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Experiencing life in the spotlight leaves a profound impact on those in it. Having every move documented and analyzed surely impacts the mental psyche of those subjected to it. Some deal with this invasion differently than others: creating a persona to hide their true life behind, or embracing their true self, unapologetic and unbothered. Tupac Shakur, known under his artistic name of 2Pac, spent his time as a celebrity as authentic as he knew how. On the other hand, Christopher Wallace adopted the persona of The Notorious B.
I.G., also referred to as Biggie Smalls, to create a new image of himself to his fans and to the world. Neither way of handling fame is incorrect, but they have different implications in their posthumous legacy. The story of Tupac and Biggie are similar, with only a few differences. However, it is the differences in their personas, representations, and music that sets each rapper apart from the other, and gives way to conspiratorial thinking after death.
Tupac Shakur, born Lesane Parish Crooks in New York City, was a civil rights activist since before he was born. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was a famous Panther involved in the New York Panther 21 trial, where a group of twenty-one Black Panther members who were arrested and accused of planned coordinated bombing and long-range rifle attacks on two police stations and an education office in New York City. The trial eventually collapsed and the twenty-one members were acquitted (Keeling 59).
The Black Panthers were a radical group believing in Black Power – liberation from white oppression through any means necessary (Cone 6).
This powerful rhetoric came into prominence during Malcolm X’s rise to the spotline. After the civil war, African Americans – although freed from the shackles of slavery – still experienced rampant discrimination in the form of segregation. Followers of Black Power were not activists of desegregation, however. If assimilation would lead to adopting ‘the white man’s style, his values, or his religion,’ then they renounced it (Cone 17). This mindset differed greatly from other prominent civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. These differences allowed a more aggressive and direct approach to inequality, one that really took root in Southern California, where Tupac was based out of.
Although small in African American population, Southern California was one of the more radically discriminated areas in the United States. After World War II, the African American population in San Francisco grew to 5.6%. As the community grew, discrimination grew along with it. Race restrictive covenants and redlining, the practice of denying or increasing the cost of housing services to a particular group of people, kept all but the most influential and affluent African Americans hemmed to just two neighborhoods, Hunters Point and the Western Addition. In turn, these neighborhoods suffered from neglect and blight and were targeted by federal and local government for the wrecking ball under redevelopment plans. Gradually both neighborhoods fell into serious disrepair and the Western Addition gained a reputation as a center for crime and vice (Miller 149). A distinct culture emerged out of these ghettos – all its citizens sharing the same hardships and struggles.
From his works organizing a boycott at his elementary school to support his teacher, who was fired due to financial issues, to calling out Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton for injustices against the lives of minorities, Tupac was a natural leader and truly the voice of the average black man living in America post-civil rights era. (Stanford PAGE NUMBER) By showing that he was literally raised into the life of Black Power, a picture is painted that Tupac was an an activist, not just simply chose to become one. Tupac was a man of the common people – despite the outlandish capitalist lifestyle he lived. He fought against poverty throughout his life, even though he never suffered from it once he reached the spotlight.
Up until his death at the age of twenty-five from a drive-by shooting, Tupac had a persona that was hard to differentiate from his own personality (Stanford 3). He was raw. He was honest about the struggles he faced and the struggles black Americans currently face in the racially discriminated world of the mid 1990’s. This persona (or lack thereof) helped bridge the gap between Tupac and his fans. Unlike other celebrities of the time, Tupac was real. This connection to people living in disadvantaged areas had an idol – a god who escaped the exact scenario they are trapped in (Stanford 4).
