Tupac Shakur’s Formative Years: The Young Man Before The Myth (Video)
“I loved my childhood, even though it was bad. I love it. I feel like it’s taught me so much. Nothing can faze me. Nothing in this world can surprise me. It might set me back, but only momentarily can it set me back. I think it’s helped me to learn.” – 17 year-old Tupac Shakur
As June 16’s theatrical release of All Eyez On Me plans to tell, there is not an artist in the last century more complicated and conflicted than Tupac. With regard to women, money, love, and compassion, Shakur’s actions did not always match his words, and even those could send opposing messages at different points in his life. Regardless of the moment, Pac was seemingly always headstrong–a Molotov cocktail of conviction, cocksureness, and pageantry. After a pregnancy spent largely in jail during trial, mother Afeni Shakur and newborn Tupac’s home was the same East Harlem that was Langston Hughes’ backdrop fewer than five years earlier. The baby was named after an 18th Century Peruvian revolutionary who led an uprising against colonists, signaling that the warrior in Pac was embedded from the beginning. From that point on, he appeared destined for an existence as bold as his name, accepting a universe out to challenge him at every turn.
Conflict and dichotomy did not begin for Tupac as a Rap artist. Even in the days before he could vote, sign permission forms, or legally buy his beloved Newports, Tupac’s first 17 years matched his next eight. He was always on the move, a gestalt of the crowds in which he immersed himself, and constantly plotting on something bigger than himself to prove. The desire for respect and acceptance were the driving engines though. They brought out the best and worst in the man, proof that neither vice nor virtue ever fully satiated.
In the fall of 1988, Tupac Shakur was interviewed at his new school, Tamalpais High in Marin City, California. A student in the drama department, teenage Pac dropped everything to be asked questions. Years before he would make seismic statements in the press to Kevin Powell, Tabitha Soren, Ed Gordon, and others, Shakur promptly quit his job at a Bay area pizza parlor to talk about himself and his anything but ordinary life.
“I’m most like my mom because I’m arrogant—totally arrogant. Like at work—I can’t hold a job. I just quit my job, today actually, because I wanted to come and do this [interview]. And they wouldn’t let me. I felt like it was important—more important than serving pizza,” says the MC who later welcomed media to prison, the studio, and the streets. In life, he never stopped playing to the audience, even when he was shot five times and convicted of sexual assault.
In ’88, he set it straight: “I chose that time to get on the soap box, grab my leather jacket, light up a cigarette in front of [my boss], smoke, and leave—in the middle of a rush. That’s arrogance at the top,” he says, mere years away from counting big bills in front of MTV cameras, making public advances towards an enemy’s wife, and spitting at reporters. Pac explained that behavior was in his DNA. “That’s how I’m most like my mother. She likes it. She’ll see it in me.” At an age when adolescents on the cusp of adulthood are often told to tuck in their cockiness and confidence, Shakur was rewarded by his mother, his best friend, and as he admits later in the interview, his companion in life. Within his final batch of recordings, released following his death, Pac spit, “When my mama ask me will I change / I tell her, ‘Yeah, but it’s clear I’ll always be the same’ / Until the end of time.”
To Hip-Hop fans, Afeni Shakur is remembered as something of a matriarchal martyr. She symbolically stood with Voletta Wallace (Biggie Smalls’ mother) to tell Rap music to stop the violence, for good. Mama Shakur was the subject and narrator for one of the three Top 10 hits her son made during his life, which put her on the radar of a new generation. But back in the ’70s and ’80s, the woman born Alice Faye Williams was fiery and conflicted herself. While Afeni was not a household name, she had been in the news print since the late 1960s.
“My mother was a Black Panther, and she was really involved in the Movement [of] Black people bettering themselves and things like that. My father was a hustler, a street hustler—sold drugs and everything,” Pac said in 1988, suggesting polar opposites within his genetic makeup. “How they got together is beyond me.” In this interview, Pac also speaks of his father’s death. “I never knew who my father was. I met him, but he died.” In the ’90s, Shakur would learn that his reported father, William “Billy” Garland was not dead, and the pair would be photographed together. However, while Tupac’s understanding would change, he spoke a constant truth. “My mother…it’s actually like she did take me through life.”
Not in this interview, but in “Dear Mama,” Tupac detailed his mother’s addictions, including crack cocaine:
“And even as a crack fiend, Mama
You always was a Black queen, Mama
I finally understand
For a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man”
The parent and child maintained a transparency that suited their whirlwind lifestyle (which would expand to include young sister Sekyiwa Shakur in the mid-1970s). “The way that my mother brought me up is no lies, total truth. Everything is real in society. If something’s going wrong in the house, I know everything,” he said. “It was like I was given the responsibility before I wanted it. So now I can’t really differentiate what great responsibility is, because I’ve had it for so long. She taught me to be ready for it…I can talk to my mother about drugs, I can talk to my mother about sex, I can talk to my mother about anything. I can ask her anything or bring it up.”
At 17, Pac fancied himself a man carrying the burdens of life truths but without receiving the respect reserved for adults. Invited to speak before caring educators, he knew the moment (like most) could not last. “Seventeen is such a weird age; it’s such an in-the-middle age. You’re not 18 yet; you’re older than 16. But I like it. It’s nice. It’s a learning stage for me,” he said of the school where he started activist clubs and movements. “Eighteen will bring lots of responsibilities that I don’t want, but it’ll bring respect that I feel…it’s the only way that I can get it.” Within three years, Tupac—as a 20 year-old, would open his first solo single with these stressed out lines: “You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion / Happiness, living on the streets is a delusion.” The tangible sensitivity and introspective smile on Shakur’s face would never beam as brightly as it did when he could just learn, make a scene at a menial job, and hang with his homies.
