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Kevin Powell

Fatherhood, Manhood, and Tupac Shakur

By Kevin Powell

NOTE: The following excerpt is taken from Kevin Powell’s 2003 best-selling essay collection, Who’s Gonna Take The Weight? Manhood, Race, and Power in America. The original title is “What Is A Man?” Kevin Powell interviewed Tupac Shakur on several occasions while he was a senior writer at Vibe magazine, including what are widely considered the definitive articles and profiles on the late Tupac Shakur. Tupac’s life and music were a constant and loud conversation about fatherhood and manhood. Indeed, Kevin Powell is writing a book about Tupac and his short but significant journey entitled, simply, Tupac Shakur: A Biography. That book will be published in the next few years. Email Kevin at kevin@kevinpowell.net or follow him on twitter @kevin_powell.

The death of a human being, particularly a human being one has come to know fairly well on one level or another, has a funny way of making one realize, in a hurry, one's own mortality and limitations. The presence of death remains, whether we care to admit it or not. That is because life is always, whether we humans care to admit it or not, one last and halting breath away from death. I personally have had, since I was a very bad and very foul-mouthed little Black boy, an extremely ambiguous relationship with death. More to the point, I just have never gotten it. Uh-huh, sure, the church(es) I attended offered the clichéd, knee-jerk interpretation: be good and you shall get to heaven; be bad and you shall bust hell wide open.. I wondered on those days I had off from da Lawd, What hell could be worse than the ghetto in which I was born? It is also utterly perplexing because we do not know what is out there once we are gone nor do we, ostensibly, have any control over “when,” as the old folks Down South like to say, “it is your time.” But if you happen to be poor and young and Black and male and very much surrounded by death at every corner you turn, you, sooner or later, don't wonder when you are going to go, but how you are going to go. For it is, as far as our environments proclaim, only a matter of time before the grim reaper steps to you. Which is why one of the more curious occurrences in inner cities across America at this hour is the sight of young Black males, especially those who have access to money, tons of it (ya know the deal: the not-so-holy trinity of drug dealers, rappers, and ballplayers), going to their local funeral parlors and paying, in advance of their anticipated deaths, for their coffins and funerals. Some heads actually purchase coffins to match the style and make of their late model cars or sports utility vehicles. Yes, I have seen this with my own eyes and, yes, excessive materialism knows no boundaries, not even the unexplorable frontier of death, and, yes, life expectations are simply that low.

 

Which brings me to the late Tupac Amaru Shakur. To be brutally honest, over seven years have passed and I still feel I have not properly mourned Tupac’s horribly tragic end. I don't know if it is because I was expecting his death, or if I simply have become numb to the death marches of Black men. Or perhaps it is because I linger in denial, thinking that Tupac, like Shango, one of the deities in the Yoruba philosophy, is such a regal spirit, such a warrior, such a master of the drum, the dance and the oration, that he will live forever—for no one ever really wants to believe that death is more of a certainty than life, although it is. What I have also done during this time is think long and hard about the status of boys to men who are Black, vulnerable, and, basically, walking timebombs. And about the wicked trajectory of my own life. And about the life and meaning of every single Black man who has crossed my path, as far back as I can remember. And I've absorbed a plethora of books, statistics, commissioned reports, documentaries, press clippings, and one-on-one and group conversations, each in its own way staking a claim of relevance to the real estate known as the state of the Black man, circa the present. No matter, for the questions I keep coming back to are “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” The first question is crucial because, logically, how can I seriously begin to account for someone else's life, like Tupac Shakur's, if I can barely account for my own life? Yet, I learned a long time ago, in accounting for my life I am in fact accounting for the life of other Black men. We are, after all, mirror reflections of each other and interconnected due to race, gender, culture, and that beleaguered battleship we christened history. Consequently, the questions of “Who am I?” and “Who are we?” are actually one in the same….

 

I've thought about these issues a great deal since those sad moments when I was in Las Vegas covering what would be the last days of Tupac Shakut’s tragic story for Rolling Stone. It was otherworldly because up until that week, I had written about Tupac exclusively for Vibe magazine. But because I had been fired four months prior, I was now on assignment for another magazine. No matter; I knew I needed to be in Las Vegas. Why? I am not exactly sure. When I arrived in Vegas, three days before Tupac died, I said to myself that this was not the type of city in which I wanted to die. There are slot machines even at the airport, and you can literally get anything you want on the Strip: sex, drugs, cars, a lawyer, a marriage, or a divorce. It is little wonder Las Vegas is called “Sin City.” As I made my way around town, talking with cabdrivers, hotel maids, construction workers, card table operators, prostitutes, police officers, and others, it was clear that few knew or even cared to know about the life and times of Tupac Shakur.

