The First and the Last: Two Pac Interviews
In a span of eight years, Tupac's life seems to have done a 180°. But I don't see any contradictions.
CW: Sexual assault; profanity
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Recently, I came across what is called The Last Interview, which is actually a series of excerpts originally intended for Tupac’s autobiography. And thanks to YouTube’s autoplay feature, the next video I watched was Tupac’s first interview, filmed when he was a 17 year old high school student who had recently moved to California. I’m not clear on why or how high school Tupac got to do this interview, but it must have been pretty important because he quit his job to be there.
Going back and forth between Tupac’s “first” and “last” interviews, I find so much overlap that trying to call out any hypocrisy in his life feels like a legit reach. He changed about as much as any of us changed between high school and the decade to follow, but like most of us, his core personality wasn’t significantly altered by his environment or the people he spent time with. Rather, upon moving West I believe Tupac came to embrace the aesthetic that represented his people. He was always true to himself and, up to his last interview at least, was determined to figure out how to do the greatest good for the greatest number of folks.
Of course some things—superficial things—have changed. As expected, his voice at seventeen is more tender (and maybe a little phlegmy), and even his most certain declarations ring with a faint questioning. By The Last Interview, we hear the opposite: even his kindest words grumble with maturity. His voice is deeper, yes, but also more adamant. The optimism of youth has morphed into a stern determination.
After being shot five times while waiting for an elevator, after being charged with sexual assault and imprisoned for eight months (he was released following an appeal), after losing almost everything he’d built because companies didn’t want to work with a black man wrapped up in such controversy, Tupac was finally fighting in the war he had been throwing up his crossed fingers for.
In The Last Interview, Tupac stutters, “West side is not part of the map… I don’t bang for the color or the land. I bang for the principals, the honor.” You can imagine him throwing up the West Side sign with one hand and using his other hand to illustrate, “This the west side, this the east side, and this the middle. And we all divided right now.” Inherent in this explanation is the way the W encompasses those different segments of America. Though Tupac claims that the W stands for war, by way of this encapsulation it may as well mean victory, the West side mentality reigning supreme.
The only sign of ruggedness on Tupac’s seventeen-year old body is that cast upon him by poverty. His faded black beater has bleach stains on its frayed strap, his NY high-top fade really needs a touch-up, his jeans have rips and holes which may not have been placed there by design. Despite this, Tupac presents himself as A Good Guy™. This is likely a byproduct of his time spent at a performing arts school in Baltimore. As he gets settled in California, he will adopt The Gangsta Image™. “If I can patent being real, I think I own that,” 25 year old Tupac claims. “I take my insecurities and I show everybody…I just be harder. Be fearless.”
Going beyond appearances, his fearlessness bears out in his raps, where we witness, in tandem with pivotal events in his life, as Tupac mentally reckons with both personal and community struggles, fully and equally expressing his hurt, anger, paranoia, playfulness, love, and hope across different tracks. He is not a perfect man by any stretch of the womanist imagination, nor perhaps even an ideal man. But his vulnerability is surely something to aspire towards, and as writer, his commitment to his audience is laudable as well.
As I see it, Tupac’s outward image shifts as he finds community with the people he connects with the most. As he empathizes and identifies with the challenges they face (because he faces many of the same challenges), he begins to outwardly present an aesthetic born of generations of oppression, perceived neglect, and stuntedness of growth. To society, this image reflects an angry, bitter, paranoid yet gullible, and self-destructive personality. But this is a misdirection. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this presentation of Black masculinity is a front, but rather, by being intentionally antithetical to Eurocentric standards, you force people to draw a line and make their allegiance known.
But at 17, he’s not there yet. “I’m masculine,” he puts some bass in his voice with this assertion, as if to say, Who do you think a man is supposed to be? For a split second we hear the 25-year old Tupac saying, “[Black men are] taught that the only thing we’re good for is our sexuality. Now I use that to make money, but,” pausing briefly, he concludes, “I enforce my mind strength.”
Tupac has always balanced theory and praxis. Consider his political activism throughout the years. In high school, he started campaigns promoting safe sex, AIDS prevention, and more. He was national chairman of the New Afrikan Panther Party, an organization which sought to educate teens and young adults on their history as means of self-empowerment and self-defense. For about as long, Tupac’s raps have rejected America’s hypocrisy and warned against the dangers his own community has to face, including police brutality, incarceration, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and much more. He also sought to inspire people, especially young people, to communicate and educate one another.
All of the bright ideas of Tupac’s youth were now informed by his close readings of books such as The Art of War and The Prince. Now, Tupac was ready to take the mainstream political stage. “By the next election, I promise, I’ma be sitting across from all the candidates.”
Though this aspiration may have been new, many of his political ideals at 25 are reminiscent of those held by his 17 year old self. The foundation of his political principals rests on the long-cherished belief that a lack of self-respect causes many woes in the Black community. “If you can’t respect yourself, then you can’t respect your race, you can’t respect another’s race, then you can’t respect…it has to do with respect,” Tupac says at seventeen, circling back to the beginning of the interview when he insisted that adults respect him according to his maturity and his responsibility, not his age. His twenty-five year old self agrees, “Our future is our confidence and self-esteem.”
After pride should come education, “...then we’ll see where it goes from there,” Tupac says in his high school interview. Fast forward eight years and we see exactly where it goes—”That capitalism shit.”
“‘You can feed your kids with that thought,” he elaborates, “All that other shit, you can’t feed your kids with that. You can’t feed your kids, you can’t have a nation.” Only two presidential terms prior, a younger Tupac seemed resigned to a life of poverty because of his ideals. Now a rap star, he was convinced that he could make a change with his earning alone. “Every time my record go platinum, somebody getting a big check.”
People like to think that Tupac held onto the naivety of his youth a bit longer than he did, only truly contemplating his death after he was shot in ‘94. But at 17, Tupac is already aware that he would be a martyr for one cause or another. “For me, living in a slummish area, and being Black, [my demise] will come through becoming a statistic.” With that foresight, and a life lesson from his mother—“If you can’t find something to live for, you best find something to die for”—Tupac is determined to live, or die, with purpose.
Despite such harrowing maturity, Tupac is notoriously hopeful. His ability to reframe negative circumstances into positive experiences is something to envy. Tupac rode the Struggle Bus all the way through high school, yet has very few bad things to say about his life. At 17 he says, “I think I'm growing up good, in all senses of the word.” Given what we know about Tupac’s childhood, professed in his own song lyrics, I’m sure that most of us will agree that such a claim is generous. But this is what Tupac does: he cherishes his trauma and refers to it tenderly whenever asked, whether it’s his first interview, his last, or any in between.
“If I can patent being real, I think I own that.”
Many like to focus on how much Tupac changed in that eight-year span. But I don’t see change, I see growth. I see a deepening in understanding and in commitment to act and affect change. Not a 180°, but a 360°. Tupac was always real to himself, and kept it real with us. And who would want to change that?