why isn’t anybody Backing us up!
When they c these crooked ass Redneck cops
constantly Jacking us up
Now I bet some punk will say I’m racist
I can tell by the way you smile at me
then I remember George Jackson, Huey Newton
and Geronimo 2 hell with Lady Liberty
- Tupac Amaru Shakur, “How Can We Be Free”
Michael Brown is dead. Two days before the 18-year-old was due to begin his first day of college, that particularly American rite bridging adolescence and true adulthood, a man in a blue uniform shot him dead. The details are being pieced together slowly, but what is known is this: for hours, Michael Brown’s teenaged body grew cold under the hot Missouri sun in the spot where it shook and fell.
When I read the news, I did the same thing I did the first time I heard Trayvon Martin’s name. And Jonathan Ferrell’s and Eric Garner’s and Renisha McBride’s. In a moment of desperate stillness, on a dark street in Chinatown, I listened to 2Pac’s “Hellrazor” on repeat. The song, off of the posthumous R U Still Down? (Remember Me), does not address police brutality as directly as others in his catalogue. But there is nothing quite like ’Pac’s voice—pained, hysterical, laser-focused—when he snarls in the third verse: “Dear Lord, if ya hear me, tell me why / Little girl like LaTasha had to die / She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot / Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped / And when I saw it on the news how she bucked the girl / Killed LaTasha, now I’m screamin’ fuck the world.”
Specifically, it is a reference to the murder of LaTasha Harlins by the Korean owners of a convenience store, who saw a shoplifter where there was just a 15-year-old girl. Broadly, it is classic ’Pac: distilling generations’ worth of rage and injustice into mere syllables. That his work is still as resonant today as it was then is an indicator of our still-grim realities and of his prophetic relevance.
Tupac’s history with the police was fraught and, as it is for many black people, began even before he was born. The inherited, inherent trauma of being dark-skinned in America is inextricably linked to the police and to other state institutions that use terror to uphold the racist order. But there’s more: Tupac was a child of the revolution. His mother (Afeni Shakur), his father (Billy Garland), his stepfather (Mutulu Shakur), his godfather (Geronimo Pratt), and other close family members and friends were high-ranking Black Panthers or belonged to other radical groups that were systematically targeted by law enforcement.
Some have since died or been killed, others are serving lengthy prison sentences, and at least one—his aunt, Assata Shakur, the first woman to land on the FBI’s Most Wanted terrorist list—is still on the run. Tupac himself narrowly escaped a prison birth, a heavily pregnant Afeni having been acquitted in a landmark political trial days before he was delivered. The Panther ideals he was raised on taught him about the police long before he was first harassed by an officer; they did the same for legions of his listeners, too.
Can barely walk the city streets
Without a cop harassing me, searching me
Then asking my identity
Hands up, throw me up against the wall
Didn’t do a thing at all
I’m tellin’ you one day these suckers gotta fall
The New York City crowd at the late July closing performance of Holler If Ya Hear Me, the Broadway musical inspired by and set to Tupac’s songs, vacillated between emotions, the weight and breadth of his work carrying the show’s dramatic arc. Next to me, during a scene about vulnerability and forgiveness, a pregnant woman cried to “I Ain’t Mad Atcha.” On my other side, a white teenager rapped along to the chest-beating “Hail Mary.” By the time “California Love” was performed during the second act, the entire audience wriggled with excitement to one of the most infallible party songs in history. Ticket sales were poor, but it’s difficult to imagine why.
While there has been much conversation about why Holler flopped, closing after just a month, I thought about what it meant that it was attempted at all—nearly two decades after his death, on a coast he once waged war against. We still haven’t gotten over ’Pac. “It’s clear that Tupac is never going to die,” Saul Williams, the show’s lead and its most relentless spokesperson, told Rolling Stone.
Perhaps the perpetually wet Maybelline lashes drew us in. Or the brilliant smile that could melt an iceberg. Perhaps it was the confident ease with which he moved, or the dexterity of long fingers forming a pair of infamous west coast-signifying Ws. Perhaps it is the body of work: 11 albums, four films, and countless public appearances, which varied from charming to insightful to incendiary. Maybe, though, it is that Tupac was the most honest man in America, a truth-teller whose credo can be summed up by Lauryn Hill’s immortal words: “Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need.” He was the reality we needed, even—especially—when he made us uncomfortable.
Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts givin’ ‘em back to you
Don’t let ‘em jack you up, back you up, crack you up and pimp smack you up
In America, a black man is killed by police, security guards, or police-acting vigilantes every 28 hours. ’Pac may not have known that statistic, but he knew what it felt like. He famously predicted his own death and, in doing so, linked his fate to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and all the other young, gifted, dead black males. He made public the private terrors of black boys and of the people who love them.
Tupac’s transformation from soft-spoken, doe-eyed prince to Blood-affiliated, gun-toting, delinquent wannabe gangster is one of his most eulogized qualities. A true Gemini, he could switch from toothy smile to biting growl in a second, just like he transformed from theatre nerd chairing the New Afrikan Panthers youth group at 17 to politically engaged rapper at 21 to self-avowed thug, dead at 25.
“In my life I was different things to different people. Some people say I was a thug and a gangsta. Other people remember me as a poet and a born leader,” he acknowledges in an audio clip excerpted in the documentary Tupac: Resurrection. Where many see a man who succumbed to manipulative Death Row Records owner Suge Knight, or a man possessed by manic paranoia, I have always seen an indisputable example of what happens when America backs you into a corner.
As hip hop rounded the corner into the ’90s and grew into the multi-billion dollar industry we know it as today, Tupac became the face of a new kind of activism, one that was fronted by tattoos and baggy, sagging jeans and the reclamation of negative stereotypes. His existence shattered the respectability politics left over from previous generations’ fight for racial equality. After the dusk of the civil rights movement, legions of black people were taught that the surest way to overcome racism was to prove your humanity. Or to become whiter, figuratively and literally—money could wash away your blackness.
But, counter to the post-racial myth of meritocracy—one that holds wealthy rappers up as examples that it is possible to buy our way to freedom—Tupac knew his relationship with America was defined by his skin colour and nothing else.
The Thug Life mantra he clung to later in life, and famously tattooed across his belly, was flawed, but it was a no-holds-barred response to the fundamentally racist state that is America. Thug Life was an acronym that stood, nebulously, for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” Or, in his words, “What you feed us as seeds grows and blows in your face.” It is a sentiment that always reminded me of a quote from a speech given by Frederick Douglass in 1886 in Washington, DC: “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
“We run from the cops, we run from Radames, we run from security guards, we run from Old Man Quiles and his bullshit store when he come with that bullshit gun. All we do is fuckin’ run!…You gotta get the ground beneath your feet, get the wind behind your back, and go out in a blaze. Otherwise you ain’t shit. You might as well be dead your damn self.”
-Tupac Amaru Shakur as Bishop, Juice
In 1993, Tupac shot two off-duty cops in a suburb of Atlanta. After intervening to help a man he thought was being harassed by two white boys, a fight popped off. One of the white boys shot at him. Tupac returned fire and hit them both. He was eventually acquitted, but the pain ran deep, he told journalist dream hampton: “I started having mothafuckin’ flashbacks of Rodney King and Kunta Kinte. We been running all our mothafuckin’ lives.”