Afeni Shakur: Continuing Life After Death
Afeni Shakur not only gave birth to Rap legend Tupac “2PAC” Shakur, but has become legendary in her own right. Working as a philanthropist, poet, and political activist, Shakur has been able to both revel in and expand out of her son’s light to stretch beyond her own expectations. Though her life at times has been a controversial one, her work has paid tribute to the influential rapper and the African-American community at large, constantly finding innovative ways to bring about a heightened consciousness for all she is involved with. At 21, Shakur began her time as an activist in Harlem, when she faced the threat of the New York Public schools system closing down during a teacher strike and consequently removing her nephew from the first grade. After having recently been introduced to the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X‘s teachings in city bars and restaurants, she was quick to join the Black Panther Party. The militant political group was largely comprised of Socialist ideology, organized to counteract mainstream oppression faced in African-American communities. Shakur quickly rose within the movement, becoming a section leader and organizer for community improvement programs. Only a year after her joining in 1968, the young woman was arrested for conspiracy against the American government and sent to jail alongside twenty one other Black Panther members. She spent nearly a year in jail but was eventually released on bail. During this time she became pregnant with Tupac, but was sent back to jail four months before her due date to await her upcoming trial.
In a bold move, Shakur decided to represent herself in court and, despite the presumed negative odds, was acquitted of all 150 charges brought against her. Almost exactly one month after she was released from jail, Tupac was born in East Harlem. She speaks of the effect this had on Tupac in an interview with Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner: “The Party taught me things that were principles to living, and those principles are the principles I think most Panthers have tried to pass on to their children and to anybody else that would listen to them. […]Tupac was and remains in my mind a child of the Black Panther Party. I think that I always felt that even though this society thought they had destroyed the work of the Black Panther Party. I always felt that Tupac was living witness to who we are and who we were….” Unfortunately, though, Shakur’s struggles did not end after being released from jail. She had difficulties raising Tupac in a single parent home, often finding the need to relocate in the hopes of building a better life for herself, Tupac, and her youngest daughter, Sekyiwa. While she did work successfully as a paralegal and tenant organizer in the Bronx for ten years, their continuous moving and economic adversities ultimately left Shakur turning to drug abuse. Throughout Tupac’s early life spanning to the beginning of his musical career, his mother suffered from an addiction to cocaine. Shakur’s using even prevented her from fully understanding her son’s success, never truly realizing her disconnect from him until someone pointed out that, unbeknownst to her, he had appeared on the nationally broadcast, The Arsenio Hall Show. It was then that she began to understand the need for change and hoped to make a resurgence into her son’s already wildly popular life.
By the age of seventeen, when his mother’s addiction was at one of its peaks, Tupac was already a rising figure in the rap scene. He became involved with the young hip-hop group Digital Underground in 1990. It was through this group that Tupac began his climb to fame, debuting his rapping skills in a soundtrack format for the first time on their album “Sex Packets.” Despite clashes with other rappers, Tupac continued his growth on the music scene, cultivating a name for himself that situated his position as one of the most poignant, prominent artists in recent years. His studies in the arts – spanning from creative writing, rehearsing Shakespeare, and even dancing ballet – rounded his artistry and flow in a way that was not easily imitated by others. Many fellow rappers now site Tupac’s careful craftsmanship of lyrics as one of their main influences for beginning their own careers. His death, however, would become a lasting marker on the way Tupac’s life was perceived. After a stint in prison, Tupac was bailed by Death Row CEO Suge Knight under the promise that he would record three albums on the Death Row record label. Tupac’s enemies would eventually get in the way of fulfilling this promise. In September 1996, a member of Death Row’s entourage was robbed by an alleged affiliate of the Southside Crips. Following the incident, Tupac was first threatened then mortally shot by the same gang member while driving to a Death Row club. Upon the request of Afeni Shakur, Tupac was taken off life support and died several days later in a Las Vegas hospital due to internal bleeding.
In spite of her son’s death, Afeni Shakur has been in a more grounded place, allowing her to continue on his legacy. In an interview with Tupac’s official Youtube channel, she had this to say in regards to how she wanted her son to be remembered: “I always wanted people to understand that Tupac was an artist. And I always wanted them to appreciate him as an artist, as a true artist. And to appreciate all of his work rather than to pick and choose lies from somebody’s work that was so massive. Sometimes people choose one sentence and they want to define his body of work. So I think that most important thing for me is that people today view him as an artist, a complete artist, and as a humanitarian, and as a person who felt other people’s pain. That, as a mother, I don’t think I could ask for anything more.”
Only one year following his death, Shakur founded The Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts, as supported by the foundation she began in her son’s name. The performing arts center is located in Stone Mountain, Georgia and offers classes in drama, creative writing, and dance, among others. The center has even begun to offer courses taught in South Africa and Japan. In that same year, she additionally founded Amaru Entertainment. Amaru Entertainment oversees the release of all of the previously unreleased work Tupac created prior to his death. Since its inception, the label has released eight posthumous albums and one documentary. Afeni Shakur has been able to carry on a legend that holds both a personal and universal meaning to legions of supporters. Her own work as an artist and political activist has given her the foresight to understand the necessity of continuing Tupac’s life even after death. With this, she has been able to remain being a mother to an entire community.
– Melissa Cruz