Memory  /  Book Review

Why Tupac Never Died

It’s because the rapper’s life and work were a cascade of contradictions that we’re still trying to figure him out today.
Staci Robinson

He died at the age of twenty-five, following a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, in 1996. Until last month, nobody had been charged in the murder, despite multiple eyewitnesses—a generation’s initiation into the world of conspiracy theories. An entire cottage industry arose to exalt him. Eight platinum albums were released posthumously. His mystique spawned movies, museum exhibitions, academic conferences, books; one volume reprinted flirtatious, occasionally erotic letters he’d mailed to a woman while incarcerated. There appears to be no end to the content that he left behind, and it has been easy to make him seem prophetic: here’s a clip of him foretelling Black Lives Matter, and here’s one warning of Donald Trump’s greed. Every new era gets to ask what might have happened had Shakur survived.

This plenitude is the challenge faced by “Tupac Shakur: The Authorized Biography” (Crown), a book that the novelist and screenwriter Staci Robinson began working on nearly a quarter century ago. She first met Shakur, who attended the same Bay Area high school that she had, when he was seventeen. In the late nineties, at his mother’s behest, Robinson began interviewing his friends and family, though the project was soon put on hold. She was asked to return to it a few years ago, and was given access to unpublished materials.

It’s a reverential and exhaustive telling of Shakur’s story, leaning heavily on the perspective of his immediate family, featuring pages reproduced from the notebooks he kept in his teens and twenties. The biography’s publication follows “Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur,” a documentary series that premièred, on FX, in April. Robinson was an executive producer on “Dear Mama,” which drew on the same archive of estate-approved, previously unreleased materials as her book, and the works share a common purpose: to complicate Shakur without demystifying him.

She begins, as the artist himself would have preferred it, with his mother. Afeni Shakur was born Alice Faye Williams on January 10, 1947, in Lumberton, North Carolina; about twelve years later she moved to the South Bronx. Williams was academically gifted and attended the High School of Performing Arts, in Manhattan, though she felt out of place among her more affluent classmates and eventually dropped out. In the late sixties, she became interested in Black history and Afrocentric thinking, took the Yoruba name Afeni, and joined a local chapter of the Black Panthers. In 1968, she married Lumumba Shakur—and into a family of political radicals. His father, Salahdeen Shakur, was a revolutionary leader who’d worked closely with Malcolm X. The Shakurs were such a force that others in their circle adopted their surname as a mark of allegiance.