Today in History: The Death of Tupac Shakur

Today in History: The Death of Tupac Shakur

Twenty-four years after his death, Tupac Shakur remains a Rap Icon.

On September 13, 1996, Tupac Shakur died after being shot six days earlier in Las Vegas. He was 25 years old, but in the previous six years he’d already become a superstar. His fourth album All Eyez on Me from that February had been a monster hit, the first major hip-hop double disc album. He was a sensation, and he was primed to become even bigger. He acted in major Hollywood films. He had his music denounced by Vice President Dan Quayle. He definitely had more to give. In the twenty-four years since his death and with many posthumous album releases, he has remained one of the greatest rappers of all time. He was undoubtedly an immensely talented writer and performer who was taken too soon.

Part of what continues to draw so many people to Tupac is his life story. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was one of twenty-one members of the Black Panther Party who were arrested in 1968 for attempted murder and a bombing conspiracy. All were found innocent and acquitted in 1971, the year her son was born. Tupac grew up around activists and revolutionary figures and carried that legacy with him into his music career. He attended the Baltimore School of the Arts for high school and continued studying ballet, theatre, and poetry when he moved to California in 1988. In interviews, Tupac consistently talked about how he viewed his poetry writing and rapping as inseparable. He was an artist who seemed to be able to tackle and excel at anything he wanted to. 

All four albums released during his life exemplify his lyrical skill. On his first album, 1991’s 2pacalypse Now, “Brenda’s Got a Baby” chronicles the abandonment, hopelessness, and dire choices a poor Black woman must make and demonstrates Tupac’s ability to capture the real struggles he was seeing in his community daily. Many of his songs deal with the police’s discriminatory and violent treatment of Black men. Listening to many of his tracks in 2020, you can see that very little has changed when it comes to issues of systemic racism and police brutality. His first album also brought controversy. During a trial in Texas for the murder of a police officer, a defense attorney claimed that the defendant had been inspired by the album, prompting Vice President Dan Quayle to denounce the album: “There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation…It has no place in our society.”1

Tupac used his lyrics to bring light to issues facing the Black community, but he also immersed himself in the gangsta lifestyle of the early ‘90s. He made friends with and associated with members of the Crips and the Bloods without fully committing to either gang. Many of his tracks captured the violence and aggression that Tupac increasingly engaged in and was defined by as his career progressed. As he gained more fame, he also began having steady legal troubles. He faced numerous weapons and assault charges. He also successfully sued the Oakland Police Department for police brutality. 

In the 1993 film Juice, he played the main antagonist, a young man who drives his friends to follow him into a life of violence and crime. In some ways, that’s the figure that Tupac would become most associated with. His 1995 album Me Against the World was more introspective, with the track “Dear Mama” a beautiful and loving tribute to his mother. This album was released just as Tupac began his prison sentence for a sexual abuse conviction. He was found guilty, though Tupac claimed he was set up.

It was his dedication to chronicling the issues faced by the Black community that made Tupac an enduring figure. He used his talent to bring attention to the world he grew up in. In an interview after he was released from prison on bail in 1995, he denied being a gangster, saying he was simply rapping about the things he was seeing everyday. He went on to say “almost everyone in America is affiliated with some kind of gang. We got the FBI, the ATF, the police departments, the religious groups, the Democrats and the Republicans. Everybody’s got their own little clique and they’re all out there gangbanging in their own little way.”2 Tupac saw himself just as an artist capturing the world around him. And for that he was denounced by the Vice President. Some things never change.

His death also remains a source of speculation. There was little follow-up investigation by the police, and the identity of his murderer is still unclear. In 2002 after an investigation, the Los Angeles Times claimed that Tupac was shot by Orlando Anderson, a member of the Crips, in response to Tupac beating another gang member in a hotel lobby earlier that night. They also claimed that the Notorious B.I.G. supplied the gun. Others have differing theories, and a few individuals claim that Tupac faked his death and is still alive in Malaysia or Cuba. Regardless, the murder still prompts new theories and conspiracies, a strange side effect of fame.

Tupac was a multifaceted artist. He saw himself as a sensitive guy, writing poetry about the ills he saw in the world, but felt equally at home rapping about gangs and violence. He immersed himself in the gangsta lifestyle, but never fully committed to that world. His influence can be seen throughout popular music as a whole, especially hip-hop and rap. He’s one of those figures that leaves us asking “what if?”


Top Photo by Chi Modu




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