While in elementary school, Tupac Shakur organized a boycott to support a teacher who was fired because of the school’s financial issues.
Later, as a high-school student, he led rallies for AIDS awareness and spoke out against violence in inner-city neighborhoods.
At 19, he released his debut album, the politically and socially charged “2Pacalypse Now,” and by 21, he had formed a group called Underground Railroad dedicated to helping disenfranchised youths get off the streets and interested in music.
Then, at 25, on Sept. 7, 1996 he was shot. He died from his injuries six days later on Sept. 13.
Tupac Shakur was known as many things in his short life — a poet, a rapper, a producer, an actor, an activist, 2Pac, Makaveli. A legend that — like most — was taken too soon.
Now, 20 years after his death, it is hard not to wonder what he could have been. At the time of his murder, which remains unsolved, he was engaged to the daughter of famed producer Quincy Jones and the sister of actress Rashida Jones, Kidada Jones. Today, he could have been a husband and a father.
What is perhaps most interesting, is how seamlessly Tupac would fit into the current climates of both pop culture and politics. He was able to make authentic hip-hop radio friendly long before the Kendricks, Kanyes and J. Coles. His songs and poetry shared a snapshot of the harsh realities of the inner-city neighborhoods that surrounded his youth. His words — at times gently, at others aggressively — illustrated stories as well as any great artist could.
Listeners could feel Brenda’s pain as she struggled to raise her child in “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and the sense of hopelessness the narrator felt in “Trapped” in 1991. Tupac was able to articulate hardship through music in a way that was uniquely his own. He inspired women with songs like “Keep Ya Head Up,” and provided commentary on society at large in “Changes.”
But despite presenting himself as an observer, Tupac was not without personal controversy. He had his feuds, his legal run-ins and he offended his fair share of the public.
In 1991, he received $43,000 after winning a civil suit against the Oakland Police Department following his allegations that police beat him for jaywalking. How would he react to the police brutality headlines and protests that dominate the media today? Would he join in the protests? Would he kneel with Colin Kaepernick? Would he write music for the cause as he did for the 1992 Special Olympics?
Most likely he would be alongside his friend and labelmate Snoop Dogg, whose recent activism includes organizing meetings between rival gangs to clean up the streets and setting up a youth football league to reward underprivileged children. Both of these are ideas that Tupac himself spoke on in the ‘90s and are still relevant today.
His music retains relevance. “Changes” was recorded in 1992. The lyrics read: “And still I see no changes. Can’t a brother get a little peace? There’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East. Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”
If Tupac didn’t see changes then, what would he say now?