Keep Ya Head Up: In Memory of Tupac Shakur

"Nobody cries when we die,
we outlaws."
Tupac Shakur, "Life goes on"

This time, it's Tupac who's gone. And many are now crying for this outlaw rapper and actor. In the projects and ghetto streets, speakers have been blasting out of cars and boomboxes--"2PAC in the house." In memory and respect, many are pouring a little liquor on the ground.

Tupac's rhymes sketch a hard and desperate world--but many people knew how much of it was real. Over and over again last week, people said they thought Tupac was real--whatever choices, mistakes or successes he lived through, people felt he was from them, and had not forgotten or abandoned them.

In Tupac's stories, many people saw their lives. In his rise from the projects to record-breaking sales, many people saw their hopes of getting over. In his fights with the cops, they saw their spirit of resistance. In his troubles and prison time, many people saw their own fight to survive.

And that only makes his death that much harder--because now the story of this brother ends in a tragic waste. He was 25 when he died on Friday, September 13. And many people feel, once again, the hopelessness of the life offered to young Black men in America today.

On Saturday, September 7, Tupac's car left the Tyson-Seldon fight in Las Vegas in a caravan of cars. A car pulled up alongside and opened fire--four bullets hit Tupac, ripping holes in his right chest. That Monday, one lung was surgically removed. That Friday, he died.

It is unclear what motivated the shooting. But this much is clear: This killing was a downpressing piece of work--a sad and degrading event for the people and a cheap victory for the oppressors and enforcers.

Tupac often talked about how so many young Black men live their lives as "soldiers"--some at war with each other, some at war with the establishment. And when he was asked in one interview what he was at war with he answered: "Different things at different times. My own heart sometimes. There's two niggas inside me.... Tupac the son of the Black Panther and Tupac the Rider."

RCP spokesperson Carl Dix has been saying that the response of oppressed people, in the extremism of these days, will be either something desperate or something militant. Tupac's raps and his life were filled with the dilemma of that choice.

At 25, it was not clear yet where he would end up--and what he would ultimately represent. But a lot of oppressed people had hopes for this brother--not just that he would tell about their lives--but that he might, perhaps, find his way toward making some really great contributions to the people.

But now, instead, this system worked its dog-eat-dog ways, and this young Black man is dead. It's the oldest story in the ghetto.

And people are asking, talking to each other and in thousands of calls to radio stations: How do we stop this? Where does it end?

Panthers and Projects

Tupac came up hard, and people knew it. His story always came with the memory and the militant promise of the Panthers.

In her teens, Tupac's mother, Afeni Shakur, joined the Disciples on the streets. Then she woke up politically when the Black Panther Party moved to create a revolutionary answer to the oppression of Black people. Afeni joined the New York Panthers in September 1968. And only seven months later, she was framed along with the other Panther 21 by the FBI--arrested on bizarre, fabricated charges of planning to bomb public buildings. Afeni was pregnant in Greenwich Village's Women's House of Detention. One month after Afeni was acquitted in 1971, she gave birth to a son--she called him Tupac. Born among the people--born into a life of struggle.

Some Panthers, like Tupac's godfather Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt, went to prison. Others, like Afeni Shakur, struggled to survive and to continue their resistance on the outside. When that movement ebbed, hardcore poverty remained. In a Vibe article, Tupac talks about moving between the Bronx and Harlem a lot, sometimes living in homeless shelters. At 12, he got a chance to participate in Harlem's 127th Street Ensemble--performing in A Raisin in the Sun. He said he was "bitten by the bug" of acting.

At one point in the early '80s, as Tupac's stepfather slid into crack addiction, Afeni moved her family to Baltimore. Tupac went to the Baltimore School for the Arts--acting and starting to rap. Tupac never finished high school. His family moved to Marin City, California--and in the projects there, like so many others, he saw little open to him but the illegal economy. Unknown to Tupac, the CIA was pumping cheap cocaine into the ghettos of California to support a mercenary war against Nicaragua.

Tupac raps about those days in "Dear Mama," his tribute to Afeni Shakur:

"I moved out and started really hangin'
I needed money of my own so I started slangin'
I ain't guilty cuz, even tho I sell rocks
It feels good, putting money in your mailbox
I love paying rent when tha rent's due..."

