Hip-Hop Historian Kevin Powell Reflects on Relationship With Tupac Shakur, 20 Years After His Death

Tupac Shakur in 1992
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Tupac Shakur at Shoreline Amphitheatre on Aug. 1, 1992 in Mountain View, Calif.

"I think 'Pac would have really evolved into the kind of leader that people thought he could’ve been had he not been shot down at 25," says the esteemed journalist.

Despite his passing 20 years ago, Tupac Shakur remains at the forefront of hip-hop culture. Two decades after the prolific rapper was gunned down in a yet-to-be-solved murder, the West Coast rep remains a beloved influence among the music industry’s biggest names from Justin Bieber to Kendrick Lamar. However, his impact as the revolutionary beyond rap goes even further.

On the 20th anniversary of the poet, actor and activist’s untimely passing, Billboard spoke with Kevin Powell, the hip-hop historian, former reality star and author of the new autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood Kevin Powell, who has interviewed Tupac on several occasions. Powell waxes poetic about who the lyricist would be today, the legacy he left behind and why he continues to be a vital voice across the globe.

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It’s been 20 years since Tupac’s passing. What’s the most powerful memory that sticks out to you?

Well, I was there in Las Vegas [when he died]. I flew out there on behalf of Rolling Stone to document his being shot for the second time. A few of us actually thought that he was going to make it. In fact, I remember having a conversation with Kidada Jones, who was dating ‘Pac at the time -- she’s one of Quincy Jones’ daughters -- and we had hope. I remember when he was shot the first time and miraculously survived so 'Pac had taken on this mythical feel about him. The feeling was that he was going to make it again. I was in my hotel room in Vegas, watching Denzel Washington playing Malcolm X in the Spike Lee movie and I got a call from my friend, [reporter] Allison Samuels. As Denzel Washington as Malcolm X was going into The Audubon Ballroom, she said, "Kev, we have to go to the hospital. Tupac just died." That blew my mind. It blew my mind to be at the hospital, seeing cars driving by, blasting Tupac’s music. It was almost like a funeral going on with his music everywhere. I’d never experienced nothing like that. For the first time in my life, it really hit me, the way my mother felt when Marvin Gaye was killed, how people felt when John Lennon of The Beatles died, when Bob Marley died, when Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison died. For this figure, from your own generation, [to die], it was deep. I have not been to Las Vegas since that day. I have not been back. I wrote about him and interviewed him many times and I followed his life through the years. I was a journalist and wasn’t trying to cross lines professionally but you develop a connection to someone when you spend that much time together and he trusted me with telling his story so it was traumatic.

Six months later, Biggie’s dead. There was a lot going on with the so-called East Coast/West Coast [beef]. It affected a lot of us and it still affects a lot of us. But it’s almost like he didn’t die because here we are, 20 years later, talking about him. He’s bigger than ever. He’s one of the most significant [artists], not just to American pop music or hip-hop stars, we’re talking globally. I’ve been to Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Asia, to places I never could imagine and I’d be having conversations the last 20 years about Tupac Shakur.

Why do you think Tupac has global appeal?

'Pac was completely honest. He was imperfect and had a lot of contradictions like a lot of us, but he never tried to hide who he was. What you saw was what you got and that was refreshing. When he was grappling with something, he said, "I’m grappling with something." If he had an opinion, he spoke freely and honestly. You don’t get a lot of people who talk like that. That attracted him to people. 'Pac was able to reach people who were intellectuals, who were scholars, artsy, Bohemian, but he also represented the hardcore heads from the community, the working class, the poor people -- the same poor African American, Latinos, and West Indians who created this culture so they related to him. But also, you see white and Asian sisters and brothers who connected with him because of that realness and vulnerability. That made him accessible to a lot of different types of people.

In your 1995 jailhouse interview with him, ‘Pac said he would change the world in the next 23 years. How do you think he’s done that?

I think there’s a lot of ways. To me, there’s no Kendrick Lamar. There’s no J. Cole. There’s no Lupe Fiasco. There’s no Chance the Rapper [without Tupac]. There’s a number of artists he’s influenced through the years with the work he’s left behind, what he’s created. He’s influenced and foreshadowed a lot of stuff that’s happened since then, like the Black Lives Matter movement. Look at the music he was making from his first album to his last album. He was talking about racism, racial profiling, police brutality. He was talking about the suffering of poor people. In "Keep Ya Head Up," he was pro-choice. In one of my interviews, he talked about how he and Snoop [Dogg] were selling six million records. He said, "Imagine if rappers turned those consumers into activists." That’s what the movement is now with all these young people who are millennials, born in the '90s as 'Pac was leaving this Earth. He’s affected a lot of different types of people. It doesn’t matter if you see him physically or not. He’s here spiritually and his music is here forever.

What do you think his impact would look like today if he was still alive?

'Pac was a dynamic actor and he would have gone on to become an award-winning actor. 'Pac was a prolific writer. You would have seen someone who really flexed his muscles, not just as in film and on TV, but in theater, where he got his start at the Baltimore School of Performing Arts. Tupac would have been a director and producer. He would have continued to mentor a lot of young artists. He’d still be making music but I think his music would have gone in a range of different directions, particularly because he was so political, because of who his mother was, Afeni Shakur and his step-father Matulu Shakur, who’s been in political prison for many years because of his activism.

I think 'Pac would have really evolved into the kind of leader that people thought he could’ve been had he not been shot down at 25. He would have still been very much involved in the community and doing work with the organization that he set up. 'Pac would have certainly influenced a whole range of different types of artists. When he died, when he was killed, it left a void. There were very few artists, as you know, who could speak to social issues, but also speak the poetry, the language of the people in urban America, in our inner cities, in our so-called ghettos, the way ‘Pac could. He was a poet who had the ability to go back and forth the way Malcolm X was able to go back and forth from street corners to universities, the way Cesar Chavez could speak to farm workers in California, but he also could speak to a Bobby Kennedy or a dignitary. ‘Pac was one of those types of people who could do that.