Maafa, also referred to as the Holocaust of Enslavement, are political neologisms used to describe the history and ongoing effects of atrocities inflicted on African people, particularly when committed by non-Africans (Europeans and Arabs to be exact) specifically in the context of the history of slavery, including the Arab Slave Trade and Atlantic Slave Trade, and argued as “continued to the present day” through imperialism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression. The idea of Maafa, a Swahili term for ‘great disaster,’ specifically referring to the culture fissure created among Africans by ‘breaking the rhythm of African wholeness’ so they are no longer able to go to the regenerative period of Shakofa, and are unable to return to Maat, which represents ‘African generation and connectedness.’ (Wells-Wilbon PAGE NUMBER)
Tupac’s life, according to Rhonda Wells-Wilbon, is a prime example of the effects of Maafa on African Americans, and how they seek to return, though Shakofa, to Maat. Simply, Tupac’s life in a poverty-stricken and drug-ridden home is a result of Maafa, his activism is his attempt to recover in Shakofa in order to reach Maat. The Black Panther Party, established throughout numerous sources as being the most definitive identity of Tupac’s political life, was formed to escape Maafa. Wells-Wilbon provides a unique perspective on life as an African American, and how that impacts culture and identity. By being taken away from life and connectedness in Africa, black Americans experience, in simple terms, identity crisis. Being away from their culture creates a desire to return to that culture, which is a very important part of the Black Panther ideology of pan-Africanism. All of Tupac’s activism for Black Power is due to his own subconscious desire – his own predetermined goal from birth – to unite the African people in order to reach the ideal mental state of Maat (Wells-Wilbon PAGE NUMBER). These shared struggles allowed Tupac to be seen as a person, not as a celebrity, who was suffering from the same atrocities as the average black man in America.
The quiet emergence of black theology in American society already set the stage for a Christlike black man to come into popularity. Tupac, already established as an advocate for Black Power, became the messiah in black theology (Pinn and Easterling 32). There is an intricate connection between the Black power movement and religion in African American society (Cressler PAGE NUMBER). A common critique of the Black Power movement was the violence and hatred it appeared to preach for. Many believe such a radical idea of society and religion could never coexist. However, the very idea of Black Power came from Christianity and the teachings of Jesus Christ (Cone 1). Acceptance and liberation are the core teachings of both the Bible and of Black Power – creating an environment where both ideas can feed off each other and intertwine together to create one movement – black liberation.
This connection leads to one conclusion – Tupac was as much a religious figure as he was an activist. Cressler takes note of the upward trend of ‘religious activism’ with the fight towards equality. He notes that Black Power is centralized in the northern and western portions of the United States, and how that creates conflict with the pacifist teachings of Christianity. However, Cressler asserts that the Black Panthers met in churches and worked with black Catholics to unite radical groups with peaceful churches to fight white oppression in America (‘Black Religion and Black Power’). There is an intrinsic link between social reform and religion, so as Tupac became more and more an activist, he became more involved in religious thinking. After the injustice of the shooting that took his life, it would be only natural to look towards religion for comfort. For those who could not let go, however, descended into conspiratorial thinking, asserting that Tupac was still alive (Pinn and Easterling 32). This idolization, unparalleled with any other deceased celebrity, shows the love his fans had for him.
These assertions lead to the question – why was Tupac considered by many to be the second coming of Christ? Why was The Notorious B.I.G. not among the consideration? Tupac is claimed as having a ‘more charismatic presence, a more gifted actor, a bigger lightning rod for trouble, a more complex visionary’ in relation to the Notorious B.I.G. (Williams 110). One important example given about why Tupac is more famous in death than in life is because of the brand he established for himself while alive. Claiming him ‘obsessed’ with his own death, Tupac references his death multiple times throughout his songs. The author cites this as a result of living as a black man in a gang-ridden inner city, where he was forced to face death everyday (Williams 111)
Biggie Smalls, in contrast to Tupac Shakur, lived his life away from personal. After creating a pseudonym, he was larger than life. He used his lyrics to escape from his life on the streets – crime especially (Gates 471). However, Biggie never suffered from the same demons Tupac did. He was middle class, and attended Catholic school (Matarozzi). His mother, Voletta Wallace, was quoted as saying, ‘My son wasn’t the pauperized kid he made himself out to be,” (Franklin). His gangster lifestyle was, for the most part, fabricated. While he still faced a life of hardships, they lacked the universality and personalization of Tupac Shakur.
