This article originally appeared in the December 1996 issue of Esquire. To read every Esquire story ever published, upgrade to All Access.
I first met Tupac Shakur almost five years ago, when John Singleton invited me to do a behind-the-scenes book for his second movie, Poetic Justice. It was early on in preproduction when Tupac was cast, and we were on a location scout. A production assistant was driving the van; John and Tupac were sitting up front, and I sat behind them. It was the end of the day, and we were all talking about John’s recent Academy Award nominations for Boyz N the Hood. Tupac was so clearly enamored of John, discussing scene after scene—what he thought made the movie so special, why he was so excited to be starring in John’s second film.
We started talking about the music in the film, and instead of talking about the rap songs, Tupac brought up the scene where Furious Styles, played by Laurence Fishburne, is taking custody of young Tre for the first time. He takes his son to the beach, and as they drive home in their old seventies-model car, a song comes on the radio. The song is “O-o-h Child,” and the music provides the dissolve from Tre’s youth to his teenage years in the ’hood. All of a sudden, Tupac started singing the song: “O-o-h child, things are goin’ to get easier. / O-o-h child, things will get brighter. / Someday, we’ll walk in the rays of the beautiful sun. / Someday, when the world is much brighter…”
Tupac turned to John and said, “I loved that song, man. That shit meant a lot to me.” And it did. In many ways, Tupac exemplified a generation of men who grew up without fathers. Later, he would try to blame his criminal activity on that very fact.
You’ve never seen a young black male grow up, but now you have to watch, and you have to help.
“You’ve never seen a young black male grow up, but now you have to watch, and you have to help, because my father is not alive,” he told me. “This system took him, so it’s up to everybody else to raise me.”
If Singleton envied Tupac’s rawness, Tupac envied Singleton’s stable family life. “John had a father that cared, but I didn’t have one,” Tupac told me, his voice thick with longing. “He knew that part of my pain, because he know how hard it is to grow up without [a father].”
That day, on the location scout, Tupac asked John why he hadn’t put “O-o-h Child” on the movie soundtrack. John said there had been a problem getting rights and clearances, but two years later Tupac used a sample of the song for his inspirational ode to black women, “Keep Your Head Up.” Hearing the song now always makes me think of Tupac, singing it a cappella.
As happy as he was to make a movie with John Singleton, Tupac had a hard time following rules. Half the time, there were no problems at all, but it wasn’t unusual for Tupac to get high in his trailer, to be hours late to the set in the morning, or to get pissed off for what seemed like no reason at all. Once, toward the end of the shoot, Tupac was told he could have a day off. That morning, the producers decided that they would shoot publicity stills and called Tupac to the set. He arrived with his homeboys and began screaming, “I can’t take this shit. Y’all treat a nigga like a slave.” He stormed off to his trailer and promptly punched in a window. It certainly wasn’t the first time a star has had a fit on a set. But Tupac was a young black male with more than a little street credibility. (I often heard talk that he kept a gun on set, though I never saw one.) At the time, nobody knew how far he was willing to take his mantras about living a “thug life.” There was indignation on the set about being blasted by some young punk, but there was also fear: fear both of Tupac and for Tupac. I believe this was a pattern of concern that those around him felt right up until his death.
The last weeks of the Poetic Justice production were shot in Oakland. Although Tupac endured a nomadic childhood, living in Harlem, the Bronx, and Baltimore, Oakland was where he passed his teen years. His homies there were the last to know him before he made his way into show business—first as a dancer for Digital Underground, then as a featured rapper with the group, and eventually as a solo rapper.
The shoot in Oakland was difficult for a number of reasons. It was the end of a long fourteen-week production that had worn everybody out. Singleton was shooting mostly night scenes, which meant the crew didn’t start until 6:00 P.M. and didn’t finish until dawn. Not ideal working conditions under any circumstances, but especially if you’re shooting in the ’hood. I remember feeling nervous for Tupac. The production assistants had a hard time keeping people away from the set—there was no real security force—and everybody and his dog claimed to be a friend of Tupac’s.
