Tupac Shakur, one of the best-selling artists of all time, represented the 1990s gangsta-rap aesthetic and, in death, has become an image of honorable struggle. Tupac began his music career as a rebel with a cause, attempting to express the still-relevant tribulations and injustices faced by many Black Americans.
As Shakur faced legal troubles and jail time, the lines between his work and life grew increasingly blurred. Tupac celebrated the thug lifestyle wholeheartedly on his fourth album, All Eyez On Me. Tupac’s final album was released while he was still alive. The 25-year-old was gunned down in Las Vegas on September 7, 1996, and died six days later. Police are still looking into his death.
Tupac Amaru Shakur was born Lesane Parish Crooks in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood on June 16, 1971. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was a political activist and Black Panther Party member who was jailed in 1969 for allegedly plotting coordinated attacks on New York City police stations and offices. While on bond, she became pregnant with Tupac, and she was acquitted in 1971 after defending herself in court.
Afeni changed his name to Tupac Amaru when Lesane was a year old, after a Peruvian revolutionary who was slain by the Spanish. She stated about the name: “I wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, indigenous people in the world. I wanted him to know he was part of a world culture and not just from a neighborhood.”
Tupac later got his surname from his sister Sekyiwa’s father, Mutulu Shakur, another Black Panther. Tupac had a stepbrother named Mopreme.
Tupac’s father, Billy Garland, lost contact with Afeni when Tupac was five years old, and he didn’t see him again until he was 23 years old. “I thought my father was dead all my life,” he told the writer Kevin Powell during an interview with Vibe magazine in 1996. “I felt I needed a daddy to show me the ropes, and I didn’t have one.” Afeni worked as a paralegal while raising Tupac and his half-sister on her own before succumbing to a crack cocaine addiction in the early 1980s. Because she couldn’t retain a job, the family had to travel frequently, battling for money and live on welfare.
Friendship with Jada Pinkett-Smith
Tupac and his family relocated to Baltimore in 1984, when he enrolled at the elite Baltimore School for the Arts, where he described himself as “the freest I ever felt.” Tupac also met future actress Jada Pinkett-Smith here. He dedicated poetry to her, and she appeared in his music video for “Strictly 4 My Niggaz.” Later, Pinkett-Smith told reporters that she was a drug dealer when she met Tupac and that she disliked how the film All Eyez on Me (2017) “reimagined” their relationship:
“It wasn’t just about, oh, you have this cute girl, and this cool guy, they must have been in this—nah, it wasn’t that at all. It was about survival, and it had always been about survival between us.”
Move to California and Rise to Fame
Because Tupac’s Baltimore neighborhood was rife with crime, the family relocated to Marin City, California. It turned out to be a “mean little ghetto,” according to Vanity Fair. Afeni succumbed to her crack addiction in Marin City, a narcotic Tupac peddled on the same streets where his mother got her supply. Her actions caused a schism between mother and son.
Tupac’s passion of hip-hop kept him away from a life of crime (at least for a while). According to Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur by Michael Eric Dyson, he met Leila Steinberg when he was 17, in the spring of 1989, when she was offering poetry lessons in an Oakland park.
Tupac had already been feverishly writing poems and had persuaded Steinberg, who had no prior music industry expertise, to become his manager. She ultimately got Tupac in front of music manager Atron Gregory, who got him a job as a roadie and backup dancer for the hip-hop group Digital Underground in 1990.
He immediately took to the stage, making his recording debut in 1991 with “Same Song,” which was featured on the soundtrack of the Dan Aykroyd film Nothing but Trouble. Tupac also appeared on Digital Underground’s album Sons of the P in October of that year. Gregory, who also became Tupac’s manager, earned the young rapper a deal with Interscope Records. Tupac’s debut album as a solo artist, 2Pacalypse Now, was released a month after Sons of the P.
Tupac often complained that he was misunderstood. “Everything in life is not all beautiful,” he told journalist Chuck Phillips. “There is lots of killing and drugs. To me a perfect album talks about the hard stuff and the fun and caring stuff… The thing that bothers me is that it seems like a lot of the sensitive stuff I write just goes unnoticed.”
