By Ralph E. Moore Jr.
The Poet-Prophets Before Tupac Shakur
In the beginning was the spoken word. It came forth from a group known as the Last Poets, and they blended and recorded 60s music and poetry from the movement, and it was good. Very good. Then along came a poet-jazz musician (magician) who informed us “the revolution will not be televised,” and also, he sang truths to power (Say, what’s the word? Johannesburg!) during the anti-apartheid protests. And that too was good and his name was Gil Scott Heron. He was educated in Baltimore at the Writing Seminars Program at Johns Hopkins University in the early 1970s.
Then came the birth of hip hop music. And Tupac Shakur stepped out from the crowd and spoke his words of wisdom, of freedom, of truth and life and love. He grew up in Baltimore, went to school here and captured the hearts of many in this town and eventually around the world.
Tupac’s Life in Baltimore
And so, Baltimore will honor him with Tupac Shakur Commemoration Week from September 11 to 17 on this 25th anniversary of his death (September 13, 1996) at 25 years of age.
He lived at 3955 Greenmount Avenue (Pen Lucy) with his mother, Afeni Shakur, and his younger sister, Sekyiwa. For two years, he attended Dunbar High School on the Eastside but transferred to the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he found Shakespeare, dramatic arts, and friendships. Young Shakur became a poet himself. He engaged in rap battles in the hallways and found his voice, which would become powerful and pointed but captivating as he drew the fruits of his labor, his loyal following. He befriended the likes of Jada Pinkett (Smith) and others who remain devoted to his memory to this day. In 2006, Ms. Smith donated $1,000,000 to the Baltimore School for the Arts and named the theatre to honor her very dear friend.
Thoughts from a Schoolmate and Lifelong Devotee
Lisa Lee (full disclosure, this writer’s niece) once said to her mother (my sister), “You ought to know who Tupac is, mom, he’s slept on your couch.” Lee remembers them riding the number 8 bus to school in the mornings with him jumping on with his breakfast bowl in hand. She lived north of Tupac, but he would see that she got home on late school evenings when it was dark. “He was a kind and caring person. ‘Don’t look down. Keep your head up,’” he’d say. “We were in an English class together and he came to the house to work on a history project.” Lee said when Shakur would get tired, he’d crash on the couch in the living room out of the blue. “Losing him was like losing family.”
“As a member Generation X, I have an affinity to listening to hip hop music. Similar to many other hip hop pioneers such as Baltimore’s own AP Crew, Numarx, The Uno Girls and We Rock Krew, Tupac’s work often touched upon social issues that impacted the lives of many individuals from various walks of life,” said Dr. Tenyo Pearl, professor at Coppin State University. “As an educator, it’s uplifting to have an opportunity to work with emerging leaders who are currently using their transferrable skills and talents as a catalyst for change throughout the City of Baltimore and beyond. It is through the mission of the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation the efforts mental health conditions and the effects of trauma are being addressed by providing therapeutic resources, creative arts and education to empower the next generation of leaders, advocates and change agents.”
Tupac Shakur Commemoration Week in His Beloved Baltimore: What’s Going On?
And so, Baltimore will honor him with a week of various activities: Taharka Brothers will release an ice cream flavor in his name, a blackberry crumble: blackberries sprinkled on top of a vanilla cone, referring to a line from Shakur’s song “Keep Your Head Up.” “Some say the Blacker the berry the sweeter the juice.” According to Taharka Brothers co-founder, Sean Smeeton, the new flavor will be released as free samples on September 11 between 6 and 8 p.m. at R House, the food hall in the Remington neighborhood to lead off the Tupac Shakur Commemoration Week.
Other activities include: the dedication of the park behind Tupac’s former Baltimore home by Mayor Brandon Scott and Councilman Mark Conway, 2 p.m., September 14. As part of the park dedication, Erricka Bridgeford and fellow Baltimore Ceasefire leaders will hold a formal blessing ceremony of the home and the park. “It has always been my firm belief that Tupac was a prophet and a poet. He touched my life with his music and interviews. I am blessed and in awe to have any part in this dedication to him,” Bridgeford recently said.
The Reginald Lewis Museum will host a live broadcast of Dr. Kaye Whitehead’s radio show regularly featured on Morgan University’s WEAA (88.9 FM), 2-4 p.m., September 15. The program will include a discussion of Tupac’s lyrics with Dr. Jeff Menzise, professor of clinical psychology at Morgan. In her second hour, she will moderate a panel discussion inspired by Tupac’s famous hip hop song “Dear Mama” that will involve Black activist mothers and Black sons discussing the mother-son relationship. Cheryl Waters-Hassan (mother of author Ta-Nehisi Coates), Kimberly M. Armstrong, an area advocate against youth violence and Dr. David Fakunie, co-founder of Discover ME/Recover ME will be among the panelists. “Tupac’s relationship to his mother was complicated, but it is clear from the lyrics in “Dear Mama” that he loved her very much.”
Finally, the Baltimore School for the Arts will honor its most renowned student (Jada Pinkett Smith famously not far behind) with a creative and colorful experience engaging former students who knew Tupac and others. It is entitled, “A Celebration of Inspiration: Tupac Shakur, the BSA Years.” Rosalind Cauthen, interim executive director of the School for the Arts says, “This event by BSA students and staff will blend audio visual storytelling, live performances by alums and current students, along with pre-recorded interviews with BSA community members who were close to Tupak. This interdisciplinary experience will highlight the complexity, talent and multi-dimensionality of our universally beloved iconoclast. Baltimore Rapper Eze Jackson will perform and Wendel Patrick will be our special guest host.” Activities will take place on September 17; check the school’s website for further details.
Commentary: Now is the time for poets and prophets in Baltimore
A restaurant just opened in Baltimore in the spring that is named suggestively for poet Langston Hughes; it is called Busboys and Poets. It contains a special banquet room named for a man with a strong, prophetic voice, the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings. Johns Hopkins University created a scholarship last month for a preacher who organized and advocated unceasingly for social and economic justice; Bishop Douglas Miles.
Commemorating Baltimore’s Tupac on this 25th anniversary of his death, at an early age, is “altogether fitting and proper” to borrow a phrase from the Gettysburg Address. It remembered those who struggled there in war as Tupac “struggled” here in our city with growing up to learn, to speak, to create and to inspire. He became a leader here and still has a fervent following. Because of the Tupac, many of our youth seem to listen to rappers more than they pay attention to preachers.
He once wrote, “Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?” It sounds as if he knew the resilient sidewalks of Baltimore City well. Commemorating him will help our citizens keep their heads up and their imaginations flowing. And we can thank the likes of Tupac Shakur for that.
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