Under Fire

Tupac started performing gigs with Digital Underground, then went out on his own, making hit albums and appearing in the films Juice, Above the Rim, and Poetic Justice. Performing was a way out of "the life" for him. But the content of his work remained centered on rebellious stories of the "Thug Life."

His art and his life soon brought him into conflict with the authorities. Tupac filed a suit against two Oakland cops who beat him up in 1991 after a jaywalking citation. In the summer of 1993, the national media spread the charge that lyrics on his second album 2Pacalypse Now had incited a Texas teenager to kill a state trooper. Vice President Dan Quayle joined the attack--denouncing Tupac and his album for its anti-police lyrics.

"Tha critics are tha cops,
tha courts are tha crooks,
so don't look so confused,
take a closer look."

Tupac Shakur,
"Souljah's Revenge"

In October 1993, he was arrested for shooting two off-duty cops in Atlanta. Tupac said they had pulled guns on him during a traffic argument. At the time, the RW reported Tupac had told Arsenio Hall that he "was not afraid because as long as I stand with the poor people, I know they will stand behind me."

"I give a holler to my sisters on welfare...
I know they like ta beat ya down a lot
and when ya come around tha block brothers clown a lot
but please don't cry, dry ya eyes
never let up
forgive but don't forget girl
keep ya head up
and when he tells you you ain't nothin
don't believe him
and if he can't learn ta love you, you should leave him.

Tupac Shakur, Keep Ya Head Up

In Keep Ya Head and Dear Mama Tupac offered respect to women, but these thoughts co-existed with the male-dominated gangsta scene where women are treated like things, not people--the rewards of male "success"--where sisters are disrespected as "b*tches and hos."

In November, Tupac was charged with the sexual abuse of a young woman--who had been invited to his hotel room. Tupac claimed he had not participated in the multiple rape, but criticized himself for not stopping it: "Even though I'm innocent of the charge they gave, I'm not innocent in terms of the way I was acting." (Vibe, May 25, 1995) He later said that the Tupac who "would stand by and let dishonorable things happen is dead."

In 1994, the day before he was sentenced, Tupac was seriously shot outside a recording studio. He believed he had been set up and betrayed by rivals within the East Coast rap scene. He got drawn into a long and bitter feud that badly divided hip hop and lasted until his death.

As he went to prison for 11 months, his album, "Me against the World" sold millions and after his release last October, he produced "All Eyes on Me" on Death Row Records, his West Coast label. The fact that this album was breaking sales records didn't protect Tupac from the madness that hit him in Las Vegas.

Tupac told The Beat: "I'm a reflection of the community, and all young Black males are going through that, young Black females, young white males, you know, a lot of minorities period are going through that--going through trying to come up and then getting pulled back five steps, and you move 8 steps and they pull you back 18 steps. So to me, it's not personal because they all going through it. The only thing that makes it different and original with me is that people get to watch it from the beginning-to-end like a soap opera... Every time I think `this is it' and I go all out to beat that, and I win, or I lose, and come into the next one, it's worse. It's worse. It's like the Twilight Zone. It's like some evil, unstoppable thing that just won't let me go. It's just got its hands on me and it wants to see me fail."

Real Dilemmas

"You used to see rappers talking all that hard shit, and then you see them in suits and shit at the American Music Awards. I don't want to be that type of nigga. I wanted to keep it real, and that's what I thought I was doing."

Tupac Shakur, Vibe, April 1995

"I think that he's very introspective. I mean, when we were shooting `Juice' in between takes, he would spend a lot of time by himself, writing. He thinks alot. He thinks about what's going on in the world. He thinks about what's going on in the neighborhoods. He thinks about what's going on in this country and around the world. And he thinks about it in his music. And the thing that I really got from Tupac was that he was always thinking, always at work. His mind was always going."

Ernest Dickerson, director of "Juice" on MTV

In one Rolling Stone interview, Tupac said "I'm a product of a society that openly tells me my life isn't worth anything. In any other country with any other skin color, I would have been a great lawyer. I would be Tom Cruise in The Firm. But in America with Black skin, I'm just Tupac, the cop-killer dude. You know I'm a revolutionary. I'm straight thuggin' out here--thuggin' against society, thuggin' against the system that made me."

