Why Do We Still Care About Tupac? Tupac Shakur died 20 years ago this week. Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji debate his legacy with the writer Kevin Powell, who covered the rapper for three years until Tupac's death. How should we view Tupac's talents and imperfections today?
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Why Do We Still Care About Tupac?

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Why Do We Still Care About Tupac?

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUPAC SHAKUR: I know how it's going to be when I die. There's going to be no noise, people screaming. I'm going to fade out.

MERAJI: If you don't recognize that voice, I'm not going to lie, I'm judging you a little bit. It's Tupac Shakur from an MTV interview back in 1995. Pac died 20 years ago this week, and he's done anything but fade out. Gene, you know I love him.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I know you do.

MERAJI: So on this episode of CODE SWITCH, we're going to talk about Tupac's legacy. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. And this week, we're trying to figure out, are we too reverent towards Tupac? It's 20 years since he died, and there's still so much love for this dude, even though, when he was alive, he was full of contradictions, and he was a really, really polarizing figure. And, Shereen, obviously, you and I debate about Tupac all the time.

MERAJI: Yes, I love him. You don't.

DEMBY: I do not (laughter).

MERAJI: And the Pac I love is that Oakland, California-loving, charismatic, goofy Tupac, that "I Get Around" Tupac.

(Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GET AROUND")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Oh, yeah. I get around. Still clown with the underground.

MERAJI: I mean, that song, for me, it makes up a huge part of my life's soundtrack. I grew up in Sacramento, Calif. I spent my late teens and half my 20s living and working in Oakland. And for me, Gene, Pac was a bay dude, you know? His mom was a former Black Panther. He was artsy and eccentric. He just seemed hella Bay, and...

DEMBY: Hella Bay.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Hella Bay.

MERAJI: And, you know, look, if you weren't into the Bay Pac, there was lots of sides to his music. There was the thug-life Pac, the deep-thinking, prophetic poet, you know, "Changes," "Keep Your Head Up" Pac. And that's why he might be my favorite rapper of all time. I said it.

DEMBY: So I don't feel the way about Pac the way you do.

MERAJI: I know.

DEMBY: I mean, part of this is just, like, East Coast chauvinism. Always like, you mark ass busters. That's always what I imagine.

MERAJI: That's more Ice Cube.

DEMBY: But that's what I imagine all y'all saying on the West Coast all the time.

MERAJI: Oh, OK.

DEMBY: But also, it's important to note here that I was a very, very square 13 and 14-year-old. I was an altar boy. Pac was, like, this dude who was kind of scary. Like, he scared me in the way that I think he scared, like, a lot of old black folks. You know, he got into all these beefs with, like, civil rights leaders, like C. Delores Tucker and stuff like that. And I think Pac represented this kind of, like - I'm doing air quotes here - but, like, dangerous black masculinity that I don't think I had a lot of purchase on. You know what I mean? And so I couldn't necessarily, like, identify with him in the way that I could identify with, like, A Tribe Called Quest. I like sort of, like, more afro-centric hip-hop or whatever.

MERAJI: I like Tribe, too.

DEMBY: I mean, yeah, you can....

MERAJI: Just because you like Tribe doesn't mean you can't like Pac.

DEMBY: Well, the thing there, though, is that I liked hip-hop that was more subtle, and there was nothing subtle about Tupac, right? And so, like, even, like, Biggie, who was, like, a wordsmith and a really witty dude, right - like, I could understand the way Biggie's mind worked. But Pac was just, like, raw charisma. I think a lot of his rapping is carried mostly by, like, his charisma, you know what I mean?

MERAJI: We can agree to disagree because, for me, you know, Biggie was a great lyricist. I get that. But Pac's lyrics actually hit you in the gut. They make you tear up. They make you feel something emotionally that, in my opinion, Biggie's don't.

DEMBY: Oh, you're absolutely right. And I think I've come to appreciate him much more as an adult. Like, in retrospect, you know, Pac was this dude who sort of had his middle finger up to, like, all these ideas about respectability. He was one of the first people in public life - especially black people - who had, like, tattoos, like, all over his body, right? He was, like, making people uncomfortable. And, you know, now we take it as a given that black celebrities can sort of be themselves, be their full selves in public. And Pac was probably one of the first people to be unapologetically himself in that way.

