It Doesn’t Feel Like Tupac’s Been Dead for 25 Years Because Sometimes It Doesn’t Feel Like Tupac Is Dead

Jason McCall

Tupac died in 1996. And, as a son of Alabama and a son of the South, I’m supposed to remind everyone that while Tupac and B.I.G. were fighting over East Coast vs. West Coast supremacy, Big Boi and Andre let the world know that “The South got somethin’ to say” at the 1995 Source Awards, and that declaration is part of the reason why Southern hip-hop has been leading hip-hop and American music since. But that’s a story better told by Kiese Laymon or Regina N. Bradley.

          When the radio told me Tupac died on September 13, 1996, I wasn’t thinking about how his death was making room for Southern voices in hip-hop. I was thinking about how his death was taking away space for a black boy like me.

          Tupac’s death wasn’t an opening. It was a void.

          I hesitate to say “boy” because I was 11 when Tupac died, in that space when black boys morph into black males. Many black boys don’t make it to 11 before they are met with the world of toil and torture our country reserves for black males, but I was lucky. My voice and shoulders were starting to take up more space. More realities reached my mind whenever a girl slapped my arm after I made a joke in the lunch line. 

          Once I moved into that space between black boy and black male, there was less room for jokes in the lunch line. There was less room for jokes and more orders from teachers to keep our mouths shut and to keep to one side of the hallway. There were more warnings about getting the foolishness out of our systems before junior high. 

          Most of those teachers, mostly black women, weren’t warning us about junior high. They were warning us about how the world was starting to see us. How the wrestling matches after school would look like brawls. How the art we created with our shoelaces to make ourselves feel better about our clearance rack Reeboks would be proof of gang affiliation. They were letting us know that we were dangerous no matter how many times we said we were just joking, just playfighting, just liked the way the red laces looked.

          Tupac’s death, and the lack of justice after, was a concrete example of how the world could treat black men who looked like a threat. Even before he died, Tupac taught me that the world would see some of us as dangerous no matter what we did, no matter if we wore our pants on our hips or our waist, no matter if we went to “Peter Crump the city dump” (the unfortunate nickname of my elementary school that stemmed from the gathering of garbage trucks in the school parking lot every Saturday) or if we went to the gifted school and sat next to the governor’s daughter. Despite the risk, a lot of boys love seeing men act dangerous and fearless. I learned about fearlessness from watching John Starks go baseline on Jordan and Grant in the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals. I learned about the power of being dangerous and fearless from watching the way my older sisters would scramble for the remote when 2 Live Crew videos popped up on the TV in the den. 

          Seeing Tupac living dangerously, fearlessly, free was different because I got to see different faces of Tupac. As a preteen, I knew that a black boy was supposed to pick a primary lane, maybe dabble in a secondary lane here and there, and live in that lane for as long as he was allowed to live. There was a respect for the athlete. There was a respect for the artist. There was a respect for the comic. And, despite the racist stereotypes that claim black communities don’t value education, there was a respect for the geek. That doesn’t mean these lanes couldn’t overlap. The comic could hoop. The geek might pull out a nice punchline in the bathroom rap battles, but there were lanes. There were expectations. 

          Tupac had a song for everything. I knew black people were people, and that meant we held a universe of personhood inside of us. I saw that at home and in my neighborhood, but it meant something different to see it on TV and hear it on the radio. It meant something to know the same artist could make “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Hail Mary” and make me believe he meant every word in each. There was—and still is—something special about believing in the thug talk even though we all knew he went to art school with Jada Pinkett Smith and we saw him dancing with Digital Underground. Even if we knew some of it was fake, it was all real. Seeing Tupac’s imagination reinforced what I knew about all the possibilities available for black imagination and black personhood. 

          My relationship with Tupac and his ghost is tied to my relationship with youth and possibility. One of my favorite hip-hop memories is walking home from school the week after “California Love” came out. Me and my friend Terry went back and forth rapping the song while walking down the sidewalk, feeling like the hardest boys to walk the sidewalks of Woodley Park. We didn’t notice that there were no curse words in Tupac’s verse. We were saying the most dangerous words on earth when “Out on bail, fresh out of jail” left our lips and rang through the neighborhood. Our neighborhood was transformed into a Mad Max hellscape and we were the baddest duo to set foot on that sand. But I was playing out a fantasy that would likely never touch me. In this part of Montgomery, the only people who might see me as a thug were the police, and their opinions only counted if they decided to reach for the trigger or the cuffs. If I could never have Tupac’s flash, I had his words and energy. And when his words and energy came off as contradictory or inconsistent, it was a lesson that there was room for me to be contradictory or inconsistent as long as it felt real.

