On Sept. 13, 1996, Tupac Shakur died, six days after he was targeted in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. Twenty years later, Tupac has become a celebrated figure around the world. He's not only a lodestar of hip-hop, but a global cultural phenomenon. Recent attempts have even been made to resurrect him: He performed in CGI form with Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre in 2012 and conversed, through some studio wizardry, with Kendrick Lamar on the last track of To Pimp A Butterfly.
Writer Kevin Powell says Tupac is more than a rapper. "When we think about Tupac Shakur ... not just in hip-hop but popular culture, in America and globally, you have to think about Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Bob Marley," Powell says. "It's that significant. He is one of the most important figures that we've seen in the last 25 years or so."
Powell interviewed Tupac a number of times for Vibe magazine, including while the rapper was serving time in jail for a sexual abuse conviction. He joined NPR's Renee Montagne to discuss Tupac's lasting legacy, as well as the complexities he embodied. Hear their conversation at the audio link above, and read on for highlights.
On what distinguished Tupac's music
You're talking about an artist who came from the people and decided that his work was going to reflect the conditions that were going on in America during his lifetime — his short 25 years on this planet. He talks about violence, he talks about drugs, he talks about his mother's drug addiction, he talks about poverty. He talks about his own contradictions. You get vulnerability, you get an exploration of manhood from different angles, even admitting all of his many mistakes ... And so those things, that kind of honesty — which is so rare for a lot of people — made him someone who became a touchstone for folks' lives. And that's why they responded to him, and still do.
"Keep Ya Head Up" [is] a song that is really an ode to women. It's a pro-feminist song; he talks about being pro-choice in this song, he talks about being anti-street-harassment in this song. But he also — it's an autobiographical song about being a young black male growing up in inner-city America. And that was Pac's uniqueness: his ability to weave in different scenarios and to paint this full picture of a community, over and over again.
On Afeni Shakur's role in her son's life and music
She raised Tupac as a single mother. She was in prison for her political activities in 1971, and just a month before Tupac was born, she was finally released. And he was literally born in the midst of all the upheaval in our country at that time. He was born a month after Marvin Gaye released What's Going On, and in a lot of ways that album is a soundtrack for who Tupac and Afeni were as mother and son. And she's such an important figure — she helped shape his political consciousness, but also there's the dynamic of their separation and moving about, because she became addicted to crack cocaine ... And so he was out there trying to find his way as a young man without a father figure, and it was difficult, and he talks about that in this music.
On the contradictions represented by the violence in some of Tupac's lyrics
In a lot of ways Pac was no different than what we heard in the blues, jazz music [and] rock 'n' roll that came before, because all those music forms also talked about violence, were disrespectful toward women. ... And so Pac was actually very much in that tradition, unfortunately, of us who are men in this society, who have been socialized through patriarchy, through misogyny, through sexism. And he grappled with that, because, again, you can hear, in "Keep Ya Head Up," him talking about being in support of women — but then you turn to a song like "Hit 'Em Up," and he's talking about being violent toward his rivals and having sex with one of his rivals' wives. It was very disrespectful, but it represented the contradictions that many of us as men face in this society.
What was different about Tupac is that he spoke very openly and honestly about it — not just in his music, but in his conversations with people — what he was trying to grapple with and trying to figure out. For example, when he was charged with that sexual assault case in New York City back in the '90s, one of the things he said to me in the famous prison interview from Rikers Island is that he takes responsibility for not stopping those men, his so-called friends, from doing what they did to that young lady, and that he was guilty of that. What man do we know that, at 23 years of age, would actually say something like that? And so I really believe that, had Pac lived, he would have turned some corners in his life around these different issues that dogged him, because he carried around a lot of complexities.
On Tupac's efforts to build his own legacy
I think he knew from the very beginning, "I have a very short window to live, I've got to create a body of work." He was constantly producing, constantly writing, constantly in a recording studio. Even when he was in prison, [he was] writing screenplays. He just knew, I believe, that he wasn't going to be on this earth for a long time, so he came with a certain purpose — contradictions, complexities and all — and he left behind something that has touched generations of people.