Tupac Shakur biography: a life marked by struggle and death – review

Tupac Shakur biography: a life marked by struggle and death – review

The Authorized Biography unveils a lifelong battle against injustice

by Suswati Basu
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“So much I wanted to accomplish, before I reach my death,” is the running theme of “The Authorized Biography” of the late hip hop superstar Tupac Shakur, written by close family friend Staci Robinson. The author has previously written about Tupac, as well as his very high-profile mother Afeni, who specially commissioned the book before her death in 2016. From birth to the end, the biography showcases this self-fulfilling prophecy, and the fact that the rapper appeared to be well aware that his life would be cut short.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Tupac Shakur "The Authorized Biography" on table in front of books "I Put A Spell on You" by Nina Simone, "Decoded" by Jay-Z, "A Little Devil in America" by Hanif Abdurraqib, "The Rap Year Book" by Ice T. et al., and a black and white image of Billie Holiday.
Tupac Shakur “The Authorized Biography” by Staci Robinson. Credit: Suswati Basu / How To Be Books.

Tupac did not even make it into the notorious and tragic “27 club,” alongside the likes of Robert Johnson, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. The multitalented star died at the tender age of 25, when he was shot dead in a gang-related feud in 1996. To this day, the murder has not been solved, however, 27 years after his death, a Nevada grand jury indicted Duane “Keffe D” Davis on September 29th, 2023. Chief Deputy District Attorney Marc DiGiacomo described Davis as the “on-ground, on-site commander” who “ordered the death.”

Why was Tupac so popular?

Tupac's talent for addressing crucial social matters within his rap lyrics is a defining characteristic that elevates him to the status of an iconic and contemporary artist within hip hop culture. In a way, his untimely death immortalised his status as one of the most influential and successful rappers of all time.

2Pac, as he is also known, is among the best-selling music artists, having sold more than 75 million records worldwide, most of which were released posthumously. For example, seven of his 11 platinum albums came out after his death. He was a prolific writer, hence there are still a number of unreleased songs in the vault, decades after his demise.

Afeni Shakur’s influence: the roots of Tupac’s activism

Born Tupac Amaru Shakur to the legendary Black Panther activist Afeni, he seemed destined to follow in many of the same footsteps as his mother. From his revolutionary stance, the need to help and uplift the community and fight against injustice, to the feeling of constant threat and paranoia – 2Pac had a difficult path laid out for him.

Afeni Shakur-Davis gestures while delivering an address at Reynolds Performance Hall. Shakur-Davis, former Black Panther and mother of hip hop artist and actor Tupac Shakur, is the founder of Amaru Entertainment/Records and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation.
Afeni Shakur-Davis gestures while delivering an address at Reynolds Performance Hall. Credit: University of Central Arkansas.

Afeni was a prominent figure in the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary organisation that advocated for civil rights and social justice for African Americans during the 1960s and 1970s. She established several community organisations, including one of the earliest legal services unions, known as the National Organization of Legal Services Workers (NOLSW), as well as Blacks Against Abusive Drugs (BAAD). Tupac often accompanied her to union meetings and witnessed her dedicated efforts to advocate for women’s rights in prison. He observed her meticulous planning of a candlelight vigil to honour the mothers of the victims in the tragic 1979 Atlanta child murders, during which approximately 29 Black children, teenagers, and young adults lost their lives. As Robinson writes: “None of Afeni’s actions was ever lost on her son. And now Tupac took the torch from her, setting his own agenda for change.”

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As a result, even while she was in hospital giving birth, “paranoia bred into Afeni by the Panthers and by her time in prison [which] had only grown since the end of the trial.” Tupac explains years later: “My mother was pregnant with me while she was in prison,” adding that “She was her own attorney. Never been to law school. She was facing three hundred some-odd years. One black woman—pregnant—beat the case. That just goes to show you the strength of a Black woman and the strength of the oppressed.”

“These stark realities in Afeni’s young life set the stage not only for the world that Tupac was born into but also for the one he walked in throughout this life.”

