Kendrick Lamar was eight years old when he saw his idol from afar. His father, Kenny Dockworth, took him to a market in Compton, the city where they lived, south of Los Angeles, to witness the shooting of a music video. Lamar, now 34 and one of America’s biggest rappers, was riding on his father’s shoulders when he saw a white Bentley in the distance. Tupac Shakur was in the passenger seat and yelling at a police officer who dangerously approached his motorcycle with his vehicle. The star arrived at the place to record a version of California love, a theme that has become an anthem and that, incidentally, has also made the Compton Fashion Center a mythical site in the history of rap (now converted into a supermarket). “I was very excited, overjoyed and in high spirits,” Lamar wrote of the day. “Twenty years later, I understood exactly what I felt: inspiration.”
Lamar paid tribute to that morning much later in his video King Municipality, recorded on the same site. After that sighting, K.Dot, as Kendrick also calls himself, knew he wanted to be “the voice of the common man.” This is just a sample of the powerful influence that Tupac Shakur exerts on the genre with a recording career of only five years, abruptly cut short by his murder in a Las Vegas shooting on September 13, 1996.
This Friday an exhibition on the legacy of Tupac has opened its doors in Los Angeles. The sample places in a new light the singer who died at the age of 25 and who was fired with the sentence that violence ended forever with a promising career. But 2Pac has never really gone away. He left so many recorded songs in the vaults that he has signed seven posthumous albums and sold 75 million copies. There are still dozens of cuts that have not seen the light.
The exhibition Wake Me When I’m Free (Wake me up when I’m free) takes its name from an untitled poem written by Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother and one of the most fascinating figures around the singer. At the age of 20, Alice Faye Williams chose a Yoruba word meaning “lover of the people” to give herself a new identity. She also took the surname of her husband, a Black Panther fighter named Lumumba Shakur. Afeni joined the party in 1968, the same year that J. Edgar Hoover, the almighty head of the FBI, ordered a savage operation against those he considered militants of radical hate groups.
The harassment led to the arrest of 21 members of the organization in New York in 1969. Among them was Afeni, who arrived in prison resisting with her pen. “We know they try to break us because they can’t control us,” she wrote in a letter shortly after her arrest eight months pregnant. In prison, she demanded to be fed every day with an egg and a glass of milk to nourish the embryo. The Government requested 368 years in prison for those arrested for 186 charges of homicide and conspiracy. Shakur represented herself in a two-year trial that was the most expensive in history. In 1971, the detainees were acquitted. Afeni gave birth a month after being released. He chose for his son the name of the Peruvian indigenous rebel who took up arms against the Spanish. The climate of siege that she had experienced led her to register her son in another act as Parish Lesane Crooks. The family arrived in 1988 on the west coast, in Marin County, near San Francisco.
All the culture that goes with you awaits you here.
Despite having been one of the kings of gangster rap, the Los Angeles show elevates Tupac Shakur’s role as an activist in the days of Black Lives Matter and when the rights of minorities are under threat. “I am not saying that I am going to change the world, but I can guarantee that I can cause a spark in the minds that are going to change the world”, says one of the phrases of Tupac Shakur rescued in the exhibition, made up of hundreds of documents compiled from the seven years, when the boy drew a stick figure who dreamed of the liberation of a group of people.
All that paper trail draws a character obsessed with his success. Any blank piece that came into his hands was immediately scribbled with some verse, the piece of a poem, the beginning of a film script. In November 1944, after surviving a shooting at the Quad recording studio in New York, where Tupac accidentally shot himself in the testicle trying to defend himself from the attacker, the rapper was imprisoned.
Not even inside the Clinton Correctional Center did he stop thinking about his career. In an official prison envelope he wrote down the 12 songs he would sing at his first concert in freedom. A calendar from January 1995 marked the visits he had: his representative, journalists from the magazine Vibe, specializing in hip hop, and some relatives. He also fine-tuned the last details of the launch of Me against the world, published while in seclusion. Letters from Quincy Jones, actor Tony Danza, and his producer, Johnny J, lifted his spirits.
Rap is finally coming to the Superbowl
In addition to the exhibition, other recent elements dimension Tupac Shakur’s heritage in popular music. Among them the book Changes, where Sheldon Pearce, a journalist from The New Yorker, weaves an oral history of the rapper told through friends and colleagues. The story published last summer, when Shakur would have turned 50, adds to the narrative change to which the artist’s life has been subjected in recent years. Killed after getting out of a fight box in Las Vegas, the musician’s fall was explained as a result of the confrontation between gangs on both coasts of the country, especially because of his enmity with the Notorious BIG (murdered in 1997). Hip hop was then a genre that was still on the margins, but it was about to explode and become the most important in the United States.
“I think Tupac is definitely going to be present, in spirit, at this year’s Super Bowl,” said José Corso, a fan of the rapper who attended the exhibit on its first day. Corso talks about the halftime show of the American football final, which will be played on February 13 in Los Angeles for the first time in 29 years. Rap will finally be the star of the most watched musical number on television in the United States. And it will be with a stellar lineup: Dr. Dre, Eminem, Mary J Blige, Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar, all of whom worked with or were influenced by Tupac. The professional league tries to correct years of forgetfulness and errors. Among these, signing the white pop group Maroon 5 in 2019 to sing in Atlanta, one of the most important rap capitals in the country. In 2022 it will be about the west coast and its music.
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