Today marks the 20th anniversary of Tupac’s death. Like many other black teenagers full of angst, I knew exactly where I was when I learned of his death. We were sitting in my friend’s dorm room helping each other with some difficult ass differential equation homework (because black people be STUDYING!), and someone burst in the ajar door and said, “Yo, Tupac is dead!”
I didn’t believe it. After he got shot in New York City and was imprisoned in Riker’s Island, I joked that Tupac will never die. He’s like Jason Voorhees. Set him on fire, put him in a blender, shoot him into space, and he’ll come back 3 months later, with a fresh beef against matches, smoothies, and space travel. We had to actually turn on our television and turn to the news in order to find out the truth. This was back when the internet was only on about 10 computers in the basement lab in the library. Sure enough, the breaking news on CNN was that Tupac had died. This was an insane day. First, Tupac was actually dead. Secondly, a black guy died, and the 1990’s 24-hour news cycle actually cared enough to break into their regularly scheduled programming to report it!
At the time, I was ambivalent about Tupac’s death. During the East/West beef, I was still on Team Biggie. I still listened to every Tupac album pre-All Eyez on Me, though. This was partially because those were the only tapes (YES! TAPES! I’M OLD! GET OVER IT) I possessed after we were evicted from our home the previous year, but also because I felt that Pre-Death Row Tupac was the real Tupac. He was more three-dimensional. His songs went from silly romps like his verse on Digital Underground’s Same Song to somber tributes like Part-time Mutha to frustrated tirades against the machine like Last Wordz. His B-Side game was fierce! His singles were fire, and those were just fluff compared to the rest of his albums. It also helped that like me, he was born in New York to a single mother. Like me, he moved to Baltimore during his teen years. Like me, he had a healthy teenage rage against his absent father. Unlike me, he was friends with Jada Pinkett Smith and moved to Oakland, but oh well.
When he was arrested and convicted of sexual assault, I was still hoteping pretty hard, plus I was raised in America, so my tacit misogyny was quite palpable and unchecked. Of course, I claimed he was set up. Of course, I said the victim was in it for the money. Of course, I wondered why he would assault someone when he could get any girl woman he wanted. When I got over my East/West beef BS and listened to his later music, save do the dis tracks, he was still on message.
Tupac Shakur was a complicated human being. His music illustrated that the best. If you were to only listen to his radio singles, you’d hear him revere women and speak of uplifting the community and rape-apologize and shoot his enemies all within an hour. Off stage, he was truly an activist. He famously told a kid who handed him a demo to hit those books and become a black genius. It wasn’t a judgement of the kid’s artistic skills. He just knew the importance of education in the world. He ran clothing drives in Oakland. He made a speech about the importance of getting involved in government in order to change it. That’s right; Tupac Shakur urged black people to register and VOTE. Anyone claiming they won’t vote because of whatever bullshit reason is pissing on Tupac’s grave. #Notep.
I was still conflicted about listening to his music later one in life, though. It was because of the sexual assault. I have this conflict when I think of Bill Cosby, of Mike Tyson, and recently, of Nate Parker. There is a lot of talk about separating the art from the artist when the artist “allegedly” does something terrible, but I find that difficult sometimes. Mike Tyson made it somewhat easy for me to not care about anything he does. He was never remorseful about beating his spouses, and he never showed any sorrow over his rape charge. Side note: Tyson’s case has the Trump seal of approval. In fact, I remember seeing a few press conferences where he would joke in public about raping female reporters and detractors. But he boxed, and I was never into boxing, so writing him off was easy. Bill Cosby established a multi-million dollar comedy series and spin-off that turned the stereotype of the uneducated black masses on its head. He established a fictional world that was predominantly black, where their troubles had to do with getting good grades and being at work on time instead of what hustle they needed to orchestrate to pay the rent or how to get out of joining a gang. Seeing this at a young age did volumes of good for my outlook on my future prospects, even while still living in poverty. He kind of ruined the façade during his Pound Cake speech, which pretty much blamed black people for things not their own fault. Once he turned into Uncle Ruckus, it was not as difficult for me to not patronize his work anymore, though I appreciate the message.
As I stated before, Nate Parker was always a little troublesome, but I was still conflicted about seeing The Birth of a Nation. I wanted to see a slave narrative that WASN’T suffer porn, but those rape charges, and the homophobia…people who saw the film raved about it. Gabrielle Union, who helped produce the film, who is ALSO a victim of sexual assault, urged people to see the film. I nearly was swayed by her endorsement, but then I remembered one thing…
While Tupac was incarcerated in Riker’s Island, he did an interview with Kevin Powell. In it, though he still claimed the sex was consensual, he took RESPONSIBILITY for what happened. He took responsibility for the actions of his cohorts, who may have put the victim in danger. That is something Nate Parker has yet to do. Immediately after, he bullied the victim. Years later, he dodged questions by using his daughters as human shields. Finally, when he learned of the victims suicide, he made a statement saying how the ordeal was difficult for HIM and how HE has been in turmoil. Motherfucker, you weren’t so gripped with pain that you killed yourself. You got acquitted, and the only conviction in the case was overturned.
Not once has Parker actually truly apologized or taken responsibility for his actions. Even if he wants to claim that he is innocent, what about the intimidation tactics? What about his alcohol consumption that night? What about showing actual sorrow for his part in the psychological trauma that drove a woman to kill herself? Tupac was 23 when he owned his grave mistake. Parker is 36. Shakur showed how much more mature he was right then in 1995. Perhaps if Parker actually owns his role, I’ll consider The Birth of a Nation in my watch list. Until then, I’ll be putting Strictly for My N.I.G.G.A.z on blast while sipping tea.
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