Many music critics have said that a truly special artist comes around only once every generation. In our generation, we have been blessed to have had one phenomenal rap artist grace us with his music, personality, and profound social concern. It's difficult to believe that it has been almost 14 years since Tupac Shakur's murder. The music industry, die-hard music fans, and even those not privy to pop culture acknowledge that Shakur's death has left a void in today's shallow and money-driven music industry that nudges songwriters and singers to gloat only about expensive cars, jewelry, sexual escapes, and lavish penthouses on South Beach.
Yes, it's true, Tupac did rap about his Mercedes Benz, beautiful women, and Alizé, but he also spoke passionately against police brutality, poverty, and governmental corruption. Indeed, his first three albums -- 2pacalypse Now, Strictly 4 My [Homies], and Me Against the World -- are some of the most politically-charged rap albums to date. After all, Tupac was born to a Black Panther, and he was always critical of politicians and politics that were detrimental to the impoverished and socially marginalized.
The young Tupac also criticized the U.S. educational system for teaching youth -- particularly black and brown youth -- irrelevant lessons when they should be acquiring knowledge crucial to their survival and liberation. In his incisive book titled Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, African-American scholar Michael Eric Dyson argues that "it is clear that Tupac believes schools should address the pressing social issues of the day, and even more specifically, they should help youth confront the ills that directly affect them." Indeed, the young Tupac said:
There should be a class on drugs. There should be a class on sex education, a real sex education class, not just pictures and diagrams and illogical terms. There should be a class on scams. There should be a class on religious cults. There should be a class on police brutality. There should be a class on apartheid. There should be a class on racism in America. There should be a class on why people are hungry.
Perhaps no song exemplifies Tupac's social concern as does "Changes." (Even Vatican officials have approved of "Changes", placing it on their MySpace music playlist.) The lyrics display a raw intensity that many contemporary rappers seem to lack:
I see no changes
Wake up in the morning and and I ask myself
is life worth living should I blast myself?
... We gotta start makin' changes
learn to see me as a brother instead of 2 distant strangers ...
I see no changes all I see is racist faces
misplaced hare makes disgrace to races
Tupac's concerns (race, class, poverty, violence, etc.) resemble those of liberation theologians such as Jon Sobrino and Leonardo Boff. In effect, I consider Tupac a liberation theologian who, having experienced the pain of social marginalization, sought to liberate the suffering by challenging the structures of power and privilege. He relied on social analysis and on his understanding of God, Jesus, and spirituality to educate and empower black and Latino youth so that they could begin to break the chains of oppression.
Like liberation theologians, Tupac wonders in his song "So Many Tears" whether God can feel his and his community's pain and suffering: "God can you feel me? / Take me away from all the pressure and all the pain." And in "Blasphemy" he challenges religious authorities for abusing their power: "Why have these kids minds, thinkin' that they evil/ while the preacher bein' richer you say honor God's people." It's clear that Tupac perceived his faith and politics as two sides of the same coin. Indeed, according to those who knew the rapper, Tupac believed that an effective, all-inclusive revolution had to be spiritual and emotional at its core.
As the anniversary of his death approaches, Tupac's music and legacy live on. His raw (and often conflicting) personality and "liberation theology music" are sorely missed, especially with today's ever-widening gap between rich and poor. How much longer will we wait for another Tupac Shakur? For the sake of the oppressed, I hope not too long!
César J. Baldelomar a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, is the executive director of the Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site www.cesarb.com