Tupac, his mother, and sister, had moved to Marin from Baltimore, Maryland, where they made a short stop after leaving New York City. While the Shakurs’ nomadic lifestyle forced Pac to make new friends constantly, he reveals he kept in contact with long-distance friends in the days before Facebook and texts. Based on his poem, penned shortly after this interview, Shakur deplored being alone, and he saw fame as a shield from isolation. The three lines say it all:
“What Of Fame”
everyone knows ure Face
The world screams ure name
Never again R u alone
Amidst his family’s locale changes, Shakur seemingly learned to make every moment count—and build strong connections based around depth, not quantity. However, their moves often brought other inherent challenges besides short-lived friendships. “We moved out of New York because of my mother’s choices. She couldn’t keep her job because…they figured out who she was,” in passing, Shakur says that firing employees over political choices should be illegal. “We were stranded, in New York, so we moved to Baltimore…which was total ignorance-town to me.” More than 15 years before The Wire, Tupac Shakur points out that “Charm City” was anything but. “It gets me upset to talk about it. Baltimore has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy, highest rate of AIDS within the Black community, the highest rate of teens killing teens, the highest rate of suicide, and the highest rate of Blacks killing Blacks. In Baltimore, Maryland, and this is where we chose to live.” He says that as a 15 year-old, he led a Stop The Killing campaign, safe sex initiatives, and promoted AIDS prevention. He also built a network of friends in Baltimore that included Jada Pinkett-Smith, one that would endure beyond his stay in the city.
In 1987, the Shakurs moved again—this time West. However, even in the acclaimed Marin City arts school, Pac’s past came with him. “The second week I was in California, I got a call, two of my friends were shot dead, in the head. Two of the friends that were working with me were shot dead. It’s like, why try? ‘Cause this happens. But I would try. Then I came to California to escape that, escape that violence—that I escaped [New York and Baltimore] for. I come to Marin City, and there’s skinhead violence, there’s racial violence—which I deplore! I can’t stand racism in any form, shape, or color; I can’t stand it.”
Racially and personally, young ‘Pac craved harmony. He lived in an imbalanced world, which made a man that lacked some equilibrium of his own. In another poem from this period, he acknowledged this turmoil and his inner-conflict:
I exist in the depths of solitude
pondering my true goal
Trying 2 find peace of mind
and still preserve my soul
Constantly yearning 2 be accepted
and from all receive respect
Never compromising but sometimes risky
and that is my only regret
A young heart with an old soul
how can there be peace
How can I be in the depths of solitude
when there R 2 inside of me
This duo within me causes
the perfect opportunity
2 learn and live twice as fast
as those who accept simplicity
“Constantly yearning 2 be accepted,” he wrote. Tupac Shakur was laser focused on fitting in–a trait many believe ultimately led to his demise. The perennial new kid in class had to find ways to fit in while in New York, Baltimore, and the Bay. He adapted, he mirrored, he conjured up different sides to his dynamic, complicated self. A drama student who liked poetry, the world sees a rare, soft-spoken Shakur at 17. Considering his audience of educators, it makes sense. He does not hide the realities of what he knows, but he downplays the dust-kickin’ “Pour Out A Little Liquor” accounts of his childhood. In this interview, Pac never mentions music, which, according to “Old School,” helped him through all the drama. He studied his audience and company just as much as they studied him. He found the part of himself that he believed they wanted, and amplified it. Sometimes that was the side that said “Keep Ya Head Up,” and sometimes it was the side ready to “Toss It Up.”
One thing is for sure, Tupac Shakur had a grim outlook, despite his shimmering eyes and bright smile. “I like to think of myself as being really socially aware, and not just socially aware as being trendy—peace. I really think that teenagers, they’ve got a lot of responsibilities and a lot of burdens. In fact, we’re given a horrible world. The gift that we’re getting, when we’ve got to take over is horrible. They’re leaving this world in bad shape for us to fix up.” In “I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto” (a verse also used in “Changes”), this worldview proves to have stayed with ‘Pac five years later. “I see no changes, all I see is racist faces / Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races / We under, I wonder what it take to make this / One better place, let’s erase the wasted / Take the evil out the people, they’ll be actin’ right / ‘Cause both Black and white / are smokin’ crack tonight,” he spit.
Based on what he said in verse, prose and conversation–and as his name foreshadowed–Tupac was waging a constant battle with himself and the world. He had iron bars crowding him from the womb; he had no consistent place to call home; and he suffered losses by his teens that many do not endure in a lifetime. But as a 17-year old, for a few passing moments, Tupac could embrace his sensitivity, profess his worldview, and tell his story. He probably believed it would matter at a later date, and was absolutely worth quitting a job at a fast food restaurant. Had Pac stayed and tossed pizza dough that day, imagine the missing chapter from our understanding of this young man, before he became a myth.
Huey P. Newton, a Black Panther like Tupac’s mother, once said, “The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man.” In his recordings, ‘Pac confronted death being around the corner, and accepted the prospects of an abbreviated life. As a teenager, long before those statements ached in the hearts of Shakur’s many followers, he acknowledged this proven truth—an illustration of prophecy and a young heart with an old soul. These are the early makings of a revolutionary:
“In The Event Of My Demise”
In the event of my Demise
when my heart can beat no more
I hope I die for a principle
or a belief that I had lived 4
I will die before my time
Because I feel the shadow’s depth
so much I wanted 2 accomplish
Before I reached my death
I have come 2 grips with the possibility
and wiped the last tear from my eyes
I loved all who were positive
In the event of my Demise!