MERAJI: So Gene, in this episode, we talked to writer Kevin Powell about all these complications and contradictions that surround Tupac and his legacy. Kevin was a young journalist at Vibe magazine who wrote a couple cover stories on Pac. He did a jailhouse interview with him from Rikers Island. And Pac looms really large in Kevin's life.

KEVIN POWELL: People who don't understand hip-hop or understand pop culture will never understand why these pop-culture figures are our senators. They are our congresspeople. They are our presidents. They have an impact on us in ways that people will never understand unless they, in their own time, felt that way about the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Nina Simone. It's the same exact thing.

DEMBY: And Kevin Powell spent three crazy years covering Pac's life for Vibe. And, you know, all these years later, he's still trying to process his death. But I think we need to go back to 1996 real quick. So it was September 7, and Tupac was shot in Las Vegas. And Kevin actually headed out there to cover it for Rolling Stone.

MERAJI: And Gene, we know it wasn't the first time Pac had been shot. You know, part of the Tupac folklore was that he lived after being shot five times.

POWELL: It was like he was a superman, like a mythical figure, you know what I mean? Not that he was better than anybody, but, you know, people were like, well, he'll - he'll be OK. The next day, September 13, it was a Friday. I'll never forget it. There in Vegas, I'm sitting there watching on HBO Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X. It's the scene where Malcolm X is on his way to the Audubon Ballroom and is about to be assassinated.

And you hear the song from Sam Cooke, "A Change Is Gonna Come," playing. Just as that was going on, I get a call from Allison Samuels, who's been a longtime journalist for Newsweek magazine. She said two words - Pac's dead. And I just started crying. I went to the hospital, like everybody else did. And, you know, you just - you are in shock, you know?

I'm not a drinker anymore, but that night I went to the exact corner where Pac got shot. I drank liquor, and I poured out, as we do in the hoods of America, the rest on the ground. You know, I didn't know what else to do, you know what I mean? It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

DEMBY: That's Kevin Powell, and he's going to talk with us about what Tupac means in 2016 after a short break.

MERAJI: And it may sound crazy since we're talking about Tupac, but yeah, we've got to warn you. There's some explicit language in the music we'll hear.

DEMBY: Stay with us. This is CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Hey, it's Guy Raz here from the TED Radio Hour. And I'm really excited to tell you about another podcast I'm hosting. It's called How I Built This, and it's a show about the most amazing innovators and entrepreneurs and the stories behind the companies and movements they built. The show launches on September 12. You can find it at npr.org/podcasts, on iTunes or on the NPR One app.

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. We're back. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: All right, Gene, let's get into this interview about Tupac's legacy with Kevin Powell. He starts things off by ranking Pac's rap prowess. Uh oh.

DEMBY: (Laughter). Here we go.

POWELL: Hindsight's 20/20 for me now because I've had 20 years to really process this thing. And I think he was - he was an incredibly talented artist in many different ways, but I would never put him in my top five greatest rappers of all time.

DEMBY: I would agree with you, but that would be sacrilege for a lot of people.

MERAJI: It's interesting that you're both from the East Coast. I just want to point that out. Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: Well, so is Tupac Shakur, though.

MERAJI: Well, OK, fine. But he did have a love for California, especially the Bay area.

POWELL: Absolutely.

MERAJI: And I have, you know...

POWELL: But I would put rappers like Snoop Dog and Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar, who is greatly influenced by Tupac, ahead of Tupac in terms of overall skills. We're talking about content, lyrical flow. You know, Pac had great moments. Like, I remember when he was - when I did the Rikers Island interview when he was in prison, and we were given a copy of "Dear Mama."

And the song blew me away because I'd never heard anything like that, you know, and I still think that's one of the most important songs ever made about a son's love for his mother in any genre of music, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) And even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was a black queen, Mama. I finally understand, for a woman, it ain't easy trying to raise a man.

POWELL: But I just think that we never got to see his full potential, either as an actor or as a rapper, because his life was cut short at 25.

MERAJI: Right. I mean, but you don't think his - his lyricism would have evolved...

POWELL: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

MERAJI: ...To maybe surpass the Kendrick Lamars or the...

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: Shereen, you're a Tupac fan. I love that. I'm a Tupac...

