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Tupac Shakur's Legacy

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Madeline Phipps

Senior Media Relations Specialist

Madeline Phipps

Two decades after his death, the rapper’s social commentary still resonates

Twenty years ago today, rapper Tupac Shakur (2Pac) was the victim of a drive-by shooting. He died six days later. Since then, his life has been mythologized in popular culture.

“Tupac Shakur has become a figure who we have a limited, incomplete cultural memory of,” says Armond Towns, assistant professor of communication studies. Rather than looking back on all of Shakur’s life, “We mythologize him within a framework that is really only about the ‘Thug Life’ years, roughly 1994 until his death.”

While the content of 2Pac’s lyrics can be violent and misogynistic, Towns maintains that it still plays an important role in our understanding of race relations in the 1990s and even today. “You have to position some of his music as timeless because of the social commentary that it provided” he says. His music also influences countless artists performing and creating in our era.

2Pac’s lyrics are a window into the anger that black and brown Los Angeles felt with the police and the legal system, both of which represent post-Civil Rights racism. Armond Towns, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies

For example, Towns cites hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 song “Mortal Man,” in which Lamar “interviews” 2Pac, drawing upon his answers from an archival interview. “In the recording,” Towns says, “2Pac warns that the rebellion of 1992 [sparked by the beating of Rodney King by white police officers] will happen again unless there are structural changes in the U.S.”

Some of that lyrical commentary foreshadows the unrest we continue to see. “2Pac’s lyrics are a window into the anger that black and brown Los Angeles felt with the police and the legal system, both of which represent post-Civil Rights racism,” Towns says.

Some fans of 2Pac believe he is still alive and in hiding, but Towns discounts those rumors. “I think these beliefs are structured around the need many people feel to not let their tragically flawed hero go,” he explains, noting that 2Pac represents an important figure within the black radical tradition.

“Maybe more than any rapper,” he says, “Pac’s music expresses anger toward the government’s violent attack on black radicalism, while calling for a critical eye to be turned at both the individual and structural level.”