There was always a group of tough-looking guys calling out, “Pac, Pac.” Sometimes they interrupted shooting, and it was worse if they actually caught Tupac’s eye and knew that he saw them. “Don’t pretend that you don’t know me, nigga!” they would threaten. “Nigga’s a movie star and can’t speak to nobody.”
Tupac had more patience with these guys than with anyone else. “Yo, man, it’s good to see you,” he would say, never raising his voice. “But a brother’s trying to work. I’m just trying to make that paper, same as you.” But even after he’d come over, acknowledged them, rapped a little with them, the guys would keep yelling. “Fuck you, nigga,” they would say, trying to provoke a fight and look hard in front of their friends.
To his homies around the way, standing in front of a movie camera and a crew of fifty people, talking to Janet Jackson, wasn’t work. They felt that they knew Tupac, knew that he was no different from them and felt it was their sworn duty to remind him of that.
I asked Tupac about the young men who would harass him on set. “The young bucks are gonna be jealous,” he said as if it couldn’t be helped. “Some older people, too. They got mad because I used to be their gofer. They used to run me to the store. They’re sitting there knowing they used to give me money to go to the store, and now I’ve got their whole family taking pictures with me. That’s an animosity that nothing I can do can kill, because that’s poverty shit and I can understand.”
Dana Smith was a friend of Tupac’s from Baltimore. They met in the eighth grade at Rolling Park Junior High School. Tupac arranged for him to be his assistant on the set. He saw the danger Tupac was in in places like Oakland but insisted that Tupac couldn’t avoid the danger, that he needed to keep up “his street mentality” to handle it.
“People get jealous,” Dana told me. “They see Tupac as a young brother coming up from nothing to something. They’re like ‘Damn, how did he do that? He was homeless a while ago….’ Tupac could try to stay out of trouble, stay in the hotel, but that’s not real. If he did that, people would call him snobby. You can’t get away from the street. That’s where you’re from. You’ve got to give that love back.”
Even then, everybody was always talking about the possibility of Tupac’s death. “Being a young black male,” Dana said, “he’s already reached his life expectancy—twenty-one.”
Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother and a former radical activist, told me that she constantly feared for her son’s life. “It’s funny, because I never believed he would live,” she said. She spent most of her pregnancy in jail, preparing her own defense as a member of the famed New York 21 Black Panthers. (Afeni was married to fellow Panther Lumumba Abdul Shakur.) “Every five years, I’d be just amazed that he made it to five, he made it to ten, he made it to fifteen.”
A beautiful woman who blessed her son with her own clear, dark skin and large, bright eyes, Afeni clenched her hands as she spoke. “I had a million miscarriages, you know,” she said. “This child stayed in my womb through the worst possible conditions. I had to get a court order to get an egg to eat every day. I had to get a court order to get a glass of milk every day—you know what I’m saying? I lost weight, but he gained weight. He was born one month and three days after we were acquitted. I had not been able to carry a child. Then this child comes and hangs on and really fights for his life.”
At the time we last spoke, three years ago, Tupac and Afeni Shakur were living in the San Fernando Valley in a pretty blue-and-white house on a quiet tree-lined street. Tupac teased his mother about showing me family pictures. “I will be suing my mother for giving away those pictures,” he said, holding his mother in a loving embrace. “You’ve got the information when I take this to court—I did not give her permission.”
He also spoke with pride about growing up the son of a Black Panther. “Everybody else’s mother was just a regular mother, but my mother was Afeni—you know what I’m saying?” He turned to his mother and gave her the same cool appraisal that a homie would give an older G in the ’hood. “My mother had a strong reputation. It was just like having a daddy because she had a rep. Motherfuckers get roasted if you fuck with Afeni or her children. Couldn’t nobody touch us.”