MERAJI: I'm not, no. Me? No.

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: I am a Tupac fan. I'm a massive Tupac fan. But no...

MERAJI: I am, too.

MERAJI: He was 25. You know, think about - you know, John Lennon got to live to 40. Bob Marley got to live to 36. You know, imagine what Pac - if he would've been 30, if he would've been 35, imagine Pac now with all the stuff happening in this country, the things he would have been writing about, you know, because he was that artist. He had the ability to write the kind of political poetry of a Bob Dylan, of a Marley. He was a street poet, you know? He understood the masses of people because he was always in touch with people.

And I think, you know, it's rare that you encounter someone like that. You know, folks get so caught up in who's the greatest rapper, the greatest rappers of all time. The reason why Pac to me is one of the most important figures in pop culture period is because he transcended his art form and became a person of the people. I met a young man whose father is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, one of the major ones in this country. It was at an elite boarding school in Northern California, Shereen, and this young man had sat in the front row. He had a Tupac Shakur shirt on. When the program was over, all of 17 years old - had not been born, again, before Pac died - and he said Tupac is my hero, you know?

I'm in Barbados in the West Indies, then I'm hanging down in the cup (ph) with Rastafarians eating Ital food, the word gets around that an American writer is there. A young Asian brother comes up and had on a Tupac shirt. He said, when I was in prison, I read Tupac's articles that you wrote, and that saved my life. I mean, this is - this is the kind of impact that we're talking about. I'm in Ireland with my friend, an Irish brother, and he says to me, Kev, now that you're here - and this young man was all of 28, 29 - Pac is the biggest rapper in Ireland. I said Pac is dead. He said it doesn't matter.

DEMBY: Wow.

POWELL: You know what I mean?

MERAJI: In Cuba, too. When I was in Cuba in 1999, I mean, they absolutely adore Tupac.

POWELL: In Cuba - people of all different backgrounds - I love Tupac. It's blowing my mind these 20 years.

DEMBY: Why, though? I mean, what is it about Pac that resonates so much with people? I mean, he's - like, he fits into this mold. There's a familiar mold of, like, black masculinity. It's like...

POWELL: Right.

DEMBY: ...Like Malcolm sort of inhabited it at some point.

POWELL: Right.

DEMBY: The Black Panthers, you know, Huey Newton and those folks toted it as well, like both dangerous but sort of autodidacts who were, like, worldly and asked big questions.

POWELL: Because of his background, because Pac was born to a woman, of Afeni Shakur, may she rest in peace, who was an intellectual, who was a scholar but who also was a Black Panther party member as we know, who was someone who was of the movement, of the people, because his stepfather was Mutulu Shakur, a longtime political prisoner because he was a movement baby, a product of the civil rights movement. You know, he was born in...

DEMBY: But he was ambivalent, right, to the figures of that movement.

POWELL: Well, I - we got to - again I want to stress this. Pac was in his 20s, so sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn't. There's a lot of us who - I'm a - I'm a movement baby, if you will, and that's one of the things that drew me to Tupac because I was an activist since the time I was a teenager. And so, you know, you want to see a world where there actually is change, where there is no oppression. But then you wonder why it's not happening, and that's where the ambivalence comes from.

And there was also that tension, you know, with our generation and generation X and even with the millennials now who've kickstarted Black Lives Matter, other movements, with that generation, the boomers, the civil rights generation. Like, well, you say all this stuff, but what has actually happened? What has actually changed? But at the same time, I feel that Pac never stopped speaking to the conditions of people on this planet. I mean, you listen to the "Makaveli" album, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL MARY")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Makaveli in this, Killuminati...

POWELL: ...The thing that was put out right after he died. I mean, these are incredible tracks. I actually think that's probably one of his finest albums because of the no-nonsense approach to talking about struggle and oppression on this planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL MARY")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Penetentiaries is packed with promise makers, never realize the precious time the bitch niggas is wastin,' instutionalized - I lived my life a product made to crumble...

DEMBY: Is the Pac of - I know, like, we're all complicated. We all have, you know, multiple facets to who we are. But is the Pac of, like, you know, "How Do U Want It..."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DO U WANT IT")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Love the way you activate your hips and push your ass out, got a nigga wantin' it so bad I'm about to pass out. Want to dig you...

