Picture Him Rollin'
Tupac Shakur Biopic ‘All Eyez on Me’ Puts Artist’s Legacy on Display
By Marc Hopkins
Among a semi-distracted crowd at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the camera finds the artist and producer Pharrell Williams, whose gaze is fixed on Snoop Dogg standing alone on stage.
Snoop isn’t performing. He’s paying homage to Tupac Amaru Shakur, who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on April 7, 2017.
As he recalled the greatness of his friend and label mate at Death Row Records, Snoop was also in disbelief that 21 years had passed since Shakur’s poetic, violent, and thoughtful voice was silenced by a barrage of gunfire. The pair had collaborated on a number of projects including “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted” and “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
Snoop spoke of Shakur like a brother, and used the occasion to pierce through the hype and offer a glimpse into the East Harlem native who was born Lesane Parish Crooks.
“Many remember him as some thugged out superhero,” said Snoop. But he also struggled with the same frailties as the rest of us. And he expressed his passions with raw abandon each time the mic went hot. “Pac embraced those contradictions, which proved we ain’t just a character out of someone else’s storybook. To be human is to be many things at once,” Snoop continued. “Strong and vulnerable, hard-headed and intellectual, courageous and afraid, loving and vengeful, revolutionary and gangster.”
Shakur’s short, brilliant, and turbulent life will be on display again this weekend with the opening of the biopic “All Eyez on Me,” on what would have been the artist’s 46th birthday.
Whether this film is a box office draw is almost irrelevant, as Shakur’s legacy is firmly cemented as one of a cadre of artists who are standard bearers of their craft. Shakur has become one of the best-selling music artists in the world by selling more than 37.5 million records in the U.S. and 75 million albums worldwide as of 2007. Additionally his double album, All Eyez on Me, sold over 5 million copies in the states.
These stats, however, don’t convey Shakur’s continuing influence on the next generation of artists. The Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar penned a tribute to Shakur in the online music magazine Pitchfork. “I was 8 yrs old when I first saw you. I couldn't describe how I felt at that moment. So many emotions. Full of excitement. Full of joy and eagerness. 20 yrs later I understand exactly what that feeling was. INSPIRED.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, formed in protest of the murders of African Americans by police, have adopted Lamar’s “Alright” (We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!) an anthem chanted during marches. But long before Lamar’s uplifting refrain, Shakur took on the cops.
On the album 2pacalypse, Shakur brings it on the song “Trapped:” “They got me trapped | Can barely walk the city streets | Without a cop harassing me, searching me | Then asking my identity | Hands up, throw me up against the wall | Didn't do a thing at all | I'm telling you one day these suckers gotta fall…”
Shakur’s rhymes usually found their way into social commentary like “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” which addressed children giving birth to children, or the inspiring, “Keep Ya Head Up,” featuring Dave Hollister on vocals, that was dedicated to black women.
Following Pac’s lead, and in the aftermath of the deaths of African Americans such as Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and others, performers like R&B crooner Miguel (“How Many (Ruff 1)”) and producer Swizz Beatz, featuring Scarface (“Sad News”) have both recorded songs that channel the collective mourning that these tragedies bring to black communities across the country.
Here’s sample of Miguel’s meditations on African-American killings on “How Many (Ruff 1).”
I can not sleep
I can not rest
I can not dream
I can not stay silent
I feel a violence in myself
I feel a violence in myself
I'm tired of human lives turned into hashtags and prayer hands
I'm tired of watching these murderers get off
Probably bearing a law for love
Music figures like pro-athletes are often consumed by legacy.
Hip-Hop is a competitive genre with a deep bench of players who court a fan base that is always looking for an anointed or self-made king. Hence the almost pro forma declarations by countless MCs, “I’m the Greatest Rapper Alive.” Of course, those sentiments may also be driven by hip hop’s penchant to borrow, and self-reference, elements of the black cultural lexicon in a nod to another great, Muhammad Ali.
In that regard, ongoing comparisons with Shakur’s contemporaries will remain and raise the question, how do his albums fair against the genre’s seminal works? Jay Z's Reasonable Doubt, Nas' Illmatic or the Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready to Die. Unfortunately, in the past, the resolution of such issues has often led to deadly referendums. Hopefully, one of the lasting lessons of Pac’s life is that violence should never be the answer.