EXCLUSIVE: Kevin Powell discusses his Tupac Shakur biopic lawsuit
By Olivia Jordan
Twenty years after his unsolved death, Tupac Shakur remains one of the most engrossing figures for fans of hip-hop. A talented young performer with a dynamic character, Tupac has proven to be an enduring figure in music history, with generations old and new showing interest in his music and complex life-story. ALL EYEZ ON ME, a new Tupac Shakur biopic, has come under fire since its mid-June premiere, receiving overwhelmingly unfavorable reviews and facing criticism from high-profile figures such as Jada Pinkett Smith, 50 Cent, and John Singleton. The most serious action taken against the film, however, came this week from Kevin Powell, an author of 12 books and an activist who worked as a senior writer at Vibe magazine. Powell has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against the writers and producers of the biopic, asserting that elements of his exclusive Vibe articles were lifted without credit, permission, or compensation. In this exclusive interview, Powell speaks for the first and only time about his reaction to the film, his journalistic integrity, and his motivation to file the lawsuit.
QUESTION: You’ve been best-known as an activist and author for at least the last decade; and you ran for Congress in New York City in 2008 and 2010. Has it been odd to find yourself pulled back into the center of the hip-hop universe again?
KEVIN: I’ve actually been a writer and an activist for 30 longs years, since I was a teenager and a college student at Rutgers University. My awakening came during the anti-apartheid era on college campuses in the 1980s, and because of Jesse Jackson’s runs for President. Those things, and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X as an 18-year-old, and learning Black history, learning American history holistically, changed my life forever. I was very clear from that point forward that my life would be one dedicated to writing, to telling the truth, and to fighting for justice in every way possible. And like anyone who has been touched by hip-hop culture, I literally grew up in it. As a youth I did graffiti, tagged my nickname, “kepo1,” on walls, and I danced, hard, popping, locking, breaking, all the dances of my youth, as many of us did. So, I have always been a hip-hop head, and I am a hip-hop head for life. You never leave the culture that has molded and shaped you in every way possible. Working as a senior writer at Vibe magazine and curating the very first exhibit on the history of hip-hop for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame were just extensions of my life and work as a writer, activist, and hip-hop head. It is all connected. I do not separate these things, never put these things in individual boxes, and all have been consistently there for much of my life, and will continue to be.
QUESTION: When did you first get wind that there was a Tupac film in the works?
KEVIN: I will say this: I saw the film two days before it came out and then again on opening night. I have always had a relationship with Tupac’s family, his late mother Afeni, and his sister Sekyiwa. In fact, Afeni paid me as a consultant on the very first Tupac film she was involved in, the MTV documentary movie RESURRECTION that was nominated for an Oscar in the early 2000s. She said she respected how I had covered her son’s life, that they were using images from some of my Vibe articles in RESURRECTION, and that it was the right thing to make sure I was compensated and credited properly.
QUESTION: How close were you with his mother Afeni Shakur in the years since Pac’s passing? Had she ever asked you to be involved in the film?
KEVIN: Afeni Shakur and I talked on various occasions through the years, very openly, very honestly, about her, about Tupac, about what I meant to her and Tupac, to her family. Two particular encounters with Afeni stand out to me now, more than ever, since her death last year. First, I was in North Carolina for a speech and had no idea I was very close to the huge organic farm where she and her new husband were living. This was after the RESSURRECTION documentary film. Her husband either called or emailed me, and said that she wanted to talk with me. We did, and Afeni invited me to spend the night in their guest house, which just happened to be right next to the crypt with much of Tupac’s ashes. It was a profound night for me, as I did not sleep. I could feel Tupac’s presence all about the space. The other meet-up with Afeni I think of more than ever is the very last time I saw her, a few years before she died. It was on her boathouse in Northern California. Ms. Shakur always made it a point to let me know, over and over, that she appreciated me, who I was, what I was doing for her son’s legacy, and that she duly noted that I was not one of those folks trying to profit from him. She gave me her blessing to do a book on Tupac, because I asked her for that. It is the book I am finally doing now. This was around the time I was running for Congress in 2008, and eventually again in 2010, here in New York City, so that is part of the reason why the project got delayed on my end. Plus I wound up writing my own autobiography, first, The Education of Kevin Powell, which includes a chapter about Tupac and my Vibe years in it.
QUESTION: Did you have any contact with past directors attached to the project, like John Singleton?
KEVIN: John Singleton reached out to me. I appreciated John greatly for that, I admire his work for so many obvious reasons. I think we know from films like BOYZ N THE HOOD and BABY BOY that Singleton takes the exploration of Black manhood very seriously, and that is exactly what led me to writing about Tupac for Vibe. Because, to me, Tupac Shakur represented all the layers of complexities of what it is to be a Black man in America.