DEMBY: ...And some of the stuff that's, like, much more politically tinged...

MERAJI: "Changes" or something.

DEMBY: Yeah, change - like exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Still I see no changes. Can't a brother get a little peace? It's war on the streets and a war in the Middle East. Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.

DEMBY: Are those reconcilable? Like, I mean, does that diminish the more pointed political style?

POWELL: Well, you know (laughter) what I think diminishes is, you know, the sexual assault case that he caught here in New York City.

DEMBY: Right.

POWELL: You know, I think the "Hit 'Em Up" song against Biggie and Diddy, that undermines in some ways "Keep Ya Head Up," you know, which is an important song. I mean, this man in "Keep Your Head Up" is talking about being pro-choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) And since a man can't make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one.

POWELL: You know, it's supporting women's right to choose. He's talking about...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) I know you're fed up, ladies...

POWELL: ...Feminism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) But keep ya head up. Keep ya head up. Ooh, child, things are going to get easier.

POWELL: But then Pac catches this charge (ph) and he says these other things. And so again I want to stress, you know, when I met Tupac, he was 21-22 years. It was on the heels of his first album being successful and, you know, the recognition he got as the clear star of the film "Juice," which took him to a whole other level. And now you're famous and you haven't really dealt with the traumas of your childhood, being born in New York, moving to Baltimore, moving to Northern California, you know, all over the place, I mean, not knowing who your father was, not even knowing your biological father was alive until the last couple years of your life, growing up in horrific poverty, your mother becoming addicted to crack cocaine at some point in your teenage years, you know, and now you're famous. And you're having to process all of this stuff.

And so I always say to people it's also important to take a step back. You know, like, a John Lennon, even though, you know, it's sad to me that - and Lennon's my favorite Beatle - died at 40. He was killed at 40, you know, but he got to go back and reflect on - you know what? John Lennon, in his 20s, was a batterer to Cynthia Lennon. You know, I should not treat women that way. Sexism, violence against women and girls is not acceptable.

MERAJI: That's right.

POWELL: And that's - Pac never got to turn that corner is what I always say to people. Let's look at the positive things that Pac was about. He was always about the community. You know, he was very loyal to people, you know, and the stuff that was contradictory or seemed to undermine, we need to take those as life lessons. And I think Pac never got to reconcile those things. And that's why we see these multiple Pacs that people are drawn to. I'm on Twitter. Some people are quoting Pac as if he's a scholar teaching at Harvard University. Then there are other people quoting Pac like, yo, son, let's go eff them up real quick. You know what I mean? Life goes on, son. You know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: I mean, Kevin, one thing that I have been thinking about a lot, and also on the heels of the Nate Parker controversy, is this sexual assault conviction, all of this, if it would've happened in 2016 in the age of Twitter, do you think we would be so reverent of Tupac Shakur? Would he - would he have this legacy that we're talking about 20 years later if all of that went down in 2016 and we were having this conversation that we're having right now in, like, 2036?

POWELL: Well, that's an interesting question because, you know, I've thought about it a lot because I'm around the folks who are connected to this whole thing with Nate Parker and "The Birth Of A Nation." And one of the things I said is that I don't know how Pac would have been treated if he was in the era of Twitter and Facebook, social media. But one thing you got to remember - if people go back and look at the interview that I did with Pac at Rikers Island, I didn't pull any punches. I said, Pac, what happened in that hotel room? He maintained his innocence. But what he said is what I am guilty of is that I didn't stop those other men from assaulting her, from taking advantage of that woman, and I'm responsible for that. And that's something that I think people need to think about because how many men do you know, you know, who would actually say something like that at 23, 24 or 44 or 64 that actually take ownership for their sexes and their patriarchy, their misogyny?

So even at that early stage, Pac understood it, you know, that he had to take ownership. And he said I'm trying to figure this thing out. So I think what people would see if it was the era of social media, Pac was always honest. He was honest about everything. He expressed his vulnerability. He expressed how he felt if he was hurt, if he was happy.

I think that Pac could have become an example of the kind of masculinity, the kind of man who we need to move toward in this country, you know, with the right guidance. That's the thing that was missing because like me and so many of the young men who come from urban environments, we had no fathers. We had no mentors. I know that now as an older man how many younger men I mentor, you know, who are clueless about being a man. Pac was no different. He just happened to be world famous.

