LIKE MANY FELLOW RAPPERS, TUPAC Shakur prides himself on his gangsta credentials. “I was in jail even as a fetus,” he has boasted—and it’s true. In the early ’70s his mother, Afeni Shakur, was one of 21 Black Panthers charged with plotting to bomb public places around New York City. Pregnant in jail while awaiting trial, Afeni gave birth to Tupac—named after an Inca chief—in June 1971, one month after she was acquitted. Young Tupac never knew his father, who apparently died of a drug overdose, and was raised much of his life amid poverty and violence. Despite that troubled background—to a certain extent, because of it—Shakur, 22, has forged a successful career, first as a rapper with Digital Underground and more recently as a budding film star (Poetic Justice). Considering his past, says Afeni, “The fact that he’s not a lunatic amazes me.”
He is, however, in a great deal of trouble. His arrest Nov. 19 in Manhattan on charges of sexual assault came just three weeks after he was booked in Atlanta for allegedly shooting and wounding two off-duty policemen during a traffic dispute. Shakur, along with Snoop Doggy Dog, who faces a hearing on a murder charge next week, just as his new album hits the charts, has come to symbolize the violence that plagues the gangsta rap subculture.
In the Atlanta incident, police say, Shakur and more than a dozen buddies were out cruising in three cars when they nearly hit three people crossing a street. Angry words were exchanged between Shakur’s group and the pedestrians’—two off-duty cops and one of their wives. What happened next is murky, but as the pedestrians fled, Shakur allegedly opened fire with a handgun, hitting one cop in the back and the other in the buttocks. Shakur’s lawyer insists that the cops panicked and fired the first shot, an allegation the officers deny.
In the New York City case, police charged Shakur and two members of his entourage with sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman in a room at the Hotel Parker Meridien. According to her account, Shakur helped hold her down while she was sodomized by one of the alleged attackers. Then, she said, he assaulted her himself. Later she was allowed to leave, and she phoned hotel security. Charged with sodomy and two other counts, Shakur denies any wrongdoing. “Because I’m young, black and 22, and I’m making money, they’ve got to make some [stuff] up to put me behind bars,” he says.
As a teenager, Tupac moved from New York City to Baltimore with his sister and mother because Afeni was concerned about the street toughs he was hanging out with. “I was getting old enough to get into trouble,” he once said. In Baltimore he attended the High School for Performing Arts, which provided a new perspective. “They took a street thug like me,” he said, “and gave me an appreciation for Shakespeare and the stage.”
When his family later moved to Marin City, Calif., just across the Golden Gate from San Francisco, Tupac got involved in the Bay Area rap scene. His first solo album, 2PACALYPSE NOW, released in 1991, was a major hit, though it drew sharp criticism for lyrics that seemed to encourage violence against police. Earlier this year he followed it up with Strictly 4 My N.L.G.G.A.Z…, which includes the current top-rated R&B single “Keep Ya Head Up.” Meanwhile, Shakur’s striking looks and edgy manner caught the eye of movie producers; he had a major role in Juice two years ago and starred opposite Janet Jackson in this year’s Poetic Justice.
Those who encountered Shakur often found him perplexing—affable and thoughtful one moment, hot-tempered and threatening the next. He started a program in Oakland called the Underground Railroad, designed to bring African-American teenagers together to discuss their aspirations. Yet at the same time he and a group of cronies were present during a 1992 shooting incident in Marin City, Calif., that resulted in the death of a 6-year-old boy. “Tupac’s not a bad individual,” says a friend, the New York City rapper Tragedy. “But I do feel he should lose some of the crowd he’s around.”
As for the New York City sodomy charge, Shakur’s friends argue that he is anything but a misogynist. They point out that his single “Keep “Ya Head Up” is a paean to black women. “This is not something he’s capable of doing,” says his mother, Afeni. She contends his accuser may be trying to exploit her son simply for money, a claim the woman’s attorney denies, although he does plan a civil suit. Whatever the case, it is doubtful that Shakur’s legal troubles will diminish his standing in the eyes of his fans. On the contrary. “To a lot of rappers,” says Havelock Nelson, the rap columnist for Billboard magazine, “it’s like a badge of honor to have been in jail.”
LORNA GRISBY in New York City, LAIRD HARRISON and MICHAEL SMALL in Oakland and JILL SIEDER in Atlanta