The rivalry between the two rappers grew throughout their careers. Their antagonism, each representing their own respective coasts, was so extreme that it was believed Biggie was responsible for the murder of Tupac (Williams 105). Rap feuds, coming to being due to geographical location, especially when those locations are tied into identity, are quite common, a fact observed in the East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry, reaching its peak in the mid 1990’s, with Tupac representing the west coast, and Biggie at the east. With support from record labels and producers, their rivalry began to grow from a strictly geographical and stylistic one, to a feud layered in capitalistic gains. Rap rivalries were ”fueled by geography the geographies of community, of representation, of markets” (Quinn 182). As rap diffused, rap artists from emerging hip hop centers made it a point to distinguish their neighborhood from other areas and rappers (French 262).
The stylistic differences of rap on the coasts of America created a divide between the two. These differences have created a tension that has lasted decades. Within US rap culture, artists and fans alike reflect an acute awareness that people in different parts of the country produce and enjoy regional variations on the genre; they experience rap differently, structuring it into their social patterns according to the norms that prevail in a given urban environment. Taste and style are therefore developed around the functional use and normative experience of music. Lyrical and musical content likewise express the realities specific to a particular region or city, an obvious example being a foregrounding of car culture and urban mobility (including the drive-by shooting) in the lyrics of Los Angeles-based rap and hip hop which is not usual for New York with its relative lack of car culture. (Jago 132)
Biggie met a similar end as Tupac. In Los Angeles, California, The Notorious B.I.G. was shot in a drive-by shooting. Both Tupac and Biggie died young – twenty-five and twenty-four respectively – but they are remembered in many different ways (Gates 471). Ask a room of people, and people will spout conspiracy after conspiracy over Tupac. However, the death of The Notorious B.I.G. is something accepted, an expected end to life. What causes this difference in thinking? The connection between Tupac and his fans brings a new light to the conspiracy surrounding his death. Many fans believe Tupac is still alive, and is preparing for his ‘second coming’ (Pinn and Easterling 32). The unwillingness to let Tupac die shows a dangerous stage of denial.
Posthumously, Tupac took on a new persona – a Christ-like one. His songs released after death took on a whole new meaning, as Tupac sung about religion. In his songs, ‘it was if he were saying, ‘I will be your sacrificial lamb. I will suffer for your sake, in your place,” (Dyson 234). Tupac became Jesus Christ, guiding the blind in life and cleansing sins in death. As a fan described it:
One afternoon, I had managed to borrow a cassette from my neighbor. That’s when I heard my first song by Tupac, Only God Can Judge me. That song forever changed my life in which ways that one would never image. Tupac, has been my anti-drug, anti-gang, my anti-violence; and most importantly, a type of father figure in a home which consisted of my lonely self. I became a fanatic soon after that. I read all the books I heard Tupac read, I vibed to every song that he ever created. He was my best friend in a time of desperate need. He showed me Words of Wisdom in a trapped society, and for this, I am truly grateful (qtd. Pinn and Easterling 36).
Tupac, for this fan, became more than just an artist. He became a lifestyle: a guidepost in morality and how to live. Similar to that of Jesus, Tupac went from an average man to a holy deity during his lifetime.
With Tupac’s activism – allowing him to connect and be apart of everyday life for impoverished Americans – he transcended the role of celebrity to that of an idol. In contrast to that, The Notorious B.I.G., while influential in his regards to music, was not able to win over the lives of his fans in the same manner as Tupac Shakur. He revolutionized hip-hop, revitalized the scene in New York City (and in extension, the east coast), and influenced rappers for years after his death. However, as analyzed above, it was the extra efforts Tupac made to connect with his fans through his personal experiences living in poverty through his activism that helped mold the idea that he is a deity. The personas that each man adopted during life – Biggie living larger than life, and Tupac being the down-to-earth – lead to the denial of Tupac’s death. Due to not being able to let go of an influencer, someone who fought for them with issues such as racism, discrimination, and poverty, Tupac became immortalized through conspiratorial thinking.
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