When people liken themselves or another hip-hop artist to Tupac in 2018, it’s usually for short-sighted, self-serving reasons. Whether it’s artists coming back from a prison bid like Boosie or rappers engaged in art-imitates-reality controversy like Troy Ave, the nods rarely do justice to Tupac’s full legacy. And of all the recent beckoning of the hip-hop icon’s name, only Donald Glover acknowledged Pac’s Black Panther roots.
“I didn’t have a mom in the Black Panthers, but my parents were very pro-black,” Glover told Esquire. It seems ironic that in a dire political state in which even activist Louis Farrakhan acknowledges that rappers have a bigger voice than him to influence social change, hip-hop has disregarded the legacy of an iconic artist with direct Panther lineage. His mother was Afeni Shakur, his godmother was Assata Shakur, and his godfather was Geronimo Pratt — all prominent Panthers. His stepfather Mutulu Shakur is a co-founder of the New Afrikan People’s Organization. Those relationships helped mold Tupac from an early age, and he was at one point the Chairman for the New Afrikan Panthers, which was a young adult branch of Mutulu’s organization.
In the sensationalistic, ego-driven arena of mainstream hip-hop, it’s easy for artists to chase idolatry by channeling Pac’s reckless machismo and compelling fascination with death, but apparently less so to embody the militancy he expressed on his sophomore album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z, which is 25 years old today. The 16-track album shows that before the drama that would be his undoing, Tupac was focused on following in Public Enemy’s footsteps of utilizing hip-hop to galvanize youth toward Black liberation. The album may have had the club classic “I Get Around,” but he isn’t a lothario anywhere else on the project.
When he does mention women on “Keep Ya Head Up,” he’s openly reflecting on whether we “hate” them based on the way they’re so often denigrated and objectified in the Black community. “I think it’s time to kill for our women / time to heal our women, be real to our women,” he rhymes. ”If we don’t we’ll have a race of babies / that will hate the ladies that make the babies.” 25 years later, one quick scroll through any social media channel will prove him right.
Elsewhere on the album, he weaved the Panthers’ advocacy of self-defense against police into sonic calls-to-arms that placed cops firmly at the root of his ire. He posited himself a gladiator, with the streets of Oakland as the frontlines. It’s songs like “Souljah’s Revenge” and “Last Wordz” that were misconstrued as mere pleas for violence. “I’m not violent, I’m petrified and nervous / I got no mercy for these n—-s tryna serve us,” he clarifies on the album’s title track. Tupac’s fury has to be contextualized with the understanding that he represented the second generation of a movement once mouth-pieced by Eldridge Cleaver, a fiery, controversial writer and activist who once advocated for forceful resistance against the current American establishment.
Cleaver once said, “I feel that I am a citizen of the American dream and that the revolutionary struggle of which I am a part is a struggle against the American nightmare.” Just a year after the LA riots, that nightmare of predatory policing and urban decay was Tupac’s canvas.