Rap anti-hero Tupac Shakur bigger in death than life
NEW YORK — Tupac Shakur's recording career lasted just five years before he was murdered in 1996, but it is the rapper's influence from beyond the grave that will be celebrated when he is inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Friday.
Arguably bigger in death than he was in life, Shakur will be only the sixth rap act to be voted into the Hall of Fame in its 30-year history.
The Hall of Fame described him as "an international symbol of resistance and outlaw spirit, an irresistible contradiction, a definitive rap anti-hero."
That is a big claim for the Harlem-born son of two Black Panther activists who spent time in jail for assault and released just four albums before being killed at age 25 in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas that has never been resolved.
Rap too has evolved, becoming the second most popular music genre in the United States after rock, reflecting and challenging social inequities in its lyrics and music videos, and inspiring symposiums at prestigious universities such as Harvard.
Shakur has sold 75 million albums, mostly from seven posthumous releases, and although his sales figures will never match those of 21st century hip hop kings like Drake, Kanye West and The Weeknd, his influence remains profound.
"For anyone who is serious about learning about hip hop, there are certain people whose music you have to deal with and Tupac is one of those people. You can't say you are knowledgeable about hip hop if you don't know about Tupac," said Todd Boyd, professor of cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California.
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Boyd was one of the academics who first created the study of hip hop culture in the American university system in the early 1990s when it was often demonized by politicians for promoting violence and misogyny.
He said Shakur had an emotional energy that distinguished him from many of his contemporaries and transcended his skills as a rapper or a lyricist.
"When you listen to Tupac, you feel something. He has a strong emotional impact that I think speaks to the fact that here was a guy who, in my mind, was going perhaps to be a better actor than rapper, had he lived," Boyd said.
Shakur's "appearance" in a hologram at the Coachella music festival in 2012 sent sales of his music soaring. He has also been the subject of several documentaries, a Broadway play, a June movie release "All Eyez on Me" and an upcoming TV series on Shakur and his friend-turned-rival Biggie Smalls.
"Everybody loves a mystery. That's a huge part of the mythos that surrounds his death, that it's unsolved," said Richard "RJ" Bond, who in March released "Tupac Assassination: The Battle for Compton," his fifth documentary about Shakur.
Other than his murder, the Los Angeles film maker believes people gravitate toward Shakur's music today because his observations about politics, the media, the police and relationships are still relevant.
"His themes are timeless and universal. He talked about relationships between sons and parents, between people and governments. What he talked about still resonates with the human condition," Bond said.
Boyd said Shakur does not need induction in the Rock Hall of Fame to confer legitimacy, although the honor is nice for his fans.
"When you listen to hip hop even these days there is still a great deal of reverence for him. And for any member of the community who is young enough not to have been alive when he was around, to go back to his music now is very important to them," Boyd said.