Socio-Theological Insights from Tupac Amaru Shakur
September 13, 1996, marks the death of rapper, activist, and Hip Hop saint Tupac Amaru Shakur, one of rap’s most famed and beloved rappers. Tupac presented many with a discourse of the urban life from an urbanites perspective. Tupac did not just create a space for the “thug” to be better understood, but connected with the disenfranchised, marginalized, and disheartened soul to move deep into the complexities of what life brings to our front door; which transcends race. Tupac created space, for anyone who was hurting, to find both the pain and the joy in an effective space called music.
Music is a powerful medium that no human being on the face of the Earth goes without. Yet, the meanings within that musical score are great, complex, and diverse; Tupac was able to reach into the hearts and minds of many and help those identify with both their own struggle and the journey to “keep your head up” in life. For me, that is exactly where spiritual connections begin and theology—the study of God and / or God’s, happens.
In a world where churches and religious dogmatic mantras are fading, Tupac was able to create a spiritual space not just to commiserate about the pain, but to move in and beyond it. Tupac was not a trained theologian, pastor, or evangelist. However, having a formal degree and training never qualified anyone from doing “God’s work.” Still, Tupac never really came to any solid conclusions about on a theology of the ‘hood.’ He began the discussion, but because of his early death, never finished the mantra of a ghetto Gospel.
What follows here is a conversation about seeing Tupac as a sort of urban post soul spiritual leader to begin the conversation about who Jesus is to an individual’s life.
Tupac presents a modern day, post soul, theological perspective.
Here is why…
(These are excerpts & adaptations from my book Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel & Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur VDM Academic 2010; Ch. 12)
Within a post soul context emerges a new kind of prophet— a prophet that is able to engage culture, deal with conflict, create connective narrative, generate community, dispel the traditional powers, and call people to a higher level. Tupac fulfills that prophetic role. He provides a new theological mainframe which moves beyond simple prayers and answers to a more complex a mature faith; one in which the human condition is examined and interrogated.
Tupac argues the inadequacy of the previous and existing theologies for the present Crisis—e.g. poverty, recidivism rates for young urban males, racism, and classism. Tupac never once questioned, called out, blasphemed, or cursed the name of God. Not once did he refer to Jesus in a negative or blasphemous way. However, Tupac did call out church; traditional forms of religion, irrelevant orthodoxical methods, and current methods of evangelism. Tupac challenges youth workers, pastors, and church officials in their morals, ethics, values, and theological understanding. Tupac stated, “If we spent half the damn money on the people that these pastors did on their damn church, we’d actually be doing something. Why God need a mansion here on earth?” Moreover, Tupac argued that the current spiritual path (e.g. attend church, life a good “life”) worldview was not working and needed major changes in order to reach a new generation—and this was over a decade ago!
Tupac, at times, considered himself a type of urban missionary. In an interview with then B.E.T.’s Ed Gordon, he asserts:
So, I feel like I’m doing God’s work, you know what I’m saying? Just because I don’t have nothing to pass around for people to put in the bucket don’t mean I’m not doing God’s work; I feel like I’m doing God’s work. Because, these ghetto kids ain’t God’s children? And I don’t see no missionaries coming through there. So I’m doing God’s work. While Reverend Jackson do his shit up in the middle class and he go to the White house and have dinner and pray over the president, I’m up in the ’hood doing my work with my folks
Did Tupac have all the answers? Of course not. He even stated, “ Don’t follow me, I might fall through the cracks and if you followin’ me, you’ll fall too. Set your sites on God and the path ahead. I’m only point the way. I’m diagnosing the problem.” Yet, within this type of honesty, listeners are able to see the transparency of a person and, in essence, through the power of music, see a different path for their own life.
Tupac critically challenged the traditional fibers of religion. Tupac raised such questions as:
- Why is the pastor the only one who can know and talk to God?
- Where is the older generation when we need their help?
- Why does the pastor have to preach these heaven and hell sermons to scare young people into following God?
- Where is He or She at when we need a Jesuz we can pray to?
Tupac’s theological view establishes its continuity with normative expressions of faith. Tupac was not preaching a “new God.” In fact, quite the opposite was happening with Tupac’s theological view. Tupac was merely establishing a new theology for the ‘hood, Hip Hop youth, and for those people that are considered to be marginal and “outside” of society—including many people considered to be privileged, established, and “well off” because pain and suffering doesn’t know socio-economical boundaries. Tupac wanted these types of people to have a good life too.
On this day of his death, I reflect on the prophetic voice of not only my generation, but for any generation that has been marginalized, oppressed, and or told they were a “nobody” in this society.
Cut short at the tender age of 25, we lost a prophet and a figure that went beyond celebrity into visionary. Tupac would have been 40. Godspeed Pac, see you at the crossroads brutha!
Dan Hodge, Ph.D
Daniel White Hodge, Ph.D is the Director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies and Assistant Professor of Youth Ministry at North Park University. As a speaker, writer, and activist, he has spoken on many college campuses including Stanford University, UCLA, USC, & Union Theological Seminary. Dan teaches classes around the world on subjects such as Black popular culture, personality & the self, Hip Hop discourse, and race/ ethnicity within religion.
Dr. Dan’s two current books are Heaven Has A Ghetto: The Missiological Gospel & Theology of Tupac Amaru Shakur (VDM 2009), and The Soul Of Hip Hop: Rimbs, Timbs, & A Cultural Theology (IVP 2010). He is currently working on a book titled The Hostile Gospel: Finding Religion In The Post Soul Theology of Hip Hop(Brill Academic late 2012). He has published in Youth Worker Journal, Missiology An International Review, Memphis Theological Seminary Journal and has several book chapters in various readers. Dan & his wife Emily are most proud of their 5 year old dancing daughter Mahalia Joy who is becoming versed in womanist theory!