Tupac Shakur’s Volatile Life, Delivered by Friendly Hands

Tupac Shakur’s Volatile Life, Delivered by Friendly Hands

TUPAC SHAKUR: The Authorized Biography, by Staci Robinson

Last month, after 27 years, a suspect was charged in the murder of Tupac Shakur. A firecracker and crusader as sharp as he was brusque, Tupac reached megastar status in 1996, when his fourth studio album, “All Eyez on Me,” went five times platinum. Often hailed as one of the greatest rappers of all time, he was a magnet for controversy during his life, and became a martyr for hip-hop militance after his death.

Though anticipated by those familiar with the case, the arrest may provide long-awaited closure that aptly comes in conjunction with Staci Robinson’s poignant “Tupac Shakur.”

The Tupac story has been told many times over, but this is the only authorized biography, meaning Robinson was granted nearly unprecedented access to the Shakur family and to Tupac’s many journals and notebooks. Along with scores of interviews, the book is stuffed with photocopies of the rapper’s personal writings. As if tucked between the pages, these hand-scrawled poems, raps and musings provide windows into his mind.

For Robinson, this is a personal undertaking. She and Tupac were in the same high school social circle in Northern California, and over time she fielded calls to work on writing projects for him. With Shakur’s aunt she collaborated on “Tupac Remembered,” a 2008 collection of interviews, and was an executive producer on “Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur,” the 2023 docuseries about the rapper and his mother.

Robinson writes in an introduction that she took up the biography at Afeni’s request in 1999, but that the project was put “on hold” a few weeks after she submitted the manuscript. Called on decades later to complete the work, Robinson spends its pages advocating not only for Tupac’s integrity, but for the spirit of Black resistance he embodied.

“He wanted to relay stories that needed to be told,” she writes. “It was time to tell the truth about America’s history, about its dark past and especially about the oppression and disparities that were plaguing communities.”

“Tupac Shakur” is a touching, empathetic portrait of a friend. Even familiar stories achieve new intimacy at closer range. And small moments help clarify longstanding narratives, coloring in the outlines of this well-known tale of the actor-rapper-activist who died at 25. The book attempts to contextualize the sadness and paranoia beneath the charisma; throughout his life, we learn, “van Gogh would come to be a touchstone for Tupac.”

As in “Dear Mama,” Robinson’s biography sees the rapper’s legacy as inextricable from his mother’s, and the book begins not with Tupac, but with Afeni — her exposure to racism in the Jim Crow South, her arrest in New York as a member of the Black Panthers and her standing trial while pregnant.

Afeni, we are told, was the bedrock of Tupac’s moral mission. “Ingrained from birth and into his upbringing were both Afeni’s fears and her dreams for her son — the expectation that he would carry on her dedication to the Black community and the will to help others achieve freedom from oppression,” Robinson writes.

The book posits that Tupac inherited an antagonistic relationship with the police from the Shakurs — his mother, her first husband, Lumumba, and Tupac’s stepfather, Mutulu. Yet it astutely chronicles his life as a microcosm of the ongoing Black American struggle. Robinson often draws direct parallels between Tupac’s creative life and his run-ins with law enforcement. She notes that he was assaulted by Oakland police officers only weeks after shooting the video for “Trapped,” a diatribe against police brutality; filming on the 1993 movie “Poetic Justice,” in which he starred, was put on pause during the L.A. riots.

Black cultural responses to injustice were early fuel for a sensitive, boisterous would-be artist. We hear of him furiously riding his tricycle around the apartment as Gil Scott-Heron plays on the turntable; he “entered a new realm” portraying 11-year-old Travis Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” at a Harlem fund-raiser for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.

We get what feel like firsthand peeks into his turbulent rise to stardom, too; Robinson recounts how his mother would send Tupac traveling with care packages that included condoms, vitamins, prayer cloths and phone numbers for bail bondsmen.

Though there are frequent references to his prolific output, “Tupac Shakur” doesn’t focus much on music, which undersells him as an artistic genius. The book mostly considers his songs as ways to explain his behavior; it is not overly concerned with how they were made or whether they succeeded aesthetically. Lyrics either underscore a caring nature or are vehicles for public controversy.

In this way, the narrative plays into a longstanding Tupac binary — the sensitive revolutionary and the hair-trigger thug — though it insinuates the latter was primarily a construction of a sensationalist press. And while offering a valiant defense, Robinson excuses Tupac of many provocations. It spends very little time on his 1994 sexual-abuse conviction, and absolves the rapper in an earlier incident at an outdoor festival that left a 6-year-old boy dead, even though the gun in question was registered to him. It doesn’t even consider that he might be culpable, accidentally or by proxy.

Robinson does not stand at a historian’s distance. Her writing radiates admiration, and at times she even speaks on Tupac’s behalf. Even so, this is far from hagiography. At its best, the book feels like a plea to re-examine the world that made Tupac Shakur so angry.

TUPAC SHAKUR: The Authorized Biography | By Staci Robinson | 406 pp. | Crown | $35

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Sheldon Pearce

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