          This isn’t about Tupac as a role model or his deification. My grandfather, father, uncles, cousins, older brother, and teachers all showed me different examples of what it meant to be a “good black man,” but all these examples also showed me how easy it could be to be labeled a “good black man” when so many people were hungry to find a “good black man.” A black man who can tie a tie is held up as a good black man. A black man who keeps his eyes open in class is a good black man. When Tupac was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse, some people said it was proof that he was a good black man because the world always wants to lock up a good black man. Seeing Tupac get put in prison didn’t make me question whether or not he committed a crime; it made me question what I could get away with, how much suffering I could bring into the world and have someone try to hide it under the shroud of me being a “good black man.” Admitting that I love Tupac means that I have to admit that I love someone who went to prison for assaulting a woman, and that love of Tupac might mean that I shouldn’t have been trusted to drive women home from the bar or walk them home from the keg party. That love of Tupac might mean that he’s just another number of the list of criminals and abusers who I choose to let hold a place in my heart and head. 

          I have to remind myself that Tupac was only 25 when he died. Younger than Jay-Z. Younger than Robert Downey, Jr. He’s only a year older than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Think about how far they’ve traveled since 1996. When I watch some of those last interviews with Tupac and see his excitement for future projects and ideas, I see the same spark in my students when I ask them what’s next after graduation. They light up when they explain how the new internship is going to work out. They glow when they imagine stepping out of the car or stepping off the plane in a city where no one knows they share their grandmother’s middle name. I see that same spark because Tupac was the same age as the students I’m supposed to lead into a better future for themselves. There’s an authenticity I want to believe even though I know Tupac was a good actor. I want to believe he meant it when he spit at those paparazzi. When he says, “That’s why I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker,” at the beginning of “Hit ‘Em Up,” I want to believe it even though I know there’s so much wrong with that opening line. 

          Of course, youth creates the romantic idea of authenticity. It’s easy to imagine Tupac targeting Obama or Bush the way he targeted Clinton and Dole in his lyrics. It’s easy to imagine him next to Kanye during the Katrina benefit, jumping in to add his righteous venom after Kanye says, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” When I watch superhero movies, I think about how Tupac could have been a great villain in one of those movies. I can see him spitting an infinity stone out of his cheek just as smoothly as he spit out that razor blade in “Above the Rim.” 

          But there’s also the chance that Tupac at 50 would make me wish that Tupac had died at 25. There’s the chance that Tupac would have been standing next to Kanye in Trump Tower. He would shrug and say, “I respect the hustle” when reporters ask how he could offer this endorsement. There’s the chance we’d all have to listen to Tupac say that he had questions about jet fuel and steel beams. There’s the chance we’d all have to listen to Tupac say his Panther Party upbringing makes him question vaccines. We’d have to listen to the first three songs of the new Tupac album before we realize, again, that Tupac’s new music is never going to touch the same place inside of us that his older music touched back when he was younger and braver and we were younger and braver. 

          Tupac died when he still had time to be almost anything in life. Now, I’m over a decade older than Tupac ever was. Anniversaries like the anniversary of his death remind us that too many black lives have too many lifetimes stolen. But anniversaries like this are recognized by the living, and it’s a reminder that I’m lucky to have lived long enough to be something more than an idea to the people who know and love me. There’s a world between wondering who I could have been and lamenting that I didn’t have more time to be who I am. If I’m lucky, I’ll make it to being one of those older voices that Tupac railed against. I’ll be the C. Delores Tucker that some young firebrand lashes out against because I just don’t understand how the world works anymore. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to see more young black people carry that same boundless and conflicted energy that Tupac carried when I look across my classroom or look across the living room when I go back to Montgomery for the holidays. And if we’re all lucky, that young black energy will have the time it deserves to grow into something sharper and bigger, something more dangerous and more beautiful.

Jason McCall (@JasonMccall4) holds an MFA from the University of Miami. His recent collections include A Man Ain’t Nothin’, and What Shot Did You Ever Take (co-authored with Brian Oliu). He is a native of Montgomery, Alabama, and he currently teaches at the University of North Alabama.

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