To be black in America, in the world for that matter, often requires us to imagine how different society would be if the best and brightest men among us had not been violently taken from the world so soon. The roll call of brilliant young black artists and leaders who were snatched away by violence before they ever turned 40 years old is painfully long.
- Malcolm X was 39.
- Dr. King was 39.
- Medgar Evers was 37.
- Patrice Lumumba was 35.
- Steve Biko was 30.
- Tupac was 25.
- Biggie was 24.
- Fred Hampton was 21.
Some people may feel like Tupac doesn’t belong on a list with Malcolm X or Steve Biko. I disagree. First off, as far as sheer potential goes, Tupac had as much potential as any American we’ve seen in our lifetime. Secondly, hip hop actually gave Tupac a bigger audience than almost any of these men. He was only beginning to scratch the surface of what he could actually do with it.
Because he looms so large in so many of our minds, it’s hard to believe that he was just 25 when he was shot and killed 20 years ago. He was just a teenager when he burst onto the scene with Digital Underground. For the next six years he was often at the center of the hip hop universe. That’s really all we had of Tupac — six years. In six volatile years, he received critical acclaim for leading roles in several films, was shot multiple times, spent hard time in prison and underwent several pendulum swings with his personality and style. His legacy would include selling an astounding 75 million albums.
Sometimes he was a complete mess of a man, but he was undeniably larger than life.
When he was murdered, Tupac was three years younger than Kendrick Lamar and six years younger than J. Cole are today. He was one year younger than newcomer R&B singer The Weeknd and two years younger than Chris Brown. We see those artists as young dudes, but Tupac was just a baby.
We have no earthly idea who Tupac would have or could have become. Jay Z is 46 years old. Pretty much everything we know about Jay Z came in the 20 years since Tupac was murdered. In those 20 years, Tupac could’ve matured into virtually anything he set his mind on.
As a son of Black Panthers, what would Tupac have thought about the Black Lives Matter Movement? Would he be speaking at the rallies? As a man who was beaten and harassed by police himself, what would Tupac be saying about injustice and police brutality?
Would he have made the shift into business like so many hip hop artists have done? Would he have tried to be the first mainstream hip hop artist to shift into politics and leadership? Would he have really soared as an actor or writer?
All of that was tragically taken from us and not a single soul has ever held responsible for it. All of us have paid the price not only for his loss, but for so many losses like it.