The harsh circumstances of Afeni’s early life not only shaped the environment into which Tupac was born but also influenced the path he walked throughout his own life. From the moment of his birth and throughout his upbringing, he was deeply affected by Afeni’s fears and aspirations for her son. She instilled in him the expectation that he would continue her commitment to the Black community and her determination to assist others in their quest for liberation from oppression.

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In a way, Tupac’s need to change the outcome for his mother became all-consuming. Years later he would say, “I think my mother knew that freedom wouldn’t come in her lifetime just like I know that it won’t come in mine. But it’s a matter of either we stay like this or somebody sacrifices […] Somebody has to break out and risk losing everything and being poor and getting beat down; somebody has to do something.”

It was apparent that this set the foundation for his “big mouth,” as he describes it. Tupac rarely refrained from expressing his grievances openly and assertively towards those he believed had mistreated him. It was a trait thoroughly ingrained in him. At the age of 16, this fearless determination, coupled with an unwavering scepticism of authority from Afeni, occasionally led him into challenging situations. And as a young Black man, these situations could sometimes result in dire consequences.

The urgency of change: Tupac’s activism and social consciousness

There was certainly a sense of urgency about everything he wanted to achieve. Afeni’s teachings had consistently served as the “bedrock of his activism.” Her cautionary tales about society’s injustices, the stories of her comrades’ destinies, and her vivid portrayals of the systemic oppression burdening and dismantling Black communities were like a steadily rising tide in his life.

Robinson states: “The harsh realities of the daily news made it all the more real, heightening the stakes. These startling reports, the litany of tragic homicides, broke Tupac’s heart, giving his burning desire to make change an almost desperate urgency.”

A high level of intergenerational trauma is a spectre that overshadows the entire book. Not only did the superstar feel the pressure of transforming the situation for his community and his family, his mother also talked about “the urgency of putting food on the table for her children.” Every day, Afeni endeavoured to overcome the lingering trauma of her past as a Panther, confronting the painful reality that she was a survivor of a failed revolution. She states: “It was a war and we lost.”

Lack of trust in authority

Much of Tupac’s lyrics and poems often reflect this reality. In “Government Assistance or My Soul,” he writes that “And there R many days I hunger / But I would go hungry and homeless / Before the American Government gets my soul.” It is one of the reasons why Tupac even attempted to sell drugs, before dealers spotted his talent and offered financial support to keep him from running into trouble.

This intense mistrust of authority that permeated throughout his life, was both warranted and unwarranted. Instead of retreating after shouting at police, his commitment to seeking fairness and opposing injustice grew stronger. He refused to back down or yield, steadfastly standing up for what he deemed just in the ongoing battle against police harassment and systemic oppression.

“Tupac’s first run-in with the police offered a sharp lesson: If you mouth off to the police, no matter if you think you’re right or not, you’re going to face the consequences, especially as a Black man.”

But there were times where authorities did abuse their power, and eerily reflected some recent incidents of notable police violence. While in Oakland, two police officers confronted him for jaywalking. One of the officers put Tupac in a chokehold and threw him on the ground. Tupac yelled at them, “This is not slavery and you’re not my masters!” “Master?” Kevin Rodgers said. “I like the sound of that.” Then he pummelled Tupac’s head into the pavement.

Read: A Fever in the Heartland: cautionary tale of the KKK’s invisible hoods – review

Tupac recounted the incident in a press conference weeks later: “My spirit was broke. ’Cause after I made consciousness again, they kept joking about ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!’ ’cause I couldn’t breathe. The breath was taken from me.” Of course, “I can’t breathe” was chanted at a number of Black Lives Matter rallies following the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who was killed in 2014 after being put in a chokehold by a New York City Police Officer. Hence his suspicions were justified.

"They got me trapped
"Can barely walk the city streets without a cop harassing me
"Searching me then asking my identity."

"Trapped" by Tupac Shakur

However, there were a number of instances where Tupac’s behaviour was like a powder keg about to explode. Tupac shot two off-duty police officers when he felt threatened. Robinson elucidates the two men were drunk, and that the gun they used to smash Tupac’s window had been originally seized in a drug bust and then stolen from an evidence locker. As a result, the case against him was dropped.