 

Some thought he was a gangster. Others thought he was a gang member (some said he was a Blood, others said he was a Crip). Many also said that Tupac’s getting shot in Las Vegas was bringing unnecessary attention to a city already dogged by a seedy image. The more I explored Las Vegas (I couldn’t do much else until the day Tupac actually died because Suge Knight’s security team—or whoever they were—made sure that the media and other unknowns did not come too close to the hospital), the more I thought of Nicholas Cage’s Academy Award-winning role in Leaving Las Vegas. Hadn’t Cage’s character, an outcast, come to Las Vegas to die. Hadn’t Cage’s character succumbed to alcohol addiction and taking up with prostitutes? Hadn’t Cage’s character given up on life? How many times, I asked myself, had Tupac Shakur said to me he would not live a long time, that he in fact did not want to live a long time, and that he would probably go down in a hail of bullets? The thought of the fast-moving world of Las Vegas being a burial ground for those who had lived fast lives, like Tupac, unnerved me. Maybe, as many of his fans have suggested, Tupac did see it coming and knew when and where he was going to die. Hadn’t he achieved his very modest goals of “hearing myself on a record and seeing myself in a movie”? What else was there for him to live for if he was, as he said so often, in so much pain? So much pain, he maintained, that only his huge intake of weed allowed him to live as long as he had.

 

When I listen to some of the comments about Tupac Shakur, specifically, and about young Black men in America’s inner cities, in general, it is clear that many of those commenting are very much out of touch with reality. It is so easy to say, for example, “Well, Tupac had choices” or “Tupac knew what he was getting himself into.” What choices, really, did Tupac have? He was born poor, so he knew he had to survive. While middle-class White and Black children have the option of thinking about what they want to do with their lives, Tupac decided early on that being a rapper was his surest and perhaps only ticket out of the ghetto. And in the insulated world of ghetto culture, your Blackness, your manhood, are narrowly defined by how “real” you keep it, how hard you are, how much you represent the thug life. Move one step away from that and you are considered a sellout. And why would Tupac Shakur—who had been an outcast his entire life, who resented that when he was child his cousins said he was “too pretty”—position himself in any other way except as a “real nigga.” That does not suggest choice; it suggests doing what you have to do to survive in the ghetto world that produced you. Sure, Tupac could have assimilated easily into the realm of Hollywood (he did hang out with the likes of Madonna and Mickey Rourke) but that plastic, middle-class existence meant nothing to him. Nor was it real. What was real were the homies, from South-Central Los Angeles to the South Bronx, whom he felt he had to represent. So when you think of Tupac—the baggy pants with the boxer shorts peeking out, the numerous tattoos, the bald head, the bandana, the pimp limp, the jewelry, the women, the mouth, the attitude—you are essentially getting the average working-class Black male in America today. And last time I checked, there are more of us than the bourgeois variety we are told by some to be like. From the bebop era of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to hiphop, Black men have always rebelled against the customs of the larger society through their art and their lives, through their beings. People like to say hiphop is just so harsh, so foul. Well, as Amiri Baraka once famously put it, you can always tell the station of a people by the music and culture they produce at any given time. To blame hiphop and the Tupac Shakurs of the world for what is wrong with Black youth is to ignore the blood on your own hands. Some of the more wishful among us like to say Tupac Shakur could have been “our next Malcolm.” Again, that kind of statement speaks to our fascination with icons and our propensity for deifying people who breathe and sleep and bleed and defecate just like the rest of us. Moreover, as far as I am concerned, the question is not whether Tupac Shakur would have been the next Malcolm X had he lived, but whether Malcolm Little would have become Malcolm X had he been born today. In other words, there is no organization or movement in place that could reach out to the Tupac Shakurs of America and uplift them the way the Nation of Islam did with Malcolm (those who believe the NOI today is what it was then must be on crack). Tupac, like many of us who are young, Black, and male, was pretty much out there on his own. Who was giving him direction? And who understood fully what he was going through? Not his mother. Not his family. Not his friends. Not his fans. Not his enemies. Not Suge Knight. Perhaps not even Tupac himself. And not his father, whoever that was.

