And if you do not know, now you know.
– Biggie Smalls
Today marks twenty years since Tupac Amaru Shakur died on September 13, 1996, as a result of gunshot wounds he suffered while his car was fired upon six days earlier in Las Vegas, and the world lost one of the most iconic rappers ever. Tupac, or 2Pac, was born Lesane Parish Crooks in 1971 in East Harlem, New York, far from the west coast he came to represent. The following year, he was rebaptized Tupac Amaru Shakur by his mother. His origins were both African-American and European-American, and possibly also Tuareg on his father’s side. Tuaregs are, for those who do not know, the Amazigh people (often incorrectly called Berber people, from the Greek word barbaros), whose own name means either “free people” or “noble men”. Most Tuaregs live in Niger and Mali, but the people are also spread across northern Africa, and are known to be the Sahara desert’s foremost residents.
Fast forward to 1983. Tupac is now twelve years old, and joins the Harlem’s 127th Street Repertory Ensemble, where he plays the character Travis Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play, A Raisin in the Sun. In 1986 the family moves to Baltimore. There Tupac begins formal studies in acting, poetry, jazz and ballet, and yes, he was dancing in tights. He appears in Shakespeare plays (and later references the play Julius Caesar in the song “If I Die 2Nite”) and plays the Mouse king in the ballet The Nutcracker. A lesser known part of his life. This is also where he becomes friends with actress Jada Pinkett (later Jada Pinkett Smith), a close friendship that will last right up until his death. There is also speculation about her to having been the great love of his life, something she has since denied.
Tupac first becomes a west coast resident when he turns seventeen and the Shakur family moves to California, and then not to L.A., but to Marin County, north of San Francisco. There, he continues his studies in theater and dance, and in 1989 begins poetry studies under Leila Steinberg. It is through her showcases that he eventually gets discovered and signed as a dancer and roadie for Digital Underground, a hip hop collective. In 1991 he produces the soundtrack for the film Nothing but Trouble (featuring Demi Moore, Chevy Chase, Dan Akroyd and John Candy), and later that same year releases his first album, 2Pacalypse Now, and the rest is history.
“I just wanted to rap about things that affected young black males. When I said that, I didn’t know that I was gonna tie myself down to just take all the blunts and hits for all the young black males, to be the media’s kicking post for young black males. I just figured since I lived that life I could do that, I could rap about that.”
What is not common knowledge, and yet one of the more obvious parts of 2Pac, is the significance of his names. The given names, Tupac Amaru, are both names in Quechua, or Runasimi (people’s mouth), that is the language which was previously the lingua Franca of the Inca Empire in South America, and which is today the largest living American language with about ten million speakers. The language is spoken primarily in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, but also in Argentina and Colombia.
The two names were first used by the last Inca to rise in rebellion against the Spanish colonial power, Tupac Amaru I (1545-1572). They were subsequently adopted by his alleged descendant, the leader of the largest indigenous rebellion ever in the history of the Americas, Tupac Amaru II (1737-1781), as well as by Tupac Katari (1750-1781), a revolutionary Aymara leader in Bolivia from the same period. Katari is the name of Amaru in the Aymara language. The names have since been adopted by revolutionary groups and political movements across South America, including Peru (Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement), Bolivia (Ejército Guerrillero Túpac Katari), Argentina (Organización Barrial Túpac Amaru), Uruguay (Movimiento de Liberación Nacional-Tupamaros) and Venezuela (Tupamaros Movimiento de Venezuela).
The name Tupac can mean royal, noble, grand, fiery, bright or shining, and is a name borne by several Incas, or Emperors if you will, for obvious reasons. Amaru, which means serpent in Quechua, is also the name of a deity worshiped before, during, and continuously since the time of the Inca Empire until the present day. Amaru is a winged serpent or dragon, whose head is that of a bird, puma, or a llama, which, for instance, can be found depicted at Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan ruin located in today’s Bolivia. The worship of Amaru, alongside that of Pachamama and Mallku, is one of the oldest ongoing religious practices in the region.
Taken together the names Túpac Amaru, can therefore mean The Royal Serpent, The Fiery Serpent, or The Shining Serpent – which immediately brings to mind Lucifer (הֵילֵל, hêlêl), The Shining One or The Light Bearer, The Morning Star, who is often depicted as a serpent or dragon. That Amaru is the god of wisdom (who can also travel from the land of the dead to the world of the living, somehow reminiscent of Makaveli’s, or Machiavelli’s, trick) further emphasizes the similarity with Lucifer, who from medieval to modern lore, in everything from witchcraft to William Blake (see illustration further down) or Dan Brown, regularly is made to stand as the symbol of forbidden knowledge, just as in the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The devil, Satan or Sheytan (names that translate as “adversary” or “enemy”), being depicted as a snake is according to some sources the result of Abrahamic monotheism competing against and supplanting earlier religions of the region (Middle East), where snake gods played a prominent role as powers or symbols of “fertility” (Amaru is similarly strongly linked to the irrigation of crops), “immortality”, which disappears when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit (and is yet again a connection to the name Makaveli), as well as the “life cycle”, which is also represented in the very famous Ouroboros symbol (originating during the same period as the biblical creation story’s primal elements) where the snake is eating its own tail (see illustration below).
Whether these meanings, symbolisms, coincidences or this history were the intention of his mother, Afeni Shakur, is best answered with her own words: “I wanted him to have the name of revolutionary, indigenous people of the world. I wanted him to know he was part of a world culture, and not just from a neighborhood…”.
And then the surname, Shakur. Shakur is Arabic meaning ‘deeply grateful’,a humble name. Shakur is also one of the 99 names the god of Abraham יהוה (YHWH, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jah, Adonai, the Lord, or just God/Allah) carries according to Muslim tradition. Which is called أسماء الله الحسنى, which is transcribed asmā’u- llāhi l-husna, and means ‘the beautiful names of God’. The reason why 2Pac bore the name is more direct than with the given names. It was quite simply the taken surname of his stepfather, Mutulu Shakur. Mutulu Shakur was just like Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur (who earlier this year passed away), a black activist and member of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Mutulu Shakur had taken the name Shakur after his inspiration, Aba Saladin Shakur, a close associate of Malcolm X. Where Aba Saladin Shakur took the name from I am not sure, but there was an Abd Allah II ibn ‘Ali’ Abd ash-Shakur, who died in 1930, and who was the last Emir of Harar, in Ethiopia. Perhaps it was from him, perhaps from someone else or for some other other reason. But what matters more than this:
Tupac, you truly were a rose that grew from concrete, but never one that lacked a history. Rest in peace.
– Alex Valencia Rodallec
Top portrait of Tupac by Gunzy1.