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People often focus on the jailhouse interview but what’s another unguarded moment that you shared with Tupac that remains important to you?

It was probably the first time we were traveling through Los Angeles together. By that point, I had been to L.A. a few times but I was with 'Pac and I was going to a school in the inner city of Los Angeles, what used to be called South Central. Black and Latino young people. 'Pac was as natural and in love with these children. I think that’s something that some people knew, some people saw but he really had a deep love for the community and especially children. Think about his own life. His mom was pregnant with him in a jail cell because of her own activism with the Black Panther party. They moved around a lot in New York City, where he was born and raised. They moved to Baltimore and then Marin County up in Northern California so I think him visiting these communities gave him a sense of what I think he wished he might have had when he was a child, looking for some hope, looking for someone to see some potential in him. It was in those kinds of moments where you realized how genuine he was about people and not just about himself. I think 'Pac, in some ways, saw the fame, celebrity and even the money, as a way for him to do more for people.  

What’s the biggest misconception about Tupac?

People think that ‘Pac was some sort of violent, maniac madman. No. Now, did 'Pac sometimes take on the persona of someone like that? Yeah. Was 'Pac angry like a lot of us were about our conditions in this country? Yeah. But when I hear people call themselves gangsters and thugs, that’s what ‘Pac called his movement -- thug life. But even that didn’t fully reveal the complexities of it because "thug life" stood for, according to Tupac, "The Hate U Gave Little Infants, F Everybody." He even put it in context. You’re not just born into it. As he says in one of his songs, "I was given this world. I didn’t make it." He was a complex human being like the rest of us, but unfortunately, when you’re a young person -- especially a young person of color, specifically a black or Latino person in this culture that we created called hip-hop -- people will instantly put all kinds of ridiculous stereotypes on you like you’re some sort of monster or a menace to society and that’s all you could possibly be. 'Pac was someone who loves Shakespeare and all kinds of literature. There’s no way he could have renamed himself Makaveli at the end of his life if he hadn’t actually read a book called The Prince by [Niccolò] Machiavelli, the Italian philosopher. Here’s someone who read a tremendous amount of books. He was very much a thinker and often times, people don’t credit 'Pac for being that type of person.

I’ve heard you say the [Notorious B.I.G.] and Tupac beef was overblown and that Biggie actually loved him through the beef. What experiences did you have with B.I.G. that helped shape that view?

Well, Biggie did love 'Pac. I knew Biggie as well as Tupac even though I interviewed Tupac more. I interviewed Biggie once and in one of our private moments, Biggie said to me, "I don’t understand what’s going on here." He said, "I don’t have any problems with Tupac." Later on, when I did one of [VIBE magazine's] biggest cover stories on ‘Pac and it was called "Live from Death Row” -- it was the cover where you see Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Tupac like The Goodfellas poster from back in the day -- even 'Pac admitted somewhat that he was trying to sell some records and sensationalism sells records. But it took on a life of its own and people started taking sides. Then, of course, when the shots were fired -- first towards 'Pac and then towards Biggie -- we didn’t know what was going on. It was a very terrifying time for a lot of people on the East Coast and the West Coast. Folks on the East Coast didn’t want to go to the West Coast and it just didn’t make any sense and to me. It was classic divide and conquer. It’s tragic. We still don’t know, really, what happened all these years later and that’s the tragedy of it all. But Biggie was actually a really cool, nice dude. He was not a gangster. He just took on that persona because he was selling records. That’s what was hot. They had dope beats and that’s what it was. He wasn’t trying to be all this other stuff that ended up taking his life.

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I know you’re working on a new book about Tupac’s life. What are you exploring with this book that you haven’t been able to touch on in the past?

It’s going to take me a couple of years. I just published my own autobiography in the last few years called The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. There’s actually a chapter in the book called “Vibe & Tupac Shakur” where I talk about my relationship with Tupac during those years. Now, I want to do 'Pac justice so even though he only lived 25 years, my plan is to really approach this like a real biographer. I’ve been reading the legendary biographers, people who have written about Abraham Lincoln or John Kennedy and folks like that, but I’m gonna put it in a hip-hop context. I’ve also been reading great music history books and music biographies about Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, and John Lennon. With 'Pac, I want to trace his life, follow his life and what I think is important. What I’ve learned in these years is that Tupac met a lot of people, man. I’ve been blessed as a speaker, writer and activist to travel all over and everywhere I go, someone has a Tupac story. They’ve handed me pictures they took with Tupac or letters 'Pac wrote from jail. It’s mind-blowing. I’ll meet folks who were engineers on this record or that record. What I want to do is bring all of this together and write what I plan on being, hopefully and humbly, a very definitive book about his life and impact while he was on this planet.

What should Tupac’s legacy be?

Tupac was one of the most important voices in the history of hip-hop and pop music in American and world history. Period. I can say that from personally witnessing his impact while he was alive and I can say that even moreso now that he’s gone because he’s touched multiple generations of people. I think that he left behind a body of work that influenced so many people. You can’t talk about Kendrick Lamar, probably the most important rapper in America today, without talking about Tupac Shakur. You can see the direct influence, obviously, on Kendrick and he pays homage to that when he samples Tupac’s voice. I just think that his legacy is that he’s here. The fact that we’re still talking about Tupac 20 years later speaks to that. He’s our Elvis, our Bob Marley, our Marvin Gaye. He’s that significant a figure. He’s on that level. That’s why he’s relevant and will continue to be relevant.

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