RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It reveals something about the life of an artist when his fans can't come to terms with his death. Elvis Presley is one example; John Lennon, too. For a new generation, it's Tupac Shakur.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME AGAINST THE WORLD")
TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) It's just me against the world, just me against the world, baby.
MONTAGNE: Today marks 20 years since the rapper died, six days after he was targeted in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. That murder is still unsolved. Tupac was just 25 years old and experienced a lot in his time. He was raised by a single mother who was a former Black Panther, won fans with raw honest, lyrics, feuded bitterly with rival rappers and served a prison sentence for sexual abuse. It was while he was in jail that Tupac opened up to writer Kevin Powell who joined us to talk about the rapper's legacy.
KEVIN POWELL: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
MONTAGNE: Put for us Tupac in perspective, you know, at this moment in time because he has in a way become a worldwide phenomenon.
POWELL: That is absolutely right. When we think about Tupac Shakur, for folks who don't understand his impact not just in hip-hop but popular culture in America and globally, you have to think about Elvis Presley, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, Bob Marley. It's that significant. He is one of the most important figures that we've seen in the last 25 years or so. I've been to Europe. I've been to Africa. I've been to Japan. I've been to the Caribbean. Everywhere I've been over the last 20 years, Tupac's name has come up over and over again in some form or fashion.
MONTAGNE: Well, what is it that made his music so special?
POWELL: It was realist. It was real, raw poetry speaking from the perspective of working-class people. And so to put it in context again, think about the work that Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan would have done. You know, you're talking about an artist who came from the people and decided that his work was going to reflect, you know, the conditions that were going on in America during his lifetime, his short 25 years on this planet.
He talks about violence. He talks about drugs. He talks about his mother's drug addiction. He talks about poverty. He talks about his own contradictions. You get vulnerability. You get an exploration of manhood from different angles, even admitting all of his many mistakes, not just in his music but also in interviews that people like I did. And so those things, that kind of honesty, which is so rare for a lot of people, made him someone who became a touchstone for folk's lives. And that's why they respond to him and still do.
MONTAGNE: Pick out one of his many hits that we can, you know, listen to for a few minutes and really catch what you're saying there.
POWELL: Well, I would recommend "Keep Ya Head Up." Here's a song that is really an ode to women. It's a pro-feminist song. He talks about being pro-choice in the song. He talks about being anti-street harassment in the song, but he also - it's an autobiographical song about being a young black male growing up in inner-city America. And that was Pac's uniqueness, his ability to weave in different scenarios and to paint this full picture of a community over and over again.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")
SHAKUR: (Rapping) I give a holla to my sisters on welfare. Tupac cares, if don't nobody else care. And I know they like to beat you down a lot. When you come around the block, brothers clown a lot. But please don't cry. Dry your eyes, never let up, forgive but don't forget. Girl, keep your head up.
MONTAGNE: Well, this and also another super well-known song of his is "Dear Mama..."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")
SHAKUR: (Rapping) When I was young, me and my mama had beef, 17 years old, kicked out on the streets. Though back at the time, I never thought I'd see her face. Ain't a woman alive that could take my mama's place.
MONTAGNE: ...Which, you know, was about the woman who absolutely formed him - strong lady, Black Panther as a young woman, crack addict as an older person.
POWELL: That is accurate. I mean, Afeni Shakur is who you're talking about who just died earlier this year at sadly in her late 60s of a heart attack. But she raised Tupac as a single mother. She was literally in prison for her political activities in 1971. And just the month before Tupac was born, she was finally released, and he was literally born in the midst of all the upheaval in our country at that time. And she's such an important figure. She helped to shape his political consciousness.
But also there's the dynamic of the - of their separation and moving about because she became addicted to crack cocaine, as you mentioned. You know, that was a turning point in Pac's life, and so he was out there trying to find his way as a young man without a father figure, you know, and it was difficult. And he talks about that in his music.
MONTAGNE: Also, though, in this music, there are songs that are uplifting, "Dear Mama" being one of them.
MONTAGNE: There are also songs that are really violent and demean women and speak about his early death and speak about killing police.
POWELL: Absolutely. In a lot of ways, you know, Pac was no different than what we heard in the blues, jazz music, rock 'n' roll that came before because all those music forms also talked about violence, was disrespectful to women. And so Pac was actually very much in that tradition, unfortunately, of us who are men in this society who have been socialized through patriarchy, through misogyny, through sexism. And he grappled with that because again you could hear in "Keep Ya Head Up" him talking about being a supporter of women, but then you turn to a song like "Hit 'Em Up" and he's talking about being violent towards his rivals and having sex with one of his rivals wives. It was very disrespectful, but it represented the contradictions that many of us as men face in this society.
And what's different about Tupac is that he spoke very openly and honestly about it, not just in his music but in his conversations with people, you know, what he was trying to grapple with and trying to figure out. For example, when he was charged with that sexual assault case in New York City back in the '90s, one of the things he said to me in the famous prison interview from Rikers Island is that he takes responsibility for not stopping those men, his so-called friends, from doing what they did to that young lady and that he was guilty of that. What man do we know that at 23 years of age would actually say something like that? And so I really believe that had Pac lived he would have turned some corners in his life around these different issues that dogged him.
MONTAGNE: So in a way, he no question died too young, died before his full potential could be realized, but he understood that.
POWELL: He did. He did, and that's why he was a tremendously hard worker. He said to me in that first interview that he wanted me to be Alex Haley as in Alex Haley of "Roots" to his Malcolm X because I think he knew from the very beginning I have a very short window to live. I've got to create a body of work. He was constantly producing, constantly writing, constantly in the recording studio. Even when he was in prison, writing screenplays.
I mean, he just knew, you know, I believe, that he wasn't going to be on this Earth for a long time, so he came with a certain purpose, contradictions, complexities and all, and he left behind something that has touched generations of people. And understand that there's very few artists that we can say - musical artists - who have been multigenerational forces - The Beatles obviously, Madonna obviously, James Brown obviously, Bob Marley obviously, Nina Simone obviously, Joni Mitchell obviously, Tupac Shakur.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us and talking about this.
POWELL: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLLA IF YA HEAR ME")
SHAKUR: (Rapping) Will I quit? Will I quit? They claim that I'm violent...
MONTAGNE: That's writer Kevin Powell. His memoir is "The Education Of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey Into Manhood."
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