 

On the evening of Tupac’s death I drove with my journalist friend to the intersection of Flamingo Road and Koval Lane, where Tupac had been shot. As my friend called in her story I just stared at that intersection, wondering why there were no witnesses in such a well-lit and heavily traveled area. I called my homegirl Tracy Carness in Los Angeles, and her first words to me, before we could even exchange greetings, were “Kevin, he’s dead. I can’t believe he is dead.” Neither could I. Tupac was, in a phrase, a “bad nigga.” That scared a lot of people, and excited just as many. I was, through the years, somewhere in the middle. I was not scared of Tupac. I was scared for him. But I also loved the fact that he had no problem throwing up his middle finger anywhere and anytime it suited him. As he rapped once, “I was given this world, I didn’t make it.” And as far as Tupac was concerned, this world had been giving him and people who looked like him the finger all along. So Tupac’s life was an exacting sort of revenge, on White people, on snobby Black people, on the rich, on anyone who had no sympathy for the oppressed and voiceless on this planet.

 

After I spoke with my friend Tracy, I went back to my hotel room, got drunk, poured some liquor on the carpet in Tupac’s memory, and recalled the last time I saw him in person. It was late November 1995. Tuipac had been bailed out of an upstate New York prison by Suge Knight (he had been incarcerated for a sexual assault charge stemming from that hotel room encounter with the young woman) and was now back in Los Angeles shooting a video for the first single from his double CD album. The $600, 000 “California Love” video was being shot a hundred miles north of Los Angeles at a dry lake bed in the desert. I milled around for a while checking out the imitation Mad Max set, then made my way to Tupac’s trailer. I knocked on the door, and someone on the other side pushed it open, releasing a powerful gust of marijuana smoke. And there he was, the big eyes shining brightly, the smile still childlike and broad as an ocean, his exposed muscles—probably because of his eleven-month prison bid—bigger than ever. Clearly this was not the same Tupac who had, only ten months earlier while in jail, told me that he was no longer going to smoke weed, that he was not a gangsta, that “thug life is dead.” Or maybe it was. Whatever the case, from that day in November until his death Tupac became in my mind an exact replica of the character he played in Juice. It was shocking to hear his new album, it was shocking to see him in television interviews, and it pissed me off that he helped to escalate the tensions between East Coast and West Coast rappers (born on the East Coast, Tupac had gone back and forth with his sentiments until he signed to Death Row Records in October 1995). For sure, when I asked Tupac what was going to come of the East Coast-West Coast rift, he said, as he was being whisked away to do a television interview, “It’s gonna get deep.” How prophetic were those words, as first Tupac then The Notorious B.I.G. were blown away, both murders still unsolved all these years later. I watched Tupac for the next few hours as he shot scenes and paraded in front of cameras, counting wads of money, as the hulking persona of Suge Knight stood in the background.

 

A few weeks later I spoke to Tupac for the last time when I conducted a follow-up telephone interview with him. Apparently much had changed in Tupac’s mind since our last interview, and he let it be known how angry he was, it seemed, with everyone. But, he maintained, he could at least trust Suge Knight and the Death Row family because they could protect him from his enemies. I remember hanging up the phone after that interview, on December 2, 1995, and feeling very sick. I know what it is to be angry because I have a very short fuse. And I know what it is to feel paranoid, to believe in your heart that no one is your friend and that everyone is out to get you. But Tupac displayed a side of himself, a darker, more menacing side. I thought, Damn, maybe I never really knew him. I didn’t want to speak to Tupac Shakur anymore. I guess a part of me knew it was only a matter of time before he would get his wish and be gone from us forever. I never stopped following Tupac’s life, and whenever I heard someone mention his name, I listened as carefully as I had done back in 1992. ‘Pac once told me he wanted me to be Alex Haley to his Malcolm X, to be the official biographer of his life. And that is precisely how I felt at times, like the one writer who was attempting to present a broad picture of Tupac Shakur, who was making an effort to understand him because, hell, Tupac was me, and I was him, ghetto bastards from birth, living until it is our turn to die. So, in a way, the “new” Tupac made me feel as if I had lost a friend, and there was nothing I could do about it. He was gone.