As Tupac first began to achieve success as a rapper, Afeni was unaware of his career until friends told her. “I didn’t know what was happening to my son,” she said. “I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” Afeni felt resolved to overcome her heroin addiction, which she achieved after returning to New York City in 1991. Tupac and his mother reconnected later in life and were close for the remainder of his life.
Tupac, who only released four albums during his lifetime, has 21 albums to his credit, 10 of which have been certified platinum, multiplatinum, or diamond. Tupac was the 45th best-selling artist of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, as of July 2023. According to Forbes, more than 75 million Tupac recordings have been sold worldwide to date.
Tupac was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2017, one of music’s highest distinctions. He was recognized as the first solo hip-hop artist in his first year of eligibility.
Legal Problems and Serving Jail Time
Tupac was attacked by jealous kids in Marin City in August 1992. He drew his pistol but dropped it in the midst of the brawl. Someone picked it up, the gun fired, and Qa’id Walker-Teal, a 6-year-old bystander, was killed. Tupac was reportedly inconsolable after Walker-Teal’s death, despite the fact that he was not accused. Walker-Teal’s family filed a civil suit against Tupac in 1995, but the case was settled out of court after an anonymous record label—thought to be Death Row—offered compensation ranging from $300,000 to $500,000.
Tupac shot and wounded two white off-duty cops in Atlanta in October 1993, one in the belly and one in the buttocks, during an incident. The charges, however, were dropped after it was shown in court that the cops had been drunk, had started the confrontation, and that one of the officers had threatened Tupac with a stolen gun.
Tupac stated that the case demonstrated the misrepresentation of Black men in America, as well as the attitude of some police officers against them, which he had been discussing in his music. What was portrayed as unlawful “gangster” behavior turned out to be an act of self-defense by a young man in fear of his life. Tupac’s star was rising all the time.
Tupac went to jail for 15 days in 1994 for punching movie director Allen Hughes, who had sacked him from the set of Menace II Society for being disruptive.
Tupac was sentenced to between 1.5 and 4.5 years in prison for s**ually abusing a woman in February 1995, when he faced considerably more serious allegations. The case concerned an incident that occurred in Tupac’s suite at the Parker Meridien hotel in New York in November 1993. Tupac maintained that he had not raped the fan, however he admitted to Vibe magazine editor Kevin Powell that he could have prevented others in the room from doing so.
“I had a job [to protect her], and I never showed up,” he said.
Joining Death Row Records and ‘All Eyez on Me’
Suge Knight, the controversial head of Death Row Records, paid Tupac a visit when he was in prison on r*pe accusations. Tupac required $1.3 million in bond to be released awaiting his appeal, and Knight offered to post it. Tupac was required to sign on to Death Row, which he did. In October 1995, he was released from the high-security Dannemora facility in New York.
According to Vanity Fair, Tupac was funding an at-risk juvenile center, funding South Central sports teams, and putting up a telephone helpline for troubled young people while promoting an illegal lifestyle for Death Row.
Tupac’s debut album for Death Row, All Eyez on Me, was released in February 1996. All Eyez on Me, which included his new hip-hop group Outlawz, was an unashamed glorification of the thug lifestyle, forsaking socially conscious lyrics in favor of gangsta-funk hedonism and danger.
Dr. Dre, who had pioneered G-funk with NWA, produced the album’s debut single, “California Love,” which peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is still Tupac’s most well-known song. “How Do You Want It,” the album’s third song, also topped the charts. All Eyez on Me was certified five times double-platinum within two months of its release. It would eventually be diamond-certified, with over 10 million in combined sales and streams.
Tupac and Biggie Smalls: The Story of “Hit ’Em Up”
Tupac became a target before the release of his third album. Two young Black guys shot him many times in the lobby of the Manhattan recording studio Quad in November 1994. Tupac suspected his rap rival Biggie Smalls was behind the shooting, which was never charged. Smalls constantly denied any knowledge of the incident. Dexter Isaac, a New York prisoner serving a life sentence for a different crime, alleged in 2011 that music entrepreneur James “Henchman” Rosemond paid him to steal from Tupac and that he shot the musician during the robbery.
