“Tupac is Alive”

“Tupac is alive and living in Cuba.”  “Oh yea, ok.” It was fun catching up with an old friend from high school the other day and even funnier when he mentioned Tupac being alive and living in South America. Mike and I recently found each other via Facebook and then talked on the phone trying to speed up and fill in the years of our lives. Time flies. He was the one who taught me to appreciate sound and actually gave me my first audio receiver, tape deck and turntable. Mike had been updating his equipment so gave me the old stuff. Mike taught me about building an audio system piece by piece. He said that was better than buying a pre-packaged component set from one manufacturer. For crisp quality sound you should buy your turntable from the best turntable-maker, your receiver from the best receiver maker, and so on. It was the 80s and I messed around with DJaying skating parties, talent shows and camp carnivals.

Mike Hall was a music lover, always buying the latest albums as soon as they were released and inviting me to come over and listen. He may have been the first person to let me hear a CD when CDs began taking the place of vinyl. But before that we experienced the early days of rap. The Sugar Hill Gang released Rapper’s Delight in 1979 and it became a commercial success helping to spawn a new cultural phenomena called hip-hop.

Mike’s comment about Tupac took me back to South Africa some yrs. earlier. I was there as a guest teacher in a jr. college when a nearby South African jr. high school asked me to come give a talk in chapel. I went, said a few motivational things, “God bless you,” “be all you can be,” etc. amen. After my prayer a student raised his hand and asked “Is Tupac still alive?” I smiled, “no, I don’t think so.” It was odd since my talk had nothing to do with rap, hip-hop, Tupac, or even music. His question came from nowhere.

Over the years I’ve pondered the fascination with Tupac Shakur and the desire for him to still walk among us. The rapper-prophet had indeed touched the nerve of a generation of marginalized and hurting youth. He knew their pain and put words to it. There was something different about this rapper. His lyrics were deeply spiritual, filled with passion, outrage and audacity. They were also filled with yearnings for God. Tupac was flawed. He was scrappy.  And he was obsessed with God and justice.

Michael Eric Dyson* writes about a memorial service for Tupac held in Washington, DC where Rev. Willie Wilson eulogized the slain rapper for the mourning youth in his community. Wilson said “hip-hop artists in many instances are the preachers of their generation, preaching a message which, too often, those who have been given the charge to preach prophetic words to the people have not given. The Tupac’s of the world have responded and in many instances reflected… that scripture that comes to mind: ‘if you don’t speak out, then the rocks will cry out.’”  Tupac was their preacher, preaching a message that was relevant to their everyday realities. Perhaps that’s a glimpse into why many refuse to believe the rapper is gone; insisting he still walks among us.

Students in my hip-hop class often roll their eyes and sigh loudly when I use the word “prophet” to describe the slain rapper. Perhaps they wonder how this black urban thug could possibly be a mouthpiece for God. His life and faith didn’t remotely resemble theirs. And perhaps that’s the point. “Tupac” is still alive… and he’s living in Cuba, the favela, shantytown and ghetto.   *(M.E.Dyson wrote Holler if you hear me: searching for Tupac Shakur, Basic Civitas books, 2001)

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About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care