Watching Tupac with his mother or his younger sister revealed a side of him that the media rarely portrayed. Gangsta rapper or no, at the end of the day, he was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, somebody’s cousin.
With other women, Tupac sometimes had problems, leading to his conviction for sexual assault in 1994. He was always proud, however, of never having fathered a child out of wedlock. “Procreation is so much about ego,” he’d muse. “Everybody wants to have a junior. But I could care less about having a junior to tell ‘I got fucked by America and you’re about to get fucked, too.’ Until we get a world where I feel like a first-class citizen, I can’t have a child. ’Cause my child has to be a first-class citizen, and I’m not having no white babies.
“There’s no way around it unless I want to turn white, turn my back on what’s really going on in America,” Tupac insisted. “I either will be in jail or dead or be so fucking stressed out from not going to jail or dying or on crack that I’d just pop a vessel,” he said. “I’ll just die from a heart attack. All the deaths are not going to be from the police killing you.”
I asked him if he didn’t think that staying in the Valley, instead of going out and instigating all the trouble he did, would make him live longer. He looked at me as if I were crazy. “It would be an honor to die in the ’hood,” he said solemnly, as if he were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. “Don’t let me die in Saudi Arabia. These motherfuckers are rushing with a flag to die on foreign soil, fighting for motherfuckers that don’t care about us. I’d rather die in the ’hood, where I get my love. I’m not saying I want to die, but if I got to die, let me die in the line of duty, the duty of the ’hood.”
Of all the rumors and conspiracy theories I’ve heard since Tupac died, only one has reverberated inside my head. “I’ve heard that Tupac isn’t really dead,” a friend said. “Why did they cremate the body right away? In Las Vegas, where they had no family or friends?”
I shrugged. I make it a point never to argue down conspiracy theories.
“What I heard is that Afeni has had Tupac’s identity changed and shipped him to Cuba.”
As I listened to my friend, what surprised me was how my heart leaped at the thought of Tupac alive.
That night, I had what was surely one of hundreds of dreams that people across America have had about Tupac. In the dream, I am walking down a street in Havana. The air is thick with the perfume of strong black coffee, and black men in starched white shirts play dominoes on the street. The walls are pastel pink, white, and green, the paint is peeling, the mortar is crumbling. Only the high arches in the doorways and the spiraling staircases that center the apartment buildings are indications of this city’s glorious past.
I walk down a hallway, past overcrowded apartments with no curtains because in Fidel’s Cuba, no one has anything to hide.
“Estás buscando el negro?” a woman asks me, a grandmother who I’m sure is a Fidel spy.
“Yes,” I answer in pitch-perfect Spanish. “I am looking for the black guy. He’s my brother.”
She points me to the last door on the floor. I make my way into a tiny studio that is decorated with orange and green crushed-velvet furniture—classy stuff if it were still 1959. Afeni is there. Tupac is there, but he looks nothing like Tupac. I know him only by his voice.
And as each day goes by, it’s that much harder to conjure the ’hood in his mind
He is asking for a CD player. He wants some rap CDs. His mother explains that such music will give him away. She prompts him to listen to his Spanish tapes; he may never go home, so he must learn the language. She directs him to a large stack of books—books about Che Guevara, about Fidel, about Latin-American history. She tells him that his life has been saved for only one purpose—to aid the revolution he was born into.
“Y’all don’t give a nigga much of a choice,” he says, looking around the tiny room and smiling at the woman who has loved him better and more wisely than he ever loved himself. He goes over to the window and looks out, thinking, as he always does, that if he stares hard enough, he can see past the calles of Cuba to his beloved ’hood, where on the corner, someone is playing C-low and someone is smoking crack and someone is playing a Tupac song and someone is laughing and someone is crying. But he can’t see any of it, not really. And as each day goes by, it’s that much harder to conjure the ’hood in his mind. He sits down, puts his feet up on the table, opens a book, and begins to read.
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