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Thug Messiah: The myth and legend of Tupac Shakur


Andy Warhol’s prediction that everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame is proven true. The explosion of the internet and social media has produced scores of celebrated nobodies, people who’ve achieved notoriety for the simple fact that they are well known.

As with everything, celebrity has its own hierarchy, but true celebrity arguably has staying power. For the droves of “celebutantes” (a portmanteau of the words “celebrity” and “débutante”) like Paris Hilton or Nicole Ritchie (who are “famous for being famous”), there are the select few whose renown transcends time and the longevity of tabloid and scandal sheets. Those whose eminence (or infamy) extends past even the physical plane include Elvis (Presley), Prince, (Princess) Diana, Che (Guevara), Bob Marley, and Michael Jackson.

Presently, as we wind down the summer season, we approach the 20th anniversary of the passing of another such notable: Tupac Shakur.

With Shakur, the two decades since his death/execution have only expanded his aura and legacy. The circumstances of his dive-by shooting on Las Vegas’ Flamingo Road, circa Sept. 7, 1996, and his death six days later (after he was expected to pull through) remain unsolved, and ensure his inclusion into the tradition of criminal folklore.

Like any good urban legend, the sequence of events— and especially the identity of the person(s) responsible for targeting the black BMW 750IL containing the rap superstar, and music mogul Marion “Suge” Knight—remain unknown.

A cultural icon, he continues to exercise economic “clout” as demonstrated by his image being appropriated by the sisters Kylie and Kendall Jenner on tee shirts as a means to expand their already swollen coffers (a lawsuit is pending).

As befitting any legend, there are scores of rumors and allegations ranging from the ludicrous to the vaguely plausible. One popular anecdote has Shakur faking his death and living in tranquility in Cuba (presumably in the company of his godmother Assata Shakur, a fugitive from American justice). Recent months have seen the release and lucrative box office performance of the Tupac biopic “All Eyez on Me,” nationwide. This in turn has spawned its own lineage of controversy, with Tupac intimate Jada Pinkett Smith expressing her issues with the film’s accuracy (a view shared by his mother, Aheni Shakur before her untimely death in May of 1996), and former Vibe magazine journalist Kevin Powell filing a lawsuit for copyright infringement, claiming much of its content was lifted from interviews he’d conducted with the slain rapper.

More accusations, contentions, innuendos, rebuttals, and so on will undoubtedly follow.

Shakur’s own financial estate seems to be in excellent shape, what with healthy record sales and his likeness plastered across every conceivable marketable object under the sun. For this particular individual, however, his influence extends far beyond the tangible realities of an accountant’s spreadsheet.

Nominally an entertainer, he has outgrown the shallow confines of that narrow classification, much like boxer Muhammad Ali shed the designation of being a mere athlete.

Aside from platitudes from contemporary musicians waxing eloquently about the sway he has on their careers and product output, Shakur’s body of work sparks the imaginations of folks far outside the realm of popular music, including theologians, spiritualists, political theorists, and Pan Africans eager to claim him for their own various agendas.

Beyond the bling

“And even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a Black queen, mama.”

—from 1996’s “Dear Mama,” by Tupac Shakur

One thing that distinguished Shakur from his peers was his willingness to address issues outside the glorification of a hedonistic lifestyle typical in the hip hop/rap community. The seeds for this were sown through his upbringing.

Born into a family of activists/radicals (his godfather being the legendary militant Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt), his mother Afeni (born as Alice Faye Williams) was one of the (Black) “Panther 21” accused of radical bombings in New York, and acquitted of these charges just before he was born (as Lesane Parish Crooks) in 1971.

Renamed Tupac Amaru Shakur (after a Peruvian revolutionary from the 18th century) his childhood in Harlem, N.Y., and Baltimore, Md., was characterized by his dual participation in activism and the arts (acting, ballet, and poetry). Far from a mere, impressionable youth,

Upon relocating to California’s Marin County, he diligently sold newspapers for and became the youngest chairman of the New African Panthers. At 17 years old, he was committed to carrying the family mantel of activism long before he achieved stardom. Afeni’s social obligation and drug addiction were memorably referenced in his 1996 album “Me Against the World” with the song “Dear Mama.”

Like his mother, Tupac Shakur struggled with the duality of his personality during the course of his life.

One theory put forward by author John L. Potash has Shakur being singled out by the authorities for this activism-and his insistence on addressing social issues affecting the Black community. A clinical social worker by training, Potash was not a fan of the fallen icon’s music as a youth. His work with substance abuse counseling, led him to the conviction that prominent cultural figures were being neutralized because they impeded the use of narcotics as a method of social control.

Through his books “The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders: U.S. Intelligence’s Murderous Targeting of Tupac, MLK, Malcolm, Panthers, Hendrix, Marley, Rappers and Linked Ethnic Leftists (2008),” and “Drugs as Weapons Against Us: The CIA’s Murderous Targeting of SDS, Panthers, Hendrix, Lennon, Cobain, Tupac, and Other Leftists (2015),” Potash explores the hypothesis that leftists—especially minority leftists were targeted by nefarious entities intent on maintaining the status quo. In subsequent interviews, Potash has claimed that “hip-hop task forces” operated in Los Angeles and New York City” much like COINTELPRO units infiltrated, and disrupted American political organizations in a prior generation.

Potash suggests this might even be a factor behind the death of pop singer Kurt Cobain (whose use of heroin encouraged the embrace of that substance by Caucasian fans of the “grunge rock” movement), and possibly an issue in the demise of Beatle John Lennon.

He points out that during the 1992 gang truce between the Bloods and Crips, Shakur devised a system of ethics or regulations under the title, the “code of thug life” to instill a sense of community, reduce violence, and make the ‘hood a more humane place to live. This was entirely oppositional to the glorification of brutality that was a staple of rap lyrics up to that point.