MERAJI: Well, OK, fine. But he did have a love for California, especially the Bay area.

POWELL: Absolutely.

MERAJI: And I have, you know...

POWELL: But I would put rappers like Snoop Dog and Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar, who is greatly influenced by Tupac, ahead of Tupac in terms of overall skills. We're talking about content, lyrical flow. You know, Pac had great moments. Like, I remember when he was - when I did the Rikers Island interview when he was in prison, and we were given a copy of "Dear Mama."

And the song blew me away because I'd never heard anything like that, you know, and I still think that's one of the most important songs ever made about a son's love for his mother in any genre of music, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) And even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was a black queen, Mama. I finally understand, for a woman, it ain't easy trying to raise a man.

POWELL: But I just think that we never got to see his full potential, either as an actor or as a rapper, because his life was cut short at 25.

MERAJI: Right. I mean, but you don't think his - his lyricism would have evolved...

POWELL: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

MERAJI: ...To maybe surpass the Kendrick Lamars or the...

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: Shereen, you're a Tupac fan. I love that. I'm a Tupac...

MERAJI: I'm not, no. Me? No.

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: I am a Tupac fan. I'm a massive Tupac fan. But no...

MERAJI: I am, too.

MERAJI: He was 25. You know, think about - you know, John Lennon got to live to 40. Bob Marley got to live to 36. You know, imagine what Pac - if he would've been 30, if he would've been 35, imagine Pac now with all the stuff happening in this country, the things he would have been writing about, you know, because he was that artist. He had the ability to write the kind of political poetry of a Bob Dylan, of a Marley. He was a street poet, you know? He understood the masses of people because he was always in touch with people.

And I think, you know, it's rare that you encounter someone like that. You know, folks get so caught up in who's the greatest rapper, the greatest rappers of all time. The reason why Pac to me is one of the most important figures in pop culture period is because he transcended his art form and became a person of the people. I met a young man whose father is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, one of the major ones in this country. It was at an elite boarding school in Northern California, Shereen, and this young man had sat in the front row. He had a Tupac Shakur shirt on. When the program was over, all of 17 years old - had not been born, again, before Pac died - and he said Tupac is my hero, you know?

I'm in Barbados in the West Indies, then I'm hanging down in the cup (ph) with Rastafarians eating Ital food, the word gets around that an American writer is there. A young Asian brother comes up and had on a Tupac shirt. He said, when I was in prison, I read Tupac's articles that you wrote, and that saved my life. I mean, this is - this is the kind of impact that we're talking about. I'm in Ireland with my friend, an Irish brother, and he says to me, Kev, now that you're here - and this young man was all of 28, 29 - Pac is the biggest rapper in Ireland. I said Pac is dead. He said it doesn't matter.

DEMBY: Wow.

POWELL: You know what I mean?

MERAJI: In Cuba, too. When I was in Cuba in 1999, I mean, they absolutely adore Tupac.

POWELL: In Cuba - people of all different backgrounds - I love Tupac. It's blowing my mind these 20 years.

DEMBY: Why, though? I mean, what is it about Pac that resonates so much with people? I mean, he's - like, he fits into this mold. There's a familiar mold of, like, black masculinity. It's like...

POWELL: Right.

DEMBY: ...Like Malcolm sort of inhabited it at some point.

POWELL: Right.

DEMBY: The Black Panthers, you know, Huey Newton and those folks toted it as well, like both dangerous but sort of autodidacts who were, like, worldly and asked big questions.

POWELL: Because of his background, because Pac was born to a woman, of Afeni Shakur, may she rest in peace, who was an intellectual, who was a scholar but who also was a Black Panther party member as we know, who was someone who was of the movement, of the people, because his stepfather was Mutulu Shakur, a longtime political prisoner because he was a movement baby, a product of the civil rights movement. You know, he was born in...

DEMBY: But he was ambivalent, right, to the figures of that movement.

POWELL: Well, I - we got to - again I want to stress this. Pac was in his 20s, so sometimes he was, sometimes he wasn't. There's a lot of us who - I'm a - I'm a movement baby, if you will, and that's one of the things that drew me to Tupac because I was an activist since the time I was a teenager. And so, you know, you want to see a world where there actually is change, where there is no oppression. But then you wonder why it's not happening, and that's where the ambivalence comes from.

