#2Pac20: Kevin Powell Reflects On 'Pac's Death, Influence + Revolution
On the day that the world would learn that the man born Lesane Parish Crook was no longer an inhabitant on this earth, I was up watching MTV News. I hadn’t even hit high school, yet, but Tupac Shakur was easily the most identifiable rapper in my world. Rebellious, charismatic, anti-authoritarian, all about black-and-brown people — ‘Pac spoke truth to power in front of and away from the mic. He had it all in my humble opinion. Whether he was the menacing force in Juice or the kindhearted soul in Poetic Justice — the world was increasingly becoming this man’s oyster despite experiencing pitfalls with the police, judges and other ominous forces. Despite all of that, here I am watching MTV News as they are reporting on September 13, 1996, the death of Tupac Shakur. Their brief report goes over the timeline of events that led to his passing, and then shortly after, they return to playing music videos (which is what they did back in the day). The first choice that they play when they come back from commercial was Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” a surreal, foreshadowing video that scared-the-shit out of pre-high-school aged me because how did he know…?
Fast forward two decades after his death, and Tupac Shakur continues to live in the hearts