Tupac recorded a diss single, “Hit ‘Em Up,” in June 1996, targeted at Biggie Smalls and his label boss at Bad Boy Records, Sean “Diddy” Combs. The song heightened the rivalry between East and West Coast rap. Tupac also spit venom at Lil Kim, Junior M.A.F.I.A., and Prodigy of Mobb Deep in the venomous song. Tupac and Biggie’s feud was quickly becoming hip-hop’s most famous—and ugliest—rivalry.
“Hit ‘Em Up” seemed to foreshadow Tupac’s death and the subsequent conspiracy theories: “Grab your Glocks, when you see Tupac; When you see Tupac, call the cops; who shot me, but ya punks didn’t finish; Now you’re about to feel the wrath of a threat.”
Tupac was assassinated three months later. Biggie was too six months later. Neither of the murders has been solved.
Movies and Other Work
Tupac sought an acting career in addition to his music career. He starred in various films, including co-starring roles with Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice in 1993 and Mickey Rourke in Bullet in 1996.
Following Tupac’s death, a collection of poems he composed before becoming a rapper was gathered and published in a book called The Rose that Grew from Concrete in 2000.”The world moves fast, and it would rather pass you by / than 2 stop and see what makes you cry,” he wrote as a teenager.
Tupac dated Madonna for a short time. Tupac penned a letter to Madonna cancelling their relationship because of her race while spending time in prison in January 1995. “For you to be seen with a Black man wouldn’t in any way jeopardize your career—if anything it would make you seem that much more open and exciting,” he wrote. “But for me, at least in my previous perception, I felt due to my ‘image,’ I would be letting down half of the people who made me what I thought I was.”
Tupac married Keisha Morris while still in prison in April 1995. Morris and Tupac met some months before in a nightclub when Morris was 20 and Tupac was 21. Ten months later, after Tupac was freed from prison, their marriage was canceled. They were close friends till his death.
Tupac began dating Kidada Jones shortly after his divorce from Morris. They met in a bar after Tupac apologized for upsetting her father, Quincy Jones, by dating exclusively white women. Jones was with Tupac the night he was shot in Las Vegas.
Tupac died on September 13, 1996, in Las Vegas, following gunshot wounds received six days earlier. He was 25. His murder is still unsolved.
Tupac was in Las Vegas with Suge Knight on September 7 to see a Mike Tyson fight at the MGM Grand hotel. A member of the Crips gang and Tupac got into a fight following the fight. Knight and his crew, who were members of the rival Bloods group, jumped in.
Later, while Tupac and Knight were stopped at a red light, a guy emerged from another car and fired 13 shots, striking Tupac in the hand, pelvis, and chest. Tupac died later in the hospital. In his final days, he was accompanied by his lover Kidada and his mother Afeni.
Tupac Shakur’s body was incinerated. Outlawz, his old band, made the contentious allegation that they had smoked some of his ashes in his honor. On the 10th anniversary of his murder, his mother said that she would spread her son’s ashes in Soweto, South Africa, the “birthplace of his ancestors.” Later, she moved the date to June 16, 1997, Tupac’s 26th birthday and the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto riots.
Tupac’s death remains an open homicide investigation, with no one knowing who killed him.
In early 2018, BET aired an episode of Death Row Chronicles in which former Crips member Duane “Keffe D” Keith Davis admitted to being in the car with the man who killed Tupac; he refused to identify the shooter in the interview, revealing only that the shots “came from the back seat,” despite previously telling federal investigators that the gun was in the hands of his now-deceased nephew Orlando Anderson.
The news sparked the creation of a change.org petition urging the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department to declare the case “cleared. “It also fueled speculations that more arrest warrants were on the way, which the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department rejected.
A possible breakthrough in the inquiry was announced in July 2023. On July 17, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department executed a search warrant at a house in Henderson, Nevada, in connection with the unsolved death of the rapper. Authorities haven’t revealed many specifics, such as what they were looking for or whether a suspect exists, citing the continuing investigation.
Davis was arrested and charged with murder for his role in Tupac’s death on September 29. According to authorities, he was indicted by a grand jury in Clark County, Nevada, and is currently in detention.