Not long ago a friend challenged me to debate whether we should have 2pac-hologram concerts. Granted the apparition performer cannot compare with Tupac the man in his flesh and blood, but the answer was obvious. Given a choice between something good and nothing at all, most people prefer the something. We need 2pac-hologram concerts, I told him. Tupac was not just a rapper, but as his ability to live on in mystical form evidences, he was an inspirer, an uplifter of young people.
In his classic song “Life Goes On”—which features life in its name, but in its chorus, the death of all his friends who “fell victim to the streets”—Tupac immortalizes all those who had to transcend this earth by deaths that came too soon. When he himself became a victim of the same violent and unjust forces that brought premature ends to his friends’ lives, the song began to serve a second function as a self-composed obituary celebrating his time on this earth and beyond.
“I ain’t worried,” Tupac proclaims in the song, because “though memories fade,” he “got your name tatted” on his arm “so we both ball till my dying days.” Since his death on September 13, 1996, at the too-young age of twenty-five, through music, Tupac and his homies now “ball” even beyond.
Various fans and scholars have considered Tupac a modern folk hero, organic intellectual, international martyr and “ethereal life force” with an urgent desire to “unify mind, body, and spirit.” He spoke for those who could not speak themselves, becoming a collective and at times contradictory voice now preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry (for the song “Dear Mama”), the Rolling Stone’s list of “100 Immortal Artists of All Time” and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
These are mere accolades, though, bestowed upon Tupac by a society filled with poverty and police brutality. That very society and its unequal conditions Tupac rejected and rose above. Tupac was an originator of the concept of “thug life,” which at alternate times was both a lifestyle choice and a disease. He succeeded with no help but his mother’s love and his own mystical power and abilities, but he did not endorse or belong to the divisive and pointless violence characteristic of the so-called “ghettoes” he inhabited.
Tupac empowered young people who grew up on streets that were out to get them, leading them to join him in his higher spiritual quest. In a 1994 MTV interview Tupac offered his own view on a quintessential Ghandi wisdom. “I’m not saying I’m going to rule the world or I’m going to change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that will change the world,” Tupac prophesized. But he did.
In the song “Nothing to Lose” Tupac wondered aloud, “when they kill me is there a heaven for a real G?” The implication might be that just as he was barred from mainstream society the pearly gates might too be closed to him. Still, he found ways to celebrate life (represented on the album All Eyez on Me) regardless of external circumstances, and so too he will find ways to live on, following his authentic path, no matter what doors are closed to him after death.
In the eternal Tupac-Biggie arguments, even Notorious B.I.G. supporters often concede that Tupac had the stronger message, a message of peace, acceptance and inner strength. The great irony in Tupac’s story is that despite his magnanimous spirit, he was caught up and killed in the very gang violence he criticized. Tupac did not just draw on other rappers though, but also on the greats of world literature. He famously compared Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the Bloods v. Crips warfare prevalent in modern Los Angeles. After Tupac’s death rapper Nas declared Tupac greater than Shakespeare himself, a statement Tupac might have disputed. Viewed another way, the social commentary of the original bard flows through Tupac in transcendent form.
No rapper has left such a mark on hip-hop culture as Tupac. After the legend’s death, members of his crew, Outlawz, mixed his ashes with marijuana and smoked some of the modern poet’s divine inspiration. Tupac’s loss left a void and too many unanswered mysteries—many people are unable to accept his death. And so, Tupac’s life goes on, filling the void only he can fill. As Tupac expresses, it may “be a lie if I told you that I never thought of death,” but so is it a lie to say I have not considered life even more open and possible, awakened by Tupac and the sparks he ignited, undying and brighter than any heavenly light.