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Realizing Tupac Wasn't Cool, 20 Years Later

Shakur spits in the direction of reporters as he leaves state Supreme Court in New York on July 5, 1994.
Bebeto Matthews
Shakur spits in the direction of reporters as he leaves state Supreme Court in New York on July 5, 1994.

"Tupac wasn't cool."

It felt sacrilegious to even hear my brother say those words the other day, but I knew instantly that it was true.

David and I were little kids when Tupac Shakur died. That was 20 years ago. We were stunned by the drive-by in Las Vegas; the four gunshot wounds; Pac's death on Friday the 13th.

I'd called David because I wanted to remember why we were once so obsessed with the rap superstar.

My brother had a Pac poster in his room — the one where he's shirtless; Thug Life tattoo across his stomach; middle finger to the world; blunt in one hand; gun in his drawers. On David's bookshelf, there was a copy of Tupac's book, The Rose That Grew From Concrete. I would sneak into his room sometimes to read Pac's poems because I was a nerd. I don't think I ever made it to the end, but I read that first poem until I knew it by heart.

"Funny it seems, but by keeping it's dreams, it learned to breathe fresh air ..."

Back then, David listened to "All Eyez On Me," Disc 1, about 12 times a day. He'd ripped the music from a friend's CD. My family knew what kind of mood he was in based on which track he started with. When he came home from school and blasted "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted," we knew he'd had a rough day .

Me, I'd listen to two songs: " Hail Mary" and "Keep Ya Head Up." I'd be in my room at night with the volume turned low, because it seemed like I was breaking a rule. My parents never said anything, but I wonder how they would have felt about their little girl lip-syncing the lyrics, "Activate my hate, let it break, to the flame."

I liked "Hail Mary" because of the creepy, syncopated beat and that very first line — "I ain't a killer but don't push me." I was probably 9 years old when I listened to that song. I didn't know what I was capable of then, but I was not to be trifled with.

And I loved "Keep Ya Head Up." I think part of me could sense that life as a black woman would be profoundly unfair, and I appreciated having Pac as a pre-emptive ally. My favorite line was, "If he can't learn to love you, you should leave him."

I knew I would need that counsel eventually. But giving Dear Abby advice wasn't exactly cool.

"I mean, he was cool, of course," David said over the phone, trying to save face for his idol. "He was cool as s***. He dressed cool and sounded cool and he did cool stuff. But he was so vulnerable. Maybe it's just one poser recognizing another."

I don't know if that's what everyone loves about Tupac. For me it rings true. Listening to him all these years later, he sounds like he needs something. In "Changes," Pac raps, "It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other." Cool kids didn't talk about healing each other. They weren't wounded to begin with. They didn't beg, either. But in "Hail Mary," Tupac pleads, "Come with meeeeee."

(Of course, he was capable of channeling different personas. This is the same Pac who taunted Biggie Smalls with the line, "You claim to be a player, but I f***** your wife.")

As two angsty black preteens, David and I knew which version of blackness was cool in our preppy, upper-class, mostly white Philadelphia suburb. It was an Allen Iverson, Ja Rule, Will Smith kind of cool, where everything was glamorous and sporty and badass (except when, in Will Smith's case, it was funny and goofy). David could go to school wearing a FUBU sweatshirt and make jokes in class and fit in. I had a little more trouble. My fifth-grade Iverson braids didn't go over well.

But at home with Pac, we had evidence that you could sometimes be black and uncool and still survive. Even if you wrote a book full of cheesy poems to your girlfriends. Even if you rapped, "Come listen to my truest thoughts, my truest feelings," in a song called " Unconditional Love."

When my 9-year-old self would sing, "Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" as I fell asleep, Pac had me feeling powerful. Poser or not, he helped me find my version of cool.

For more on Tupac's legacy, check out this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast, featuring Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby and special guest Kevin Powell.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
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