Another Dream Deferred: Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)

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Another Dream Deferred: Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)

Born just three years after both the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the height of the Black Power Movement, Tupac Shakur's life mirrored the transition from promise to despair in the post-civil rights era. Like many African Americans born in the wake of the '60s, Tupac Shakur was weaned on his parents' hope that Black would stay beautiful, only to enter adulthood in the midst of white backlash, Reaganomics, and the devastating impact of crack cocaine and easily accessible guns. Worse still, there was a dearth of Black leaders equipped with new strategies to combat the changing face of racism. Aged before its time, this generation -- my generation -- grows more cynical as the years of injustice roll on; eyes searching disbelievingly for a prize we fear does not exist.

Drawn to the performing arts at a young age, Shakur showcased his talent as a high school student at Baltimore's School for the Performing Arts, making his stage debut in a production of A Raisin in the Sun. Unfortunately, a move to the Bay Area at the impressionable age of thirteen precipitated a change that would prove both his greatest triumph and his ultimate defeat at the hands of an as-yet uncaught gunman. Attracted by the pull of the "wrong crowd," Shakur adapted his art to suit his new lifestyle which is best summarized by the "Thug Life" tattooed on his chest...summarized, perhaps, but hardly understood.

In this context we can begin to understand the rebirth of Tupac Shakur, as well as the nascent form of the rap genre now known as "gangsta rap." Youth with no voice in society, often living in neighborhoods statistically more deadly than Vietnam during the war, embraced the microphone, spewing venomous poetry at block parties and underground clubs. But when rap became a multimillion dollar industry and a fixture of popular culture, a new wave of artists clamored to "keep it real" by eschewing the glamour and glitz of fame, instead elevating the ghetto to mythic status and claiming authenticity through the violent rhetoric of so-called "gangsta rap." This necessity to remain true to the "Thug Life" is the paradox in which Tupac Shakur found himself, as the gifted artist's fans demanded he live the words with which he won their allegiance. Though he spoke of being "humbled" by his fourteen-month stint in prison for sexual assault, Tupac knew (like Mike Tyson, whose promoter once stomped a man to death) where the money was when he signed with the much- maligned Death Row Records (whose owner is renowned for assaulting his own artists). …