An entire generation of rappers have come and gone since Tupac Shakur’s 1996 fatal shooting occurred in Las Vegas, Nevada, but the legacy of the slain icon has continued long after his death.
Among many things, history will remember Tupac as someone who almost single-handedly — because of a beef with Notorious B.I.G. — ignited a rap feud between two coasts during the height of the gangster rap era. He’ll also be remembered as one of the most successful rappers in history with a number of platinum albums and thousands of unreleased songs that continue to fill the radio airwaves across the United States.
But while his influence was universal, Latinos were especially drawn to Tupac’s music and made up one of his most loyal fan bases in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Phoenix.
Like many other Latinos who grew up in L.A. during the early 1990s, I, too, was completely consumed by Tupac’s music.
He was the first voice I listened to when I turned the radio on in the morning, and the last voice I heard at the end of a day when I fell asleep listening to his music on my Sony Walkman.
Tupac was a lot of things to different people: He was the best friend who had your back the time Jose and his boys tried to jump you behind McDonalds, the friend who urged you to ditch school every Friday, and, of course, the friend who always seemed to have wisdom far beyond their age.
But he was far from perfect.
Like any other popular figure, Tupac was a complex person with undeniable shortcomings.
He was just as likely to refer to women as b***** as he was to refer to them as queens. He was an advocate for peace between communities of color while firing back at rivals with threats of physical violence.
As a result, his songs reflected the multiple layers of his personality.
“He was an advocate for peace between communities of color while firing back at rivals with threats of physical violence.”
Songs like “Keep Your Head Up” and “Changes” uplifted us whenever we had a problem at home or school. “Hail Mary” is what you listened to when you finally got the nerve to confront Jose and his crew after school for attempting to jump you behind McDonalds. And “Dear Mama” helped us celebrate the way our mothers always found ways to provide for us beyond their means.
But as I noticed then, and continue to see, I was never alone in my love for Tupac.
Tupac, however, made it very clear about who his message was directed to. His music continued the legacy of African-American artists whose music was tailored for African-Americans in inner city communities who were facing multiple forms of discrimination.
Still, Latinos often worked and lived in similar neglectful conditions, which created shared frustrations.
We’ll never know the moment Tupac started to understand the importance of Latinos to U.S. society, but we can estimate that living in Los Angeles gave him an idea, particularly when he paid homage to Latinos in his hit song, “To Live and Die in L.A.,” claiming that it “wouldn’t be L.A. without Mexicans, black love, brown pride, in the sets again.”
For Los Angeles-based poet Angela Aguirre, 29, it was songs like “To Live and Die in L.A.” that helped her build connections with African Americans in her community and helped her understand that his message was also intended for Chicanas.
“Seeing how hard he rode for the black community empowered me to ride equally as hard for mine,” she explained to me over email. “I had always been an outspoken Chicana, but Tupac’s music came out during my formative years and the politically conscious nature of that music influenced me to be more conscious of the same types of oppression that he spoke about.”
The 1990s, as Aguirre explains, were, in fact, a particularly challenging time for Latinos in California.
Border security was being tightened up, police were targeting Latinos in inner cities, and state bills like proposition 209 and 187 negatively impacted the economic and social conditions of Latinos throughout the state.
In addition, we were still living in an era where Latinos were often excluded from mainstream conversations of race.
As a result, Tupac’s lyrics often resonated with Latinos because he gave a growing, and often invisible part of the U.S. population, a vocabulary to express frustration, fears, and hopes for the future.
“Tupac was a lot of things,” Aguirre continued, “which is why I fucked with him so heavy. He was so multidimensional and complex as a person and an artist. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t problematic or even misogynistic at times, but because of his upbringing, Tupac was woke before ‘woke’ was even a thing and the most appealing thing about him was his sincerity.”
What made Tupac’s appeal even more far-reaching, I believe, was that his message also impacted Latinos outside of major California cities like, Mikael Rojas, who grew up in state of Washington, and Alejandro Sanchez-Lopez, 28, who grew up in Ensenada, Mexico.
“Tupac was one of the most important people in my life,” explained, Rojas, a native of Yakima, Washington. “He said it was OK to be a minority and it connected with me even though I lived in rural Washington.”
“….Tupac’s lyrics often resonated with Latinos because he gave a growing, and often invisible part of the U.S. population, a vocabulary to express frustration, fears, and hopes for the future.”
Sanchez-Lopez, who grew up in Mexico, had a similar connection to Tupac.
“I didn’t even know what he was saying the first time I heard his music,” he explained, “but I knew how his voice made me feel.”
That Tupac was able to connect with fans and listeners outside of Los Angeles and other major West Coast cities should come to no surprise given the way his music was able to transcend race, sex, gender, and class.
For people like Anaheim, California, native, Jesus Cortez, 37, however, Tupac’s song, “Life Goes On,” represented a form of therapy that helped him cope with the death of two of his friends which he lost to street violence.
“That song helped me get me through and helped me maintain my level of sanity,” he explained to me from his home in Anaheim. “I had just lost two good friends of mine to the streets and he said that life goes on even if you lose your homies.”
“My mind was all over the place and I was able to focus and he got me through.”
For Cortez, who like Tupac, was also raised by a single mother, life often presented challenges for him and his family, Tupac’s song, “Dear Mama,” helped him understand that being a single mother and raising a male teenager was no easy task.
“I was growing up with me and my mom and “Dear Mama” hit home because nobody had talked about their mom like that before in a song. We all loved our moms even though they were sometimes flawed. And a lot of us were growing up in broken homes and he made it OK to say ‘I love my mama.’”
“Dear Mama” indeed brought families closer together and allowed men to express their feelings towards their mothers in a vulnerable way, but Tupac’s legacy also inspired a generation of his fans who named their children in honor of his legacy.
Peruvian-American, Ana del Rocio, 31, grew up in California during the height of Tupac’s career and named her son, Tupac Amaru, in honor of the the rapper’s career and his namesake: Incan general Tupac Amaru II, who led revolts against the Spanish.
“What he stood for — revolution, poetic lyricism, and building up mothers and women of color — inspired me so much that I named my first child Tupac Amaru,” she described from her home in Portland, Oregon where she works as a policy director. “I chose the name to honor both the artist and the indigenous Peruvian warrior-chiefs, my ancestors, that Tupac Shakur was named after.”
“I see so many powerful warrior legacies living and breathing in my son every day, and it gives me so much hope for our resistance as a people.”
Del Rocio reminds us that while Tupac may have directly impacted her life in the 1990s, the legacy of his impact continues in the next generation of Latinos like her son, who will continue to carry his name and his message.
In the same vein, Tupac also inspired an entire generation of west coast rappers like, Compton native, Kendrick Lamar, whose autobiographical albums, “Good Kid M.A.A.D City,” and, “To Pimp A Butterfly,” have individual songs, which continue Tupac’s message about black-brown unity.
Latinos, today, are often drawn to Kendrick’s music for many of the same reasons: sincere, heady, and jarring depictions of the human experience. But, more importantly, Kendrick understands, like Tupac did over twenty-years ago, that Latinos are an important part of U.S. society that continue to grow in size and influence as each day passes.