On September 7th 1996, Tupac Shakur attended a Mike Tyson boxing match at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas. When the match was over, Shakur left with his friend Suge Knight, C.E.O of West Coast Records. But as the rapper was leaving, he and his two bodyguards managed to get into a fight with Orlando Anderson in the lobby of the MGM. Anderson, was a member of the Southside Crips gang, one of the most active gangs in South L.A during the 1990s.
The previous May, Anderson and several other members of the Southside Crips had attempted to rob one of Tupac’s associates, Travon Lane. Lane had informed Tupac, who, after asking Anderson if he was in the Crips, retaliated by punching him in the face and kicking him multiple times. The brawl had to be broken up by hotel security after Knight and the rest of Tupac’s entourage waded in on the fight.
After the altercation, Tupac and Knight were driving to Club 662, when, at 11pm, two police officers from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Bike Patrol pulled them over for playing their stereo too loudly and not having license plates. When the plates were discovered to be in the boot of Knight’s car, the party were released. They carried on driving and, soon, a car containing two women pulled up to Tupac’s new Cadillac. They had spotted the hip hop star and started calling his name, “Tupac, Tupac!”. So he hoisted himself out the skylight and invited them along to Club 662, parading himself in the open air.
Moments later, another car pulled up to Tupac’s vehicle. This time, a white Cadillac. From the back seat, the shooter rolled down the window and fired a rapid succession of shots into the car. Tupac was hit four times, with one of the bullet’s finding its way to his right lung. Knight was also injured, when a bullet ricocheted and a fragment lodged itself in his head. Tupac fell into unconsciousness, whilst Knight managed to drive himself and his fatally wounded friend to a nearby hospital, where he told Knight that he believed he was dying.
After slipping in and out of consciousness, and attempting to leave his bed, Tupac was put under a medically-induced coma. In the hospital, he was visited by his partner Kikada Jones. She played Don McLean’s song ‘Vincent’ on the CD player next to Tupac’s bed, and he regained consciousness, giving Jones the opportunity to tell Shakur that she loved him before he fell back into unconsciousness for the last time.
Tupac Shakur’s death rocked the world. As well as writing some of the most poignant lyrics in modern music, he was also a political activist and outspoken critic of police brutality and institutionalised racism. In this regard, he came to be seen as a modern-day folk hero, whose songs spoke up for the marginalised and frequently brutalised black community. Tupac’s mother Afeni Shakur had been a prominent member of the Black Panthers and, in Tupac’s own words, raised her son to be “the black prince of the revolution.” One of the many things Afeni taught Tupac that the world most American’s lived in was a fairyland that concealed the brutal reality of the racist power structures that controlled their lives.
His understanding of this reality shaped his political outlook and the subject matter of his music. In an interview conducted when he was still in high school, Tupac said: “you know those little things that they have for mice, where they go round the circle and there’s little blocks for it and everything? Well, society is like that. They’ll let you go as far as you want, but as soon as you start asking too many questions and you’re reading to change – boom.” Tupac decided to reawaken the fight for justice that his mother had started with the Black Panthers.
In the late ’80s, he decided to reform the movement, but, in his own words “to fit with our views. You know, less violent and more silent, you know — more knowledge.” He set out to reawaken the radicalism of the Black Panthers, using his music as his greatest tool. But, whilst his lyrics succeeded in cementing his popularity both as an artist and activist, they also made him the target of covert government investigations, political censure, and condemnation by numerous gangs.
With his music, Tupac Shakur also aimed not simply to stop the gang violence which had permeated the rap scene, but to convince the people in the gangs who, at that time, were killing each other, that they could turn that violence outward and use it to fight back against the society which was oppressing them. But, as Adam Curtis describes in his documentary Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, by the mid-’90s, his optimism for the “revolution” had started to fade.
In an interview held the year before his death, Tupac said: “Now, if you do want to live a thug life and a gangster life and all that, OK, so stop being cowards and let’s have a revolution. But we don’t want to do that. Dudes just want to live a character. They want to be cartoons.”
One of the knock-on effects of Tupac’s death was that it seemed to bring the brutal reality of gang violence to the fore. Arguably, the music industry exploited and glamorised the beef between rival gangs. If not that, then the violence was certainly treated, by people who were not directly involved, with a worrying level of triviality, as if it was simply an extension of the entertainment provided by the records themselves.
Tupac’s death, however, made one thing abundantly clear: gang violence wasn’t something Shakur simply rapped about, it was a very real part of his life and he’d died in an attempt to help people realise that there was an alternative.