And there was also that tension, you know, with our generation and generation X and even with the millennials now who've kickstarted Black Lives Matter, other movements, with that generation, the boomers, the civil rights generation. Like, well, you say all this stuff, but what has actually happened? What has actually changed? But at the same time, I feel that Pac never stopped speaking to the conditions of people on this planet. I mean, you listen to the "Makaveli" album, you know...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL MARY")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Makaveli in this, Killuminati...

POWELL: ...The thing that was put out right after he died. I mean, these are incredible tracks. I actually think that's probably one of his finest albums because of the no-nonsense approach to talking about struggle and oppression on this planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL MARY")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Penetentiaries is packed with promise makers, never realize the precious time the bitch niggas is wastin,' instutionalized - I lived my life a product made to crumble...

DEMBY: Is the Pac of - I know, like, we're all complicated. We all have, you know, multiple facets to who we are. But is the Pac of, like, you know, "How Do U Want It..."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DO U WANT IT")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Love the way you activate your hips and push your ass out, got a nigga wantin' it so bad I'm about to pass out. Want to dig you...

DEMBY: ...And some of the stuff that's, like, much more politically tinged...

MERAJI: "Changes" or something.

DEMBY: Yeah, change - like exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Still I see no changes. Can't a brother get a little peace? It's war on the streets and a war in the Middle East. Instead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.

DEMBY: Are those reconcilable? Like, I mean, does that diminish the more pointed political style?

POWELL: Well, you know (laughter) what I think diminishes is, you know, the sexual assault case that he caught here in New York City.

DEMBY: Right.

POWELL: You know, I think the "Hit 'Em Up" song against Biggie and Diddy, that undermines in some ways "Keep Ya Head Up," you know, which is an important song. I mean, this man in "Keep Your Head Up" is talking about being pro-choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) And since a man can't make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one.

POWELL: You know, it's supporting women's right to choose. He's talking about...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) I know you're fed up, ladies...

POWELL: ...Feminism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP YA HEAD UP")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) But keep ya head up. Keep ya head up. Ooh, child, things are going to get easier.

POWELL: But then Pac catches this charge (ph) and he says these other things. And so again I want to stress, you know, when I met Tupac, he was 21-22 years. It was on the heels of his first album being successful and, you know, the recognition he got as the clear star of the film "Juice," which took him to a whole other level. And now you're famous and you haven't really dealt with the traumas of your childhood, being born in New York, moving to Baltimore, moving to Northern California, you know, all over the place, I mean, not knowing who your father was, not even knowing your biological father was alive until the last couple years of your life, growing up in horrific poverty, your mother becoming addicted to crack cocaine at some point in your teenage years, you know, and now you're famous. And you're having to process all of this stuff.

And so I always say to people it's also important to take a step back. You know, like, a John Lennon, even though, you know, it's sad to me that - and Lennon's my favorite Beatle - died at 40. He was killed at 40, you know, but he got to go back and reflect on - you know what? John Lennon, in his 20s, was a batterer to Cynthia Lennon. You know, I should not treat women that way. Sexism, violence against women and girls is not acceptable.

MERAJI: That's right.

POWELL: And that's - Pac never got to turn that corner is what I always say to people. Let's look at the positive things that Pac was about. He was always about the community. You know, he was very loyal to people, you know, and the stuff that was contradictory or seemed to undermine, we need to take those as life lessons. And I think Pac never got to reconcile those things. And that's why we see these multiple Pacs that people are drawn to. I'm on Twitter. Some people are quoting Pac as if he's a scholar teaching at Harvard University. Then there are other people quoting Pac like, yo, son, let's go eff them up real quick. You know what I mean? Life goes on, son. You know what I mean?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: I mean, Kevin, one thing that I have been thinking about a lot, and also on the heels of the Nate Parker controversy, is this sexual assault conviction, all of this, if it would've happened in 2016 in the age of Twitter, do you think we would be so reverent of Tupac Shakur? Would he - would he have this legacy that we're talking about 20 years later if all of that went down in 2016 and we were having this conversation that we're having right now in, like, 2036?

