Tuesday, September 13, 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Tupac Shakur. Tupac was a prominent hip-hop artist in the early 1990s well known for his deep, progressive lyrics in popular songs such as “Changes” and “Keep Ya Head Up.” However, he was more than just a rapper – he was a poet, a philosopher, and an activist. From a young age, he expressed incredible insight on contentious topics such as education, poverty, feminism, and police brutality.
Recently, there has been a clear rise in national awareness and conversation about the roles of race and racism in modern society. This has been largely sparked by the surge of outcry in response to racial injustices and very salient, harrowing instances of police brutality. It seems that conversations about concepts such as power, privilege, and systemic racism are surfacing more in mainstream discussion, and gaining in volume and traction.
It seems that today, these ideas are being presented as brand new information, and to many, these concepts are brand new. However, these ideas are far from novel – rather, they haven’t been awarded the attention they deserve and demand.
Over twenty years ago, when Tupac Shakur was a young, socially aware hip-hop artist on the rise, he spoke with urgency about what it’s like to live as a person of color in inner city environments, to be faced with the harsh reality of police brutality, to be a young black male navigating a socially complex and violent world. He asserted that change is not only possible, but necessary through both systemic changes such as education reform, and individual self-reflection and accountability. These concepts that may seem new to many people in 2016 are really perhaps louder echoes of what people of color and cultural activists like Tupac have been expounding for decades. ‘Pac brought his ideas for social change to light through his music, which continues to serve as a crossroads where fans from vastly different racial, socioeconomic, and geographic groups intersect and find unity. He felt that it was his responsibility as a hip-hop artist to initiate difficult conversations through his lyrics about topics like discrimination and inequality.
“And the raps that I’m rappin to my community shouldn’t be filled with rage? They shouldn’t be filled with same atrocities that they gave me? The media they don’t talk about it, so in my raps I have to talk about it, and it seems foreign because there’s no one else talking about it.” – Tupac Shakur
The persisting and arguably increasing relevance of Tupac Shakur in contemporary times implies a key, baseline element in promoting social progression – listening. For those who want to take action against racial injustice but don’t know where to begin, I encourage you to start now and to start by listening. Listen to people of color when they share their experiences, emotions, concerns, and ideas. The resonance of Tupac’s voice into current sociocultural issues is just a small taste of how excruciatingly slow progress can be. We need to listen.
In a 1992 interview with MTV, ‘Pac admitted that despite his prominent influence, he knew that he alone couldn’t change the world. But, he did guarantee to “spark the brain that will change the world.”
There are people of color today who are talking – and have always been talking – in realtime about the same issues that concerned Tupac Shakur. What can we do to start listening right now? How can we ensure that these voices and perspectives that matter aren’t overlooked, forgotten, or ignored for another 20 years?