Tupac hoped his music would “spark the brain that will change the world” when he emerged in the 1990s at a time when gangster rap was being harshly condemned for advocating violence and fuelling gang wars.
He was rapping about being poor and black in the US. The media often labelled him violent, crude and misogynistic.
Tupac certainly wasn’t the first to criticise the system. In the late 1980s, N.W.A had already rankled the authorities with Fuck tha Police, which hit out at police brutality.
Tupac’s lyrical comeback was, Fuck the World, a retort to the media, politicians, critics and the police. He brought a gritty rawness to his work that transcended commercial success while honouring the streets on which he grew up.
Tupac was an avid reader. In 1993, while serving a nine-month sentence for sexual assault, he studied the teachings of political philosopher Niccoló Machiavelli, in particular The Prince as well as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
While he was in jail, his third solo album, Me Against the World, went straight to top spot on the Billboard 200. The 2003 documentary Tupac: Resurrection remains his essential biography.
Narrated in his own words, it traces his life from New York via Baltimore to Los Angeles up until the East Coast-West Coast war that led to his murder, and that of rival artist Biggie Smalls.
The biopic unpacks Tupac’s philosophy of street warfare and his confrontation with an oppressive system that made him a ghetto warrior.
He was born into politics. His mother, Afeni Shakur Davis, was at the forefront of the Black Panther movement. She was among 13 members indicted on 156 charges including conspiracy to bomb subway stations, police stations, railroads, department stores and the New York Botanical Garden. In 1971, 34 days before she gave birth to Tupac, she defended herself in court and was acquitted of all charges.
Tupac wrote Dear Mama to honour her struggles as a single black mother, but the song doesn’t shy away from her drug addiction. The song went platinum, with Rolling Stone naming it one of the best hip-hop songs of all time.
The rapper-poet wrote about poverty, injustice, social inequality, racism.
His fans cut across the racial divide because he understood the complexity of race and humanity. He minimised the differences between black people and white people, pointing out that they both fear the same criminal elements. Tupac rapped: “Take the evil out the people they’ll be actin’ right / ’Cause both black and white smokin’ crack tonight / And the only time we chill is when we kill each other.’’
By the time Tupac died at 25, he had accomplished more in his short life than most artists. In both life and death, he has sold more than 75 million albums, and in 2017, became the first solo rapper to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
At his induction, label mate and friend Snoop Dogg said: “Tupac knew he was only human and represented through his music like no one before. It’s a fact he never shied away – he wore it like badge of honour, with an unapologetic rawness. ’Pac embraced those contradictions that prove we ain’t just a character out of someone else’s story book.”
“To be human,” said Snoop, “is to be many things at once – strong and vulnerable, hard-headed and intellectual, courageous and afraid, loving and vengeful, revolutionary and … gangster.’’
He was certainly a contradiction. The same man who was raised by powerful radical women, and who never forgot this, listed the feminist classic, Sisterhood is Powerful, as among his favourite books, and wrote songs about both the disposability and power of women – like Brenda’s Got a Baby and Keep Your Head Up – also used sexist language in his work, and was accused and convicted of sexual assault.