupac was a lot more than an arrest record, a bandana, and a “Thug Life” tattoo. As a relatively young black man (Tupac was born five years before me), I’m most disturbed by the oft-overlooked fact that Tupac’s death had much to do with two things: desperation and a desire to fit in. Folks forget (or just aren’t aware) that ‘Pac didn’t have to be in jail. He was in the process of appealing his rape case, and no one was willing (I would say able, but that would be a lie-people certainly had the financial means) to come up with the dough required to get him out of Rikers. Not Jimmy Iovine (the incredibly loaded president of Interscope-Tupac’s record label, someone who has not had a problem profiting off of ‘Pac’s death), not John Singleton (the director of “Poetic Justice”, the last movie Tupac made before he got locked up), not Janet Jackson (‘Pac’s “Poetic Justice” co-star and someone whose association with ‘Pac gave her some sorely needed street credibility AND someone who’s exploited his passing…crying crocodile tears at her concerts while stills from “Justice” play on a screen during “Again”…despite the fact that Janet refused to do a love scene with ‘Pac unless he took an AIDS test and was reportedly uncomfortable enough around him that she changed her number almost immediately after the movie wrapped). Ultimately, Suge Knight was the only person able to come up with the scratch to spring ‘Pac, and I have to say that Suge’s seemingly innocuous act of charity ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end for Tupac (I’ve mentioned before how I think that Tupac’s murder was orchestrated by Suge and his boys…no need to regurgitate my theory at the moment).
What disturbs me the most-and ultimately, I relate to more keenly, is the fact that ‘Pac’s desire to fit in was a major contributing factor in his unraveling. In modern society (and certainly in pre-Obama black society circa the late Eighties/early Nineties), black men don’t seem to be allowed to be multi-faceted. If you’re not (or you weren’t) a shit-talkin’, menacing thug, then in a lot of people’s eyes, you’re not legitimately black. Tupac fell into that trap. He went to a school for music and arts. He studied ballet. He was well-spoken. He wrote poetry. He was an ACTOR (and as such, I think that a lot of his last years were spent following a script he felt that he somehow had to follow). I think (actually, I’m pretty sure) that a great deal of his wanting to be seen as “hard” came from a desire to be accepted by his peers. From my own personal experience, I can say that being well-read and articulate isn’t exactly fondly looked at by some in the ‘hood. When you’re a teenager and all you want to do is fit in, it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude to deal with being taunted for being a “nerd”, or even worse, called “soft” or a “faggot” (after all, no self-respecting heterosexual black male can possibly write poetry). It’s a dumbing-down syndrome that leads to far too many cases of wasted potential in Black and Latino youth to this day-the ultimate manifestation of the “crabs in a barrel” theory, with an even sadder twist: we often seem to voluntarily participate in our own arrested development.
In light of those facts, it’s hard for me to do something as simple as write a column, post a video and say just a few words about Tupac because his existence sparks such a reaction in me. After all, on a much (MUCH) smaller level, there but for the grace of God go I. So what for a lot of folks would be a paragraph or two turns into a thousand word essay. Or maybe I just need an editor REAL bad. Jokes aside, I feel like someone with such a complicated legacy probably deserves more than just a couple of paragraphs anyway, especially when so many people out there don’t bother to unravel the layers around this man’s life and death and what it says about our culture-American culture, American male culture, Black American culture, AND Black American male culture.