QUESTION: How many times did you see the film?
KEVIN: I have seen the film twice, first alone, the second time with my lawyers to take very detailed notes on the many places where there is copyright infringement of my work. The great irony of all of this is that Datwon Thomas, the current editor-in-chief of Vibe, asked me to write a cover story on Demetrius Shipp, Jr., the young man who plays Tupac in ALL EYEZ ON ME. At first I declined. But then I agreed to do it, one, because I respect Datwon, and second because I was hearing great things about Demetrius as a human being. In my interview with him the actor was great, very real, very forthcoming, and I wish nothing but amazing things for him going forward. He, Demetrius, deserves that. But I found it curious, very curious, that every single time we asked the studio or the movie’s publicity and marketing team for me to see a screening of ALL EYEZ ON ME we kept getting rebuffed, that the film “was not ready.” Meanwhile, other people were saying to me, all through this “Hey Kev, I just saw ALL EYEZ ON ME. Did you see it?” That is when it really hit me that something very strange was happening with this film.
QUESTION: What was going through your mind as you sat in the theater watching it on the big screen?
KEVIN: I thought, first, that ALL EYEZ ON ME is not a good film, that it is very clear it is not on the level of other biopics, like the Johnny Cash one, or the Ray Charles one, or the N.W.A one, not even close. It was very clear to me that it was rushed at the last minute to beat a deadline, in late 2015, before the full rights reverted back to Afeni Shakur. I found that offensive, because we all know Tupac Shakur is one of the major global icons at this point, as big as Elvis, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo. He represents so many things to so many different people. I know this from my travels around America and internationally, and from all the mail and emails and various kinds of messages I get from folks who love Pac still, to this day. So to see a film put together in that haphazard sort of way felt like a money grab to me, like folks were just trying to profit from his fame, and were also banking on the movie doing as well as N.W.A.’s STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. The huge difference, of course, is that COMPTON is a very well-made film. ALL EYEZ ON ME is not, not even close. The second thing for me is how uncomfortable I was as things from my Vibe articles were literally lifted into the movie. No consultation with me, no credit for me, no compensation for me. Like it was no big deal, like I was never going to say anything. That hurt, as a writer who put in the work, the sweat, the time, the energy to document Tupac’s life, including when many did not want to do so, to just sit there and watch the makers of this film just lift my work in that way. It was a private screening with other media folks, just two days before the film opened, finally, when I got to see ALL EYEZ ON ME. I was so upset that I literally walked forty New York City blocks from Midtown Manhattan down to SOHO, to clear my head of what I was feeling. And what I was feeling, and what I still feel, is incredibly violated and disrespected as a writer, as a documentarian of Tupac Shakur’s life and times. Finally, because I knew Tupac Shakur very well, I recall very vividly in one of our early conversations, as I have written, him saying to me “I want you to be Alex Haley to my Malcolm X.” Because Tupac respected me as much as I respected him. In fact, we met in the Spring of 1993 at an Atlanta music conference called Jack The Rapper. He was riding the wave of the great success of his first film, JUICE, and also the popularity of his music, and was surrounded by male and female fans. I was standing there sheepishly with Karla Radford, my co-worker at Vibe. She knew I was pushing Vibe hard to let me write about Tupac. They had sent me instead to Atlanta to cover Snoop Dogg. I was good with that, because Snoop was major, too, but Tupac Shakur was who I felt represented all that being a Black male was in America at that time, and as we have come to see, across generations. Karla pushed her way through that crowd and boldly told Tupac that he needed to meet me. Pac looked my way with that toothy grin of us and his big eyes widened even more. He recognized me from being a cast member on the first season of MTV’s “The Real World,” and said he was a great admirer of mine for how I represented myself, that he had my back on that show. That is how it all started, why he trusted me from the beginning, to tell his story, to protect him. Little did I know that that journey with Tupac would take me from Atlanta to Los Angeles to New York City to a prison interview to even being there in Vegas when his death was announced. I simply had planned on doing the one cover story on him, but there was no way not to follow Tupac beyond that, because with all the legal and criminal cases, the East Coast-West Coast beef, his move to Deathrow Records upon his release from jail, it was clear that he had become a larger-than-life figure, and I felt a great obligation, and responsibility, to report on Tupac Shakur as fairly and honestly and carefully as possible, given how volatile he and his life were. And that is what I did. This is why I do not really like ALL EYEZ ON ME. I know who Tupac was, what he represented, the ins and outs of his life as well as anyone. I lived through it, I recorded it, I wrote about it. The biopic does not even begin to scratch the surface of Tupac Shakur’s immense complexities. It plays more like a made-for-tv movie than anything. And Tupac and his life and legacy, as does Afeni Shakur’s, deserves so much better than that.
