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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Black Prince

His was a life caught up in the crossfire between good, bad and evil. A poet, an actor and a gangster rapper, Tupac Shakur inspired and angered many, but left behind a legacy that his worldwide bulk of fans will forever live to appreciate, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza.

Many Ugandan musicians sing for money, or to be drawn into the celebrity world. Others do it, just for the sake of it. Perhaps the reason we have music enthusiasts drawing pop or soul singers into the hip hop category for the Pearl of Africa Music (PAM) Awards.

Anyway, we could look around to see what moves the music planet. There is one man who has inspired many. His was a life caught up in the crossfire between good, bad and evil. A poet, an actor and a gangster rapper, Tupac Shakur inspired and angered many, but left behind a legacy that his worldwide bulk of fans will forever live to appreciate.

Even in death, he has made his mark as Guinness World Book of Records most successful gangster rapper. Despite not having graduated from high school, the power of Tupac’s lyrics and his poetry were to serve as the basis for his cult status, making him an icon.

Millions of people, whose lives were and continue to be touched by Tupac have for long been engrossed into digging for the pearls of hip-hop culture. Not that they have to smoke weed (marijuana), swing guns, worship sex, or brave jail cells like their hero; but they buy his music, bounce like him and try to speak like him.

"He sang with a passion," says Mr Jared Ombui, a Kenyan student at Makerere University. "His music came from the heart and his rhythms would penetrate one's soul."

Tupac died from gunshot wounds in Las Vegas in 1996 but even after his death, six CDs of his original material and a poetry book have been released.

In a New York Daily News article last year, Rebecca Louie wrote about how in "Tupac: Resurrection," a documentary that opened last year, "Shakur tells his life story, alternating between rage and joy and proving startlingly prescient about his fate...his narration is like a troubled voice from the grave."

At the time of his death, Tupac was a controversial figure who had been charged in the shooting of two off-duty police officers.

The fascinating thing is that even when he could pour violence in his hits, he still had a hold on his fans. "The true power of Shakur originated, somewhat ironically, in his physicality. His appearance evoked in women a combination of sexual attraction and maternal concern," writes John Mcwhorter, the author of Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America.

Tupac Shakur was born in 1971 as Lesane Parish Crooks to Afeni Shakur in Brooklyn. His mother changed his name to Tupac Amaru after an Indian revolutionary; a name that means 'shining serpent.'

As a child, Tupac was pet named 'Black Prince' by his childhood friends. He grew up distressed in a family that was always on the move from cities to homeless shelters.

"I remember crying all the time, I didn't have no buddies that I grew up with," he once said.

He didn't know his father until his jail days when a man claiming to be his dad came to see him. This was no big surprise for Tupac who exclaimed, "The niggah looked just like me!"

As a 12-year-old, Tupac enrolled at the Baltimore School for Performing Arts where he studied ballet and acting. He also started taking parts in drama. He later moved with his family to California where he began to hang with the 'wrong crowd.'

He started as a backup dancer for a California- based rap group ‘Digital Underground’ that was renowned for sex inspired songs.

In 1991 his first album, 2Pacalypse Now was released; it brought out talent but also took him into deep thug life. He once commented, "I didn't create thug life, I diagnosed it."

By the age of 20, Tupac had been to prison eight times. He released his second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.A.Z, a great success that brought him out as a violent rapper with his hardcore thug life hits about the troubled lives of gangsters.

In 1994, he was shot five times and later produced his 1995 Platinum album, Me Against the World.

Tupac was also arrested for sexually abusing a woman. After his release, he produced his best ever album, All Eyez on Me that sold six million copies.

His music and poetry raised many salient issues on media, politics, social life and women. For the politicians, he wrote poems, Liberty Needs Glass and Lady Justice; that politicians are blind and should be taken to an optician and be given two pairs of glasses for trampling on Nelson Mandela and other victims of political and racial injustice.

Tupac however didn't really believe in God and the devil. Religion was there to control people, according to him. You get a 'D' off Devil and you have 'Evil' add an 'O' to God and you have 'Good.' Basically, it is about what you do. Every bad thing you do comes back to you," argued Tupac.

"I have done good and I feel like I'm going to heaven," he once said.

Whatever his beliefs, Tupac's gift of expression is hard not to appreciate. Once asked about whether he believed in miracles, he said, "We do not turn water into wine but words into money, dope heads into productive citizens of America. I'm not trynna say I'm Jesus. We don't part the red sea but when we walk through the neighbourhood without getting shot, it's a miracle."

He also criticised one magnificent church building that occupied a whole block in New York saying, "Does God need to sleep in a huge building decorated with gold when black folks are homeless on the streets?"

He had a passionate way of recounting the sorrows of growing in the hood.

Songs like Something 2 Die 4, Last Wordz and Soulz highlight liquor, jealousy, and recklessness yet in Representin' 93, he pays tribute to black pop stars. In The Streetz R Deathrow he justifies thuggish behaviour as an inevitable product of fatherlessness while Papa'z Song is on family issues where he indicts and rejects an absent father who reappears.

But one of his most endearing songs is Dear Mama, where he touchingly shows respect, declares her love and raps on how hard he realised it is for a single woman to raise a son.

Sounds strange but last year, Tupac was named by as the eighth highest-earning dead celebrity. He pulled in $12 million between September 2002 and September 2003. He continues to inspire colleagues and apparently, Eminem will soon release an album titled Loyal to the Game. It is a product of Tupac's previously unreleased verses. We shall hold our breath as modern rappers continue to compete with the dead.

As for his acting career, Tupac had a certain charisma that always made him stand out in his films.

"Just imagine what would have happened if he had lived. Tupac was vilified in life but when he died, God gave him what they call an extra portion," his mother who is also CEO of Amaru Entertainment/Amaru Records that manages Tupac's works once said. "He just got lifted up," she said last year in an interview with New York Daily News.

In his love life, Tupac was engaged to Kadida Jones but also dated Jada Pinkett, now married to actor and rapper Will Smith.

Sadly, Tupac's lyrics upset and fueled his longstanding feud with the rapper Notorious B.I.G. who was killed six months after Tupac's death. Shakur's unsolved murder has also been the source of fascination. He was shot on September 7, 1996 and died six days later. Much of what happened remains a mystery.

It is said his death was related to the East Coast versus West Coast gang- a rival Bad Boy label with main players Sean Puffy Combs aka P-Diddy and rapper Notorious B.I.G. These theories however, remain legendary in the already twisted story of Tupac Shakur.

The rapper, actor, composer and poet who once said he would "spark the brain that will change the world," died and left a major vent in the rap world.

Rapper Jay-Z once said of rap, "You have to be fresh and sell to an audience that's 16 to 25. They demand that you 'keep it hood,' 'keep it real'." It is exactly what only Tupac Shakur could achieve. He produced music that lasts.

It's that controversial; the life and death of Tupac Shakur, a man who many believe still lives somewhere. A hero to some, a martyr to others and a legend to his fans, Tupac had the words, 'Thug Life' tattooed on his abdomen, and in most of his songs, he predicted his own death. He lived the "gangster" life celebrated in his songs until he was murdered.

His words; "All good niggas who change the world, die in violence..." were a prophecy that came true in his death.

Sunday Monitor, December 19, 2004