During this time, Shakur was also making a concerted effort to curtail his alcohol and marijuana consumption.

Clues to a conspiracy

“If you have a need, the connections, and the right amount of money, you can get anything in (Las) Vegas.”

—Michael Douglas Carlin

The passage of time, and the transition of dozens of individuals who may or may not factor into this maze of conspiracies and fickle alliances led many to conclude that justice will be denied.

Michael Douglas Carlin is not one of them.

“I think it is solved, I really do,” he says.

A filmmaker, journalist, and writer, Carlin was an associate of Russell Poole, the lead detective in the murders of Shakur and his rival, fellow rapper Christopher Wallace, aka The Notorious B.I.G., aka Biggie Smalls, who was killed in a similar drive-by shooting in Los Angeles, six months after Shakur.

During his career Poole earned a sterling reputation as an investigator undertaking the Ennis Cosby murder, the Rampart scandal, the shooting death of L.A.P.D. officer Kevin Gaines, and scores of other high profile crimes (both Rampart and the Gaines death are believed to be tied to Shakur’s murder).

Poole’s relentless pursuit of the truth resulted in his being forced off the department just shy of his retirement. He came to the conclusion that the killing was part of a convoluted plot to wrench control of Death Row Records (the label Shakur in the last year of his life) away from Suge Knight, by others in the company hierarchy.

Carlin set up a meeting on Aug. 19, 2015 for Poole with Sheriff’s department officials Richard Biddle, Rod Kush, and four unnamed individuals at the Monterey Park Sheriff’s Department. During this summit, the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls would be discussed, possibly as a prelude for a book deal Poole had in the works.

Just before it transpired, an unknown peace officer insisted that Carlin be excluded from the assembly, admonishing Poole that it should be “…for cops only.” Conflicting stories from his family—and those at the meeting—have Russell Poole dying in a waiting area prior to going into—or in the conference room itself.

This in turn, clouded an already murky situation.

Loose ends remain loose

Coincidentally, involved parties to these proceedings have died by other than natural causes. Among them are:

Bobby Finch, reputed Southside Crip (and possible passenger in the white Cadillac believed to be the murder vehicle), gunned down in Las Vegas on Sept. 11, days after the Shakur execution.

Yaki Kadafi, a rapper and Shakur associate who claimed to have recognized the shooter(s) before he was shot to death in New Jersey two months later in 1996.

Orlando “Baby Lane” Anderson of the Southside Crips, (implicated as the Las Vegas hitman) died in a 1998 gang shootout.

Jerry Bonds, Southside Crip associate in a 2002 shooting.

Frank “Flex” Alexander, Shakur’s personal bodyguard in an alleged suicide by gunshot in 2013.

On June 28, two former law enforcement officers associated with the Shakur conspiracy were charged by the Memphis, Tenn. U.S. Attorney with multiple drug and money laundering offenses. Reginald Wright, Sr., a retired Sheriff’s lieutenant, and his son Reginald Wright, Jr., a former Compton policeman, then head of security and CEO of Death Row Records, are accused of setting up a pipeline to distribute cocaine, heroin, and other pharmaceuticals throughout the southern United States. Wright Jr. is rumored to be one of the attendees at the Sheriff’s office meeting where Poole died.

The week before this article appeared, Carlin traveled to Las Vegas and interviewed employees of the MGM Grand Hotel (the site of the beat down of Baby Lane Anderson by an entourage including Knight and Shakur hours before the drive-by), Club 662 (a Blood affiliated night spot owned by Suge Knight), and other sites connected to the intrigue.

Evidently scores of off duty Compton Policemen (who made up the bulk of the Death Row security detail) regularly moonlighted in Las Vegas for high profile events due to their perceived expertise in dealing with gang-affiliated crowds.

As the circumstances surrounding her son’s murder were also unresolved, Biggies Smalls’ mother, Voletta Wallace, filed a 2002 civil suit against the LAPD, alleging Officer David Mack (a principle in the Rampart scandal) was hired by Suge Knight to kill Smalls, perhaps as retaliation for the Shakur murder. The wrongful death suit was dropped in 2004, after witnesses changed testimony and contentions of coercion were leveled against involved attorneys.

Carlin points out that forces aside from those suspected of the crime(s) have a vested interest in not seeing these issues pursued.

Legal decisions finding them at fault could wind up costing the city hundreds of millions of dollars (or more) given the projection of potential royalties lost by the demise of Smalls/Wallace. The fact that LAPD officer Gaines (shot to death by fellow officer Frank Lygra) was working undercover in Las Vegas days before and after the Shakur killing means possible city liability for this murder as well (and in turn punitive damages in the hundreds of millions as well), leading to the conjecture that establishing a “level playing field” for legal proceedings is unlikely.

A lasting legacy

“But some things will never change

Try to show another way, but you stayin’ in the dope game

Now tell me, what’s a mother to do?

Bein’ real don’t appeal to the brother in you.”

—from Changes, 1998

All in all, the rapper remains a cash cow, the irony being that he is worth more dead than he ever was in life, like Elvis, Michael (who clocked $275 million last year), and others. Forbes Magazine claims that seven of his 11 platinum albums were released posthumously, while most of his revenue comes from paraphernalia bearing his likeness.

Unlike his peers however, Tupac Shakur’s true bequest may extend beyond his monetary proceeds. Tupac’s 1998 tome “Changes” was selected for Pope Benedict XVI’s Vatican Playlist in 2009, along with works by Mozart and other heavyweights. The criteria for this exalted chart catalog is predicated on the selected artists’ intention “…to reach the heart of good minded people.”

This is an accolade Shakur likely couldn’t have predicted during his lifetime.