Tupac wanted to take the people's side but he didn't have faith in the people's ability to change the world. A real revolution appeared to him to be an impossible dream. Tupac said: "My mom and them envisioned this world for us to live in, and strove to make that world. So I was raised off those ideals, to want those. But in my own life, I saw that that world was impossible to have. It's a world in our head. It's a world we think about at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I had to teach my mother how to live in this world like it is today--she taught me how to live in that world that we have to strive for." (Vibe, "Ready to Live," April 1995)

Despairing of a real revolution, he got drawn to another path.

"I'm tired of being a nice guy
I've been poor all my life,
but don't know quite why,
So they label me a lunatic
could care less.
Death or success--is what I quest
Cuz I'm fearless now that streetz R deathrow."

Tupac Shakur, "The Streetz R Deathrow"

"I'm trying ta make a dollar out of fifteen cents
it's hard ta be legit and still pay tha rent
and in tha end it seems I'm headin for tha pen
I try to find my friends, but they're blowin in tha wind."

Tupac Shakur, "Keep Ya Head Up"

At times Tupac saw the gangsta life as rebellious, even as revolutionary. At other times he said: "This Thug Life stuff, it was just ignorance. My intentions was always in the right place. I never killed anybody. I never raped anybody. I never committed no crimes that weren't honorable--that weren't to defend myself. So that's what I'm going to show them. I'm going to show people my true intentions, and my true heart. I'm going to show them the man that my mother raised. I'm going to make them all proud." (Vibe, April 1995)

It was hard to miss that "the bodies droppin" in the raps--and on the streets--are far too often the bodies of other young Black men--killed over empty shit, like money and face. Tupac said: "If you see everybody dying because of what you saying, it don't matter that you didn't make them die, it just matters that you didn't save them."

"I'm sick of being tired,
sick of tha sirens, body bags,
and tha gun firing."

Tupac Shakur, "The Streetz R Deathrow"

Projected as a political strategy for the oppressed, the gangsta approach is a loser. In the end, it is a capitalist thing about getting money and about stepping on other people to do it. It can't unite the people and it can't really liberate anyone.

Tupac got caught up in a scene of competing business interests--where the dog-eat-dog of gangsta life merges with the dog-eat-dog of the so-called legit capitalist world. As empty rivalries split up the world of hip hop--East Coast versus West Coast? What is that about?--he became a target.

We Can't Go Out Like This

"We have to ask: Why are the people into the gangsta life? Why are our communities run down? Is it the fault of young Black males that Black people are locked into ghettos with no jobs out there for them? Are Black males responsible for the international drug trade which involves capitalists, armies and government officials in many countries, including the CIA? Is it the fault of young Black males that schools in the ghetto are run down and don't offer any future?... The source of these and all the other problems the people face is the capitalist system we live under. It's why there's no jobs out there that pay enough to bring up a family. It's why the ghettos and barrios are flooded with drugs. It's why so many of our people got no way to survive but thru some hustle....How are we get going to get rid of this? Is the solution atonement? Or is it to refocus the ferocity and energy of the youth--their fearlessness--to a real revolutionary courage and a revolutionary solution?"

RCP Spokesman Carl Dix

In every headline and story they've run about his death, the system is gloating with its hypocritical summation of Tupac's life. Tupac, the New York Times said, "symbolized violence." The Chicago Defender carried a picture that said, "Live by the gun, die by the gun." People complain that MTV's coverage made him look like Willie Horton.

The system blames the people for their lack of choices. They blame the young for their own deaths. If you don't want to die like a gangsta, the system says, then get used to living like a slave while you dream of becoming a wannabe oppressor. That's the choice they offer.

Tupac knew they'd run bullshit if he died. We're told that's why he asked to be cremated: he didn't want some preacher mumbling regrets over his bones.

"We ain't meant ta survive,
cuz it's a setup
and even though ya fed up
ya got ta keep ya head up."

Thinking about Tupac's life and death, its meaning and its dilemmas, we believe it is a time for renewed dedication to building a powerful movement of resistance and a culture of resistance. So that there is a place for brothers like Tupac to stand and fight, so that artists from the oppressed can serve the people instead of being the property of some record company, so that there is a hope to live and die for, so that the revolution becomes a powerful reality and grows as a process living deep among the people--gaining strength, transforming the world and us all.

Something desperate or something militant? --it's up to us.