POWELL: Well, that's an interesting question because, you know, I've thought about it a lot because I'm around the folks who are connected to this whole thing with Nate Parker and "The Birth Of A Nation." And one of the things I said is that I don't know how Pac would have been treated if he was in the era of Twitter and Facebook, social media. But one thing you got to remember - if people go back and look at the interview that I did with Pac at Rikers Island, I didn't pull any punches. I said, Pac, what happened in that hotel room? He maintained his innocence. But what he said is what I am guilty of is that I didn't stop those other men from assaulting her, from taking advantage of that woman, and I'm responsible for that. And that's something that I think people need to think about because how many men do you know, you know, who would actually say something like that at 23, 24 or 44 or 64 that actually take ownership for their sexes and their patriarchy, their misogyny?

So even at that early stage, Pac understood it, you know, that he had to take ownership. And he said I'm trying to figure this thing out. So I think what people would see if it was the era of social media, Pac was always honest. He was honest about everything. He expressed his vulnerability. He expressed how he felt if he was hurt, if he was happy.

I think that Pac could have become an example of the kind of masculinity, the kind of man who we need to move toward in this country, you know, with the right guidance. That's the thing that was missing because like me and so many of the young men who come from urban environments, we had no fathers. We had no mentors. I know that now as an older man how many younger men I mentor, you know, who are clueless about being a man. Pac was no different. He just happened to be world famous.

MERAJI: In your Riker's interview with him, he's like, there's this evil inside of me and I want to get it out. You know, I want to do better. I want to do good. Do you think that turned after he got out?

POWELL: Let me tell you - the Rikers Island interview, the prison interview, was in January 1995. Pac spills his soul to me, which meant that he spilled it to everybody who read the article all over the country and all over the world, I'm going to change. I'm going to stop smoking weed. I'm going to stop smoking cigarettes. You know, I'm your child, you know, and basically I want to be held accountable.

Fast forward to the Death Row cover at the end of - near the end of the year, 1995, which is the last time I spoke to Tupac, I show up on the set of the "California Love" video. Pac is out there counting mad money, you know, that Suge has given him. Before he even did that, I knocked on his trailer door. The door opens and a gust of marijuana smoke comes out. I was like, oh, wow. This is the Pac who said he wasn't going to smoke weed anymore. So it's hard to say.

I think that Pac evolved in terms of his understanding of who he is, what his significance was, what his role was. You know, if you look at Pac in the last year or so of his life, he was actually mentoring younger artists. You know, he was - and he was only 25 - 24-25, you know, so I think he understood he had a responsibility to share what he had learned with other people. He was evolving in terms of his understanding of business, what he needed to control for himself. I just don't know where he was evolving, honestly, in terms of his personal development, you know?

MERAJI: Yeah.

POWELL: I mean, the man was a sex symbol, you know, for women, but he also becomes someone who can - you can talk about sexism and misogyny because of some of the things that he did, as we discussed earlier. He represents various forms of masculinity. He represents hip-hop. He represents pop culture. He represents making something out of nothing, which is the essence of the definition of hip-hop, you know what I mean? He represents that middle finger, which is resistance, resistance, resistance. That's Occupy Wall Street. That's the Black Lives Matter movement. That's any people who feel like they've been disrespected and disregarded by the power structure on this planet. Pac covered all of those bases.

MERAJI: Are we being critical enough...

POWELL: About Tupac Shakur?

MERAJI: ...Twenty years out? Yeah.

POWELL: You know, I've - I'm critical all the time because people always - I say, no, I can't support the sexism, can't support the over use of the N word. And I - no, and I come from the hood. I come from the environment that created hip-hop. I'm of the culture. I'm a hip-hop head for life, so I think we should be critical, always be a critical. I don't believe in putting people on a pedestal. Like, people will always say, well, Kev, what did you learn from Tupac? And I'll say, well, first of all, I was five years older than him so I think he learned some things from me as well, you know (laughter)?

I think it goes both ways. But we also know that we live in a society, in a world that is celebrity-obsessed, that tends to put people on pedestals and make them into mythological figures. What I'm most interested in is the humanity of Tupac, the good parts, the bad parts and the parts in between, so I can get a fuller picture of who he was as a whole human being.

MERAJI: Do you do anything on the anniversary of his death? Do you do anything special? Do you - I don't know - wake up and think about him?