 

I met Tupac’s natural father, Billy Garland, a few weeks after Tupac died. Tupac had been so adamant about not knowing his father that I did not believe that this man was in fact his father until I saw him in person. But the moment I saw him, I knew he was: There was the tall, lean body, the flat-footed walk, the girlish eye-lashes, the long nose, and, yeah, the bushy eyebrows. To be honest, I had mixed feelings about the meeting. While I was glad to meet this man Afeni Shakur had referred to in my first Vibe article on Tupac as “Billy,” I thought of how long it took Billy to reconnect with his son. And that was only after he had seen Tupac in Juice. What, I wondered would have been different about Tupac’s life had Billy been there? What would have been the same? Did Billy only become interested in his son once he became famous and, presumably, rich? Did Billy realize Tupac had spent his entire twenty-five years searching for father figures in the form of teachers, street hustlers, fellow rappers like Ice-T and Chuck D., and men as different as Suge Knight and Quincy Jones? I didn’t ask Billy Garland any of these questions but they were definitely on my mind. No matter: I sat and talked with Billy Garland for two or three hours in his Jersey City apartment, about his life, about Tupac’s life, and about his absence from Tupac’s universe. Billy showed me pictures of himself with Tupac, of the letters ‘Pac had written him from prison, of the many cards he had received since Tupac’s untimely death. Tupac had barely known this man, I thought, just as I barely knew my father. Was Billy Garland one of those Black men I had described previously, one of the damaged souls from the civil rights era, an ex-Panther and now a broken-down warrior trying to get a grip on his life via his dead son? Billy even asked me if he should sue Afeni Shakur for half of the Tupac Shakur estate. I was both astounded and appalled. This man had really been nothing more than a drop of sperm, and now he wanted to reap the benefits of the money a dead rapper as iconic as Tupac was sure to bring. But for some reason I was not angry with Billy Garland. A part of me understood exactly where he was coming from because, hell, he is a Black man in America and he has nothing to show for it except a tiny apartment, and a dead, famous son. Billy had had a hard life himself, in the 1970s and 1980s, as he struggled to come of age as Tupac was coming of age. There had been no blueprint for Billy Garland, just as there had been no blueprint for Tupac Shakur, or for me, for that matter. We were-are—simply thrown out there and told to swim, although most of us do not know how and are too terrified to learn.

 

But it is something to see older Black men as I do, as a man myself. I will be completely candid here and say that I have carried around a great deal of resentment toward older Black men since my father disowned me when I was eight years old. Indeed, I have had little tolerance, little respect, and and very little interest in what most of them have to say for themselves. It is the worst form of cowardice to bring a child into the world and then abandon that child either because you cannot cope or because you and the child’s mother are not able to get along. How many Black boys and Black girls have had their emotional beings decimated by that father void? Certainly Tupac, and certainly me.

 

Perhaps it is for this reason that I cannot readily recall all that Billy Garland said to me on that day after he asked my advice about suing Afeni Shakur. I was disgusted and saw in him my father and my grandfather and my uncle, my mother’s only brother, and undeniably I saw myself and what I could possibly become. The predictability horrified me, because I could hear the echoes of my mother’s caveat from my childhood: Don’t be like your father. But what did my mother mean, precisely? If not like him, then like whom? In seeking to raid Tupac’s grave for dollars, Billy Garland showing the worst attributes of Black manhood, but also of White manhood, of American manhood. So what would the alernative be? How does one break the vicious cycle, begun on the plantations, of Black man as stud, as Black male body forced to tend someone else’s land and property, as Black man torn away from his family, moved to and fro, of Black man being beaten down to the point that his woman and his children no longer know his name. Again, what of slavery, which lasted 246 years and lingers still in the collective bosom of Black men in America, particularly since we were slaves a hundred years longer than we have been free? So how could I really be mad at Billy Garland—or my father, for that matter—anymore? Garland, via Tupac’s death, was getting more attention than he had ever gotten in his entire rotten life and he needed Tupac’s death to validate his existence. How twisted a concept! But it is true. And what of my father, that no-good do-for-nothing, as my mother often referred to him? I may never see the man again in my lifetime, don’t care to, really, but I know wherever he is, he is not free. He is wounded; he is, like an older Black men and like a lot of younger Black men, in a state of arrested development, suspended above the fiery coals of his unstable journey here in America. But, with all of my being, I have to muster the nerve to forgive him, my father, for impregnating my mother, for not being there at the hospital when I was born, for not marrying my mother and leaving her to the whims of the welfare agency, for only showing up sporadically the first eight years of my life, for declaring to my mother on that damp, rainy day that she had lied to him, that I was not his child, that he would not give her a “near-nickel” for me ever again—and he has not. Oh, how I suffered, as Tupac suffered, without a male figure in my life, someone whose skin felt like mine, whose blood beat like mine, whose walk pounded the earth for answers, like mine. But alas, poor Tupac, it was not meant to be, and you are dead, and I am here, and we both have fathers, yet we both are also fatherless. The only thing I can say at this moment in my life journey—because, unlike Tupac, I did get to make it past twenty-five, into my thirties—is that I have to stay alive any way I can, and I have to be my own father now.


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