QUESTION: What finally motivated you to file the lawsuit and how tough was it to come to that decision?
KEVIN: I decided to file this lawsuit because it borrows from my work, period, without any permission whatsoever. It is very obvious to me, to many people. I also am doing this for other writers, other journalists, other artists, who have had their work used without consultation, credit, or any compensation whatsoever. It is a great injustice to do that to someone, to anyone. My whole life has been about fighting injustice in any form, be it racism, or sexism, or homophobia and transphobia, or police brutality, and on and on. So I am certainly going to stand up for myself when I feel I have been grossly violated and disrespected and infringed upon, and that is certainly the case with ALL EYEZ ON ME.
QUESTION: You own the rights to the Vibe cover stories, other articles, all of it, including your Tupac work. When and how did that come about?
KEVIN: When I was taping the first season of MTV’s “The Real World,” it was not lost on me that myself and the other young people in the cast essentially signed away all of our rights to the producers of that show, forever, in perpetuity as the contract read, and throughout the universe. So I learned a lesson very young and very quickly in ownership of my work, my everything. When the original editor-in-chief of Vibe, Jonathan Van Meter, formally asked me to come aboard as one of the three staff writers, I brought my then-literary agent to the table, Marie Brown, and we negotiated, in writing, that I own my Vibe writings, all of it. Again, as writers, as journalists, we often think we cannot do things like this, or are told that we cannot. Well, I did, and always have negotiated in that way from publication to publication. Given how grossly underpaid most writers, most journalists are, in print form, the least we should have, is ownership of our work.
QUESTION: Were you at all worried that filing such a suit, in which you admit to fictionalizing aspects of a character, would call your journalistic reputation into question?
KEVIN: No, not at all, because many writers have had to fictionalize characters, change names, change other identifying details, to protect subject matters, to protect their publications, to protect themselves. You have to also understand Vibe was originally owned by Time Inc. and the legendary Quincy Jones. So fact-checking teams and lawyers were there to vet everything we were doing, especially since, at the time, Vibe was the fastest growing pop culture magazine in American history. So anything that I wrote or took creative license with in my Tupac articles, specifically the prison interview, was after long consultation with the folks who ran Vibe. Think about Tupac Shakur’s life, all the violence swirling around him, all the legal troubles, all the threats on his life. I took very seriously not only being a documentarian of his life, but over time also a protector of his life. People who do not understand writing, journalism, things like libel, are speaking out of ignorance, sadly, including some media outlets questioning my journalistic reputation and integrity. As will be revealed through the journey of this lawsuit, I have an impeccable reputation as a journalist covering 30 long years. There is no way I would have been able to do all I have done, for a wide range of publications, including Vibe, The Washington Post, Esquire, ESPN, CNN, The New York Times Style Magazine (my recent cover story on Dave Chappelle), and so many other places, if that were not the case. The journalism community is very small, many of us are separated by just a few degrees. But what is happening is that some media is just looking for angles to sensationalize, so there you have it. These very journalists doing that do not even get that this case is for them, too, is about protecting their freedom and their work, too. So people can say whatever they want about me. I have survived poverty, the ghetto, no father, all kinds of violence and abuse in my life, and have been mocked and attacked in past chapters of my life, including my MTV and Vibe years, when I ran for Congress, and for all the work I do as an activist. It is par for the course when you stand up for justice, when you stand up for what is right. And because I travel America extensively, I know that many of us have been socialized to only respond to headlines, to tweets, to buzzwords and phrases, that few of us even bother to read and think for ourselves, so we become like sheep, following and repeating what we’ve heard in other places, from other people. This is sad, but true, and that certainly includes some of us in the media. But people who really know me, my life work, as a writer, as an activist, as a speaker, know that I am brutally honest about everything, have always been, and that I do not do anything without thinking it through fully. If I have filed a lawsuit, something I have never before done in my life as a writer, as a journalist, then it must be for very serious reasons, even if it means I am going to get attacked from various angles in the process. I accept that, and I know that I am on the side of truth and justice. This is not about fame, for me, it is not about money, for me, it is about people doing what is right and not taking advantage of the work of others. I survived a year of doing Hurricane Katrina relief work, as an activist, and working with people who lost everything. So I am good with going through this lawsuit for the greater good that it will serve, not just for me, but for any journalist, any writer, any artist, who feels their work is not valued or protected properly, when it is their copyrighted material, as mine is. And if I was doing this for money only, I could have sold my Tupac interview audiotapes a long time ago, for a ton of money, because so many have asked to buy them. Do I want to be compensated for what was used in ALL EYEZ ON ME? Absolutely, without question. But equally important to me, always, forever, is justice, and creators of movies, television shows, etc., knowing that they cannot just do something like this, and get away with it without any resistance whatsoever.