POWELL: I play his music. I play his music, and I celebrate his birthday more than anything. I think about - it's interesting you ask that question. This is the first time I'm really thinking about September 13 in this way. I always celebrate his birthday every year. We always, you know, pulse mad music online. We have conversations with people. I've done a lot of interviews about Pac, obviously, through the years.

MERAJI: Yeah.

POWELL: But I have to say that it's been very difficult having these conversations because you - it's 20 years, and it just went by like that. It seems like yesterday, you know. But this is what happens when an iconic figure dies. They become frozen where they were, and they're that person forever at that age. And that's it.

MERAJI: It is a trip because I was a little bit younger than him when he died. To now be so much older and to think of him frozen in time - it's true. It's like, yeah, there is something really strange about that.

POWELL: Yeah. I thought he was a grown ass man. Like, you know?

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: I was in high school. I think I was like tenth grade maybe when Pac was killed. And I just remember thinking of him as, you know, he's 25. I was like, oh, he's grown. And now that I'm in my 30s, I'm like, oh, no, he was a child. I mean, you know what I mean? He like - there was so much he had not had a chance to do.

POWELL: Yeah. Very young.

DEMBY: One of the things that happens with so many rappers as they get older, you know - because hip-hop is a medium of young people in so many ways - is that rappers are sort of agents of relevance. Would you have preferred that he had lived a life that allowed him to just become like a middle-aged B-list rapper as opposed to...

POWELL: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I mean, this is a very weird question, but...

POWELL: I mean, let me put this in context for you all. If Pac was alive now, he'd be 45. He would actually be younger than Jay-Z. He'd be younger than Diddy. He'd be just a couple of years older than Eminem. He'd be younger than Dr. Dre. He's about the same age as Snoop Dog. He would only be about six years older than Kanye West. And so, yeah, you could argue that hip-hop is a art form that is propelled by young people.

That's always been the case. You know, my generation in the '80s and '90s, you know what I'm saying? But the reality is just like rock 'n' roll, you know, had got into this space now because it's been around so long, where you'll see Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones touring into their 70s. You'll see a Paul McCartney, you know, originally with The Beatles still performing at a high level in his early 70s. So I think that Pac would have been in a lot of different space. I think, again, he would have been a dynamic, dynamic actor.

I always thought he was an incredible actor who never even got to flush out because of all the legal issues, the criminal issues that he had, you know, the kind of work he would have done. You know, I think he would have won awards for his acting. You know, I think he would have gone in a lot of different directions musically. You know, it's just - it's unfortunate because, you know, you could see it. You know, we just don't know. You know, we don't know.

MERAJI: I think we should leave it there.

POWELL: Yeah.

MERAJI: What do you think, Kevin?

POWELL: I think that you all are dope.

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: Both of you. I appreciate you.

DEMBY: (Unintelligible). Kevin, thank you so much for coming in and talking to us today, man.

POWELL: It's my honor. Long live Tupac.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Tupac, when you asked us how long we'd mourn you, for me, the answer is a lifetime. And I have a feeling, Gene, Kevin Powell would agree.

DEMBY: I think you're right.

MERAJI: He wrote all about Tupac in the mid-'90s. He's still writing about him.

DEMBY: Yeah. And in his memoir "The Education Of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey Into Manhood." Kevin devotes an entire chapter to Pac.

MERAJI: Yes, he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And that wraps up CODESWITCH for this week.

DEMBY: Thank you all for rocking with us.

MERAJI: Our producer is Rand Abdel-Fattah (ph).

DEMBY: With original music from Romtein Arab-Louis (ph).

MERAJI: And thanks to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, Walter Ray Watson and our news assistant Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: Our editors are Alison MacAdam, Keith Woods. And this week we say goodbye to our editor Alicia Montgomery.

MERAJI: Bye, Alicia.

DEMBY: If you are listening to the CODE SWITCH podcast, a major reason why this thing even got done is because of Alicia's hard work and direction.

MERAJI: Thank you.

DEMBY: So thank you. We appreciate you so, so much.

MERAJI: And we're going to miss you.

DEMBY: And we are.

MERAJI: So follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch and we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever find podcasts can be found. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. We're back next week. Be easy.

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