By Ebony A. Utley, Ph.D., author of Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God
September 13, 2012, is the sixteenth death anniversary of Tupac Amaru Shakur. While riding in the passenger seat of Suge Knight’s BMW Tupac was shot four times while waiting for a light at the intersection of Koval Lane and Flamingo Road in Las Vegas. He succumbed to his injuries on Friday, September 13, 1996. He was 25 years old.
Questions remain. Was it a revenge shooting because of an earlier altercation? Was he shot over East Coast/West Coast beef? Did Bad Boy Records chairman Puff Daddy (now Diddy) order a hit on a rival to increase publicity and profits? Did Death Row Records chairman Suge Knight order a hit on a friend to increase publicity and profits? Was Tupac assassinated because of a government conspiracy? Although I am not entirely sure who killed Tupac or why he was killed, I can say with absolute certainty that Tupac has been resurrected.
In my book, Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta’s God, I surveyed 175 undergraduates about their thoughts on rap and religion. They identified Tupac as their second most religious rapper after Kanye West. The respondents’ average age was 22-years-old, which meant they never sat in front of the TV to watch Tupac’s newest video premier on Yo! MTV Raps or waited in line at a record store for his new album to drop. They have no memories of him except what has been resurrected in popular culture.
With at least 10 authorized posthumous album releases, the 2003 documentary Resurrection, talks about a Tupac biopic and a stage musical, as well as the revolving door of retired police officers who suddenly have new information about his cold case, Tupac persists in our collective consciousness in part because of his fabulous life after death. Perhaps, the most striking resurrection was Tupac’s 2012 Cochella performance.
In that sense, Tupac and Jesus have a lot in common. Both of them grew up poor minorities who enjoyed a good party, had haters, were constantly under surveillance, betrayed by a confidant, and unjustly murdered in their prime because they were outspoken public figures. Moreover Tupac and Jesus are both resurrected in the hearts and minds of individuals who refuse to let them remain in the grave. Considering these connections, it is no wonder hip hop heads still consider Tupac a religious rapper. Here is an excerpt from Rap and Religion that breaks down their life after death connection.
Gangstas who depict death as a way of life are drawn to crucified Jesus not because they want to die, but because staring down death makes them feel most alive. According to cultural critic and minister Michael Eric Dyson, gangstas see a crucified black Jesus as “the God who literally got beat down and hung up, the God who died a painful, shameful death, subject to capital punishment under political authority and attack, but who came back, and keeps coming back, in the form and flesh we least expect.”
In an America where longevity is unnecessarily compromised by environmental poisons, preventable diseases, suicide, and gun violence, Tupac reminds us of the power of resurrection.
Resurrection power is the ability to live in the midst of death. Tupac understood this when in the film Juice, he played Bishop, the killer who pays the ultimately price for his sins, when he survived being shot five times in what appeared to be a robbery at Quad Studios, when he rapped about mourning his comrades and envisioning his early demise, when he spoke about imprisonment as a form of death, and when he depicted himself on the cross claiming no disrespect for Jesus Christ.
Tupac was the first rapper to depict himself as a crucified Jesus but certainly not the last. Images of the crucified Jesus empowered Tupac to embrace death. He did not face death out of fear. He faced death to feel more alive. Even when death was inevitable, resurrection power provided a reason to live. Resurrection power is ultimately about living one’s life more abundantly.
Resurrection power encourages strength and perseverance. Sometimes this means surviving gunshot wounds. Sometimes this means simply avoiding wayward bullets (especially in a city like Chicago). Sometimes resurrection power means losing your life and living on in the hearts and minds of those who love you. Tupac’s appropriation of Jesus reminds us that our deaths—no matter what the cause—do not have to be in vain. As long as we find a way to impact the world before leaving it, our memories will keep coming back in forms we may least expect.