It was as if Tupac were still alive.
Earlier this year Sanyika Shakur released a recorded phone conversation from late 1993 between he and Tupac. When Sanyika Shakur was Kody “Monster” Scott he was a notorious Eight Trey Crip with tears tatted on his face, his moniker an indication of the savage crimes against the community he wrote about committing in his important autobiography Monster.
Sanyika had become politicized by some of the same people who’d helped raise Tupac. Mutulu Shakur, a political prisoner who greatly influenced Sanyika, was for a time Tupac’s stepfather. Mutulu took the last name Shakur, along with Tupac’s mother Afeni and their friend and comrade Assata when they joined the Black Revolutionary Army in the early 70s. Sanyika Shakur took the same last name in homage to the cadre, who believed themselves to be the armed wing of what looked at the time like revolution in America.
When Sanyika and Tupac had their phone conversation in 1993, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was still active in California, with chapters in Los Angeles and Oakland, and Watani, Tupac’s manager, had spent a significant amount of time giving Sanyika a political education. The phone call was exciting for them both. Tupac — on the phone with a real gangster he hoped to play in an Antione Fuqua-directed biopic — was audibly excited, hoping to impress. Likewise, Sanyika’s love for Tupac was evident as he began the conversation telling Pac all the comrades they had in common, as if to impress Pac with his recent political education.
On the call however, Tupac quickly disavows Sanyika of any romantic ideas of being raised “in the movement.” It was a position I remember Tupac taking often. I met Tupac when, as a member of the Brooklyn chapter of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, I asked him to help us pay for posters promoting a fundraiser concert for Mutulu Shakur. Unsigned artist Biggie Smalls (this was before the name change) was headlining our show at the South Oxford Tennis Club, closing it out with his one hit “Party and Bullshit.”
I asked Pac for the money on the set of the video for “Uptown Anthem” a Naughty by Nature song from the Juice soundtrack. I was producing the video and Pac was surprised when I came out of the closet as a member of Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He was active with the Atlanta chapter and gave me $300 — everything he had in his pocket — for the promotional poster, even though he’d barely heard of Biggie. Later, when I spent six months profiling him for The Source, we’d get into heated debates about the merits of the “movement.”
“Those mothafuckas weren’t around when my lights was getting cut off, when the Feds was grilling me about Assata’s whereabouts on the kindergarten playground…” For Tupac, who’d witnessed the war the FBI declared on Black revolutionaries first hand, the “movement” wasn’t some abstract, romantic idea that you could signify with music and fashion. When I heard him tell Sanyika, “that movement shit will fuck you up,” I remembered the many times he’d told me the same thing. Tupac was traumatized by what the movement did to his mother and her friends.
On his phone call with Sanyika they mention the article I wrote in The Source. It’s unclear to me after multiple listens if he’s dissing me like he dissed John Singleton (whom he called a “coward”). By the time Sanyika was released from Pelican Bay, and they were having this first phone call, Pac had declared war on Big and Puff and he rightly saw me as a loyal friend to both men. But with Sanyika, Pac is barely concerned with coastal beef, he is on fire with his own revolutionary vision.
He talks of trying to imagine new ways to organize, to begin a relevant movement. His approach is not idealistic at all. He considers the same sober way of negotiating with gangs that made Fred Hampton so successful with his unique Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. He wanted to recruit the biggest MCs—or at the least the ones on whom he’d not declared war—for a community tour. He imagined it to be part listening tour, where he and other rappers could convince gangsters to cede the streets to the community during the daytime, and bang at night. He acts out on the phone for Sanyika the conversation he’d have with Crips and Bloods in Los Angeles, where he wanted to launch his initiative:
“Look player, we asking you, not telling you, player to a player, can you please give us a pass to have these streets clean from 6am to 11pm? Let this be for the kids, let them niggas be safe for those times. No gunshots, no drug dealing. From 11pm to 6am y’all can have the streets back, but let us get the streets from these times.”
For Pac, economic poverty was not a part of his revolutionary vision, he wanted to lobby companies like Nike to outfit kids in the hood with athletic gear, he wanted to woo the gangster over dinners of “Dom Perignon and lobster.” Pac rejected the politics of his mother and her comrades, who, inspired by the Maoist writings of George Jackson, were anti-capitalist. In his mind, he was practical. He’d seen how a truly revolutionary, anti-capitalist politic would get you crushed by the state. His male mentors, including Mutulu Shakur, were all serving longer bids than murderers for their politics. Assata Shakur, friend and comrade to his mother, was in exile in Cuba. (She is now, of course, named on the same FBI Most Wanted Terrorist lineup that once listed Osama Bin Laden). Tupac was inspired by the moratorium on gang violence created by the truce that was brokered during the insurgency after the Rodney King verdict.
Pac’s version of revolution was also stunted by its traditional patriarchy. On the call with Sanyika he talks about the security men like the FOI and brothers and uncles can provide. He’s defensive about his recent conviction of sexual assault. I was once thrown out of an Italian restaurant on Melrose for pushing Pac to take responsibility for what happened that night.
In his version of the story to me, a woman came to visit and have sex with him, he said he was asleep when she apparently left the room, only to have her exit blocked by the visitor in his hotel suite’s living room, where she was assaulted. I didn’t believe he was asleep. I believed he was intimidated by the men in the next room, some of them, like Sanyika, true gangsters. I believed that while Pac was brave about a whole heap of shit, he lost his courage when it came to defending a woman who didn’t mean much to him. We screamed each other down over lunch when I told him what I believed and the manager of Louise’s Pasta demanded we leave his restaurant. When we were crossing Melrose to get to our cars and drive back to the downtown courtroom where he was being tried for assaulting the Hughes Brothers, he began acting out an alternate future where he was a homeless schizophrenic, having arguments with himself about the movement.
Hearing Tupac’s voice, his urgent plans to keep children safe from gang violence, accepting gangsters as a necessary evil, I was reminded of what a divided and hopeful soul Tupac was until the day he died. This January, on a trip to Palestine, I saw Tupac’s face spray painted on ancient steps in Nazareth. There’s nowhere on this planet I’ve traveled where Tupac didn’t have devotees, often young men whose lives were changed by his passion and vision. When Tupac died eighteen years ago, he was robbed of the opportunity to evolve, to begin to reconcile his contradictions. But he remains present and prescient, just as he seemed on that phone call.