Over the years, he ran into and out of trouble, including the notorious case in which he denied raping Ayanna Jackson, and was eventually sent to prison for four-and-a-half years. Despite serving only nine months, following the incident, his urgency heightened, and his malaise grew worse. It is difficult to justify much of his behaviour, but in the context of his upbringing, he was set up to harbour maladaptive behaviours. He eventually contemplated suicide and even asked for friends to help him carry out this plan. Soon after, Tupac had been shot in the lobby of Quad Recording Studios in Manhattan, and blamed close people around him, which fuelled a deadly gang feud.

The final confrontation

"When my heart can beat no more
"I hope I die for a principle
"or a belief that I had lived 4
"I will die before my time"

"In the Event of My Demise" by Tupac Shakur

Tupac, who had been friends with fellow hip hop rapper Biggie Smalls, or The Notorious B.I.G., had accused him of knowing who had attacked him. He denied all claims that he’d written “Who Shot Ya?” about Tupac, claiming he’d recorded it long before that night in November. But the damage was done, and Tupac’s “big mouth” would not let it go. At the same time, he had joined the fatefully-named Death Row records, with convicted felon Suge Knight at the helm, despite protests against this move.

Biggie & Tupac: Trailer by journalist Nick Broomfield.

Even though Tupac saw the track “Hit ’Em Up,” as a response to Biggie’s song, he took it to the absolute extreme. Tupac’s cousin Katari Terrance ‘Kastro’ Cox remembered, “The song shook up the rap game. You got beef records, people going back and forth, but what Pac did with that record is that he made it very personal. It changed the way beef songs were done. They became more personal. ‘Hit ’Em Up’ turned the hip-hop community upside down to where the beef shit is not so trivial. Egos and pride got involved. It became serious.”

The potent fusion of Tupac’s anger and well-founded paranoia compelled him to extend his focus beyond Biggie. He chose to confront anyone he believed to be aligned with Biggie, drawing other East Coast artists into the feud, including rappers he had never even encountered, like the duo Mobb Deep, who had allegedly disrespected Tupac during a live performance. Upon hearing the track “Messenger” by the rapper Nas, Tupac took the lyrics as a personal affront, interpreting Nas as branding him a “phony thug” and mocking the traumatic Quad Studios shooting incident.

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Perhaps it was for this reason, he worked in a frenzy, knowing that things would come to a head and it was a form of self-sabotage. Those who had not worked with Tupac before were blown away by his intensity and focus. “I’ve never seen nobody work like that,” producer DJ Quik would say of Tupac in a radio interview. “I never seen anybody that would go in the studio and dedicate that much time to what he was doing. He was a man on a mission….Every time you went into the studio with him it’s a new song.”

In the end, when he saw L.A. Crip member Orlando Anderson at his friend and prominent boxer Mike Tyson’s match, he took “justice into his own hands,” as he was suspected of robbing an acquaintance. He rushed toward Anderson and knocked him to the ground. Four or five of Tupac’s associates jumped in as well. They proceeded to attack Anderson. MGM Grand’s hotel security converged on the scene and peeled the men off one another.

Only hours later, he would be dead, having been shot in a drive-by shooting while in Las Vegas. “At 4:03 p.m. Tupac surrendered to the angels that he had so often dreamed of. As the news spread, tears flooded the eyes of all who were in the waiting room,” Robinson notes, adding, “Afeni didn’t cry yet. A dark, all-consuming pain ripped through her, but her natural propensity to take care of others in pain, even on the worst day of her life, allowed her to comfort them with words of encouragement.”

Life in the shadow of danger

From start to finish, Tupac’s life was predetermined, marked by the constant presence of danger, a lack of trust in authorities, and the understanding that fiercely battling oppression would exact a significant toll. While he certainly made his share of mistakes, it’s difficult not to conclude that he faced formidable odds for survival from the very beginning.

While Herodotus says that “circumstances rule men; men do not rule circumstances,” Tupac employed these destructive methods as a coping and survival mechanism. American philosopher and political activist Cornel West sums this up perfectly in “Race Matters”: “We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live.” He was far from perfect, and yet he was perfectly flawed.

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