Around the time Mario Van Peebles’ theatrical release, Panther, was in theaters I was a high school student and very much intrigued with the lives of the men and women who made up the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (aka Black Panthers). At that time I was wrestling with the ideals of freedom, democracy, revolution, and activism and I looked to these people and their legacy to guide me.
I wasn’t an activist because I was not confident within my own ideals to strike out on my own, choose a side, stand for a cause and defend my position. There were others who were confident though. I admired their willingness to challenge authority and speak their mind. One of my favorites was the late Lesane Parish Crooks — known to the world as Tupac Amaru Shakur. I curiously followed his life through reading and collecting numerous articles from Vibe and The Source magazines.
Although the messages in his music seemed contradictory, for instance, he gave us songs with positive messages, e.g., ‘Keep Your Head Up,’ he also made songs such as ‘Wonda Why They Call You B—-‘ and ‘Never Be Peace‘ which was released posthumously. Personally, I searched for the underlying message that I could apply to my life. So often though I could not glean any real value, because I was not an activist, or one striking out on his own. Surely, I wasn’t a thug or hustler either. However, I believed that he meant well when he rapped about peace, and progress in songs such as ‘Changes‘ and ‘Me Against The World.’ Though the song ‘Never Be Peace’ unhoused me as his words cleaved me from the belief that peace and progress were possible. Still I listened to his music as a means of exploring a world I did not live in, but was not far from. After all, my blackness afforded me access to this view whether I wanted it or not.
At this time there is another movie soon to be released about his life, All Eyez On Me, directed by Benny Boom and starring Demetrius Shipp Jr. Not only does the movie’s release spur me to revisit Tupac’s life and musical legacy, but I also want to reflect on what his life means to me today in light of all that has changed and have learned over the years, e.g., President Obama’s two-term administration, Dick Gregory‘s teachings via YouTube, and my extensive travels throughout the world.
Today I think that Tupac embodied and imbued the passion of fellow Black Panther Fred Hampton whom like Tupac was also murdered in his early twenties. Like Hampton, fiery, a straight-shooter, Tupac was born at a time in the party’s history that was marred by assaults from the FBI and eventual disbanding, but his energy, vision, and purpose were invariably linked to the party’s legacy. Tupac was a star whose celebrity forced me to gravitate toward him regardless of how contradictory his messages were or how little value I found in some of those messages at that time. These days I am more willing to exam the life of former Panther Bobby Seale whose ideals on politics, economics, and society inspire me. Even the late Richard Aoki, Yuri Kochiyama, and Grace Lee Boggs‘ lives reveal the importance of solidarity among people of color and also inspire me. My travels throughout Asia fostered an interest in Asia and helped me see the value in these people’s lives beyond the Tupac lens that I looked at the world through via his music.
Still the Panther legacy is alive and well in many forms. I am pleased also to know that although the original party was disbanded the spirit of the organization remains. At least Tupac helped me find the other members of the party whose longevity has proven that peace and progress are alive. I guess that is the value I found in Tupac’s legacy.