Tupac Shakur (Wikipedial Commons)
Tupac Shakur’s words, describing both the hope and despair that can accompany inner-city life, continue to resonate as his 44th birthday approaches.
Born on June 16, 1971, the heralded rapper died violently on Sept. 13, 1996, gunned down after attending a heavyweight championship bout in Las Vegas in a still unsolved case. Shakur lived in Baltimore from 1986 to 1988, attending the Baltimore School of the Artsbefore moving to California.
Almost 20 years since his voice was silenced, Shakur’s words nonetheless speak to the social conditions and experiences that abound in many parts of this charmed city.
In the song “Thugz Mansion,” Shakur raps, “So much pressure in this life of mine/I cried times/I once contemplated suicide/and would’ve tried/but when I held that nine/all I could see was my momma’s eyes/no one knows my struggle/they only see the trouble/not knowing it’s hard to carry on when no one loves you/picture me inside the misery of poverty.”
This past May, Sandtown-Winchester resident Keith Figgs gave an interview to the AFRO detailing his path out of a life on the streets. Figgs told a story that closely resembled Shakur’s words of the pressures of navigating survival in an impoverished context, and of the important role family can play in managing the despair that can result.
“I was built with a lot of anger, because . . . I didn’t have the support of my mother, I didn’t have the support of my father,” said Figgs. “My grandmother did an excellent job but she could only do so much. So I grew up with anger, no guidance, and my family everything was selling drugs, so I followed that path. when I got older, I wanted to be different . . . I had a daughter when I was 20 and she made me value life. At one point in time I didn’t value my own life. I made decisions, I tried to kill myself, and when I looked at her she made me value my own life and I knew I wanted more,”
In the poem ‘In the Event of My Demise,’ Shakur writes, “when my heart can beat no more/I hope I die for a principle/or a belief that I had lived /I will die before my time/because I feel the shadow’s depth/so much I wanted accomplish/before I reached my death/I have come grips with the possibility/and wiped the last tear from my eyes/I loved all who were positive/In the event of my demise.”
Also in May, a 27 year old gang member in East Baltimore who goes by the name Radikal, shared his perspective on the common inner-city reality of dying young.
“You’ve got brothers and sisters of all cultures and nationalities dying at an early age. And why should we die at an early age? I feel as though it’s not about, necessarily, how long you live but it’s about how you live. If I die at the age of 21, but I was a productive member to society, and the legacy that I left was to be a go-getter, and was to be brilliant, and to go to school, then my little brothers going to follow my same path,” said Radikal.
Both Radikal and Shakur have sought a silver lining in the phenomenon of dying before one’s time, which speaks to the seeming inevitability of the occurrence in places where young men have to take to the streets to earn a living. What is striking, however, is that such similar sentiments are being voiced almost 20 years apart, demonstrating how little American society paid attention to the words and stories that come out of inner-city environments, happy to let poverty and misery run its course as long as it is contained to certain places where it can remain tucked away and out of sight (for some anyway).
Hence Shakur’s words in another poem, titled ‘I Cry’: “If I had an ear to confid/I would cry among my treasured friend/but who do you know that stops that long/to help another carry on?/The world moves fast and it would rather pass by/then to stop and see what makes one cry/so painful and sad/And sometimes…/I Cry/and no one cares about why.”
Recently, in Sandtown-Winchester, a man named Tommy spoke to the AFRO about whether he expects much in way of changes for a neighborhood like his in the aftermath of so much attention on inner-city Baltimore.
“The media left, remain the same, and politicians, they’re just going to give it some time until it dies down and it’s going to be the same thing. . . . Nobody when you don’t have any money, you don’t have any power. That’s it. There aren’t going to be too many changes – small little minute changes. And as time goes by, they’re just going to forget about it, to a certain degree,” said Tommy.
Almost 20 years after Shakur’s death, Tommy described a community that cries while no one cares about why, and spoke to the expectation of neglect from those who might be in a position to help. Shakur’s question from the poem ‘I Cry,’ still has relevance then for Baltimore’s inner-city communities: But who do you know that stops that long to help another carry on?