Today is Tupac Shakur’s birthday. He would have been 43 if he hadn’t died at 25 due to complications from gun shot injuries sustained during a drive by in Los Vegas. Tupac is a study in contradictions. He was an art school drop out, a voracious reader, an empathetic actor and as impassioned activist as well as a hot-tempered, former drug-dealer with a violent past he could never shake and an irrepressable knack for getting into shit.
I’m not the biggest Tupac fan but it’s impossible to deny his artistry, his legacy and his drive. He died at 25 in 1996 and they are still releasing his original material 18 years later. Did he come out of the womb with a microphone or something? Much like Notorious B.I.G., Tupac’s lyrics have a Nostradamus quality when reviewed in light of his early, tragic death.
I love the song “How Long Will They Mourn Me,” from the CD Thug Life Volume 1 released in 1994. Rap is a lot about braggadocio and being clever, and I love that. It’s funny and brave and strong. But Tupac’s lyrics often came from a more honest place. He rapped about his own regrets; his worries, his mistakes and his opinions.
They should’ve shot me when I was born
Now I’m trapped in the muthafuckin’ storm
How long will they mourn me ?
Tupac and his group Thug Life rap about how they are becoming numb to the constant deaths of their friends and ask God why they are alive to just do the same shit over and over again.
So confused not knowing which way to go
I’m goin crazy and runnin’ out of fuckin’ time
I can’t take it, I’m losin’ my fuckin’ mind
So day after day
ride after ride
How Long Will They Mourn Me is both a meditation on Tupac’s preoccupation with his death as well as a vignette showing how Tupac and his crew grieve for a lost brother when so many friends are dying so quickly one after another.
Do real niggas get to go to heaven ?
How long will they mourn me, bury me a muthafuckin ‘G’
Bitch don’t wanna die
then don’t fuck with me
Tupac often questioned whether he would go to heaven given the many terrible acts he has committed. His actions were shaped by his environment and the justice sought through personal retaliation. That’s one of the reasons Tupac is so fascinating. He knew he was doing bad shit, but he was compelled to do it.
It’s kinda hard to be optimistic
When your homies lying dead on the pavement twisted
Y’all don’t hear me doe, I’m trying hard to make amends
But I’m losing all my muthafuckin friends
Tupac knew who he was and who he would become better than anyone. He was a prophet to many, a mess of contradictions and a lyrical genius who worked harder than anyone in his short time on Earth. But even he could not have predicted that he would still be a best-selling artist almost 20 years after his death, whose lyrics are studied in universities around the world and whose art serves as a cultural cornerstone for a time of racial unrest; social upheaval and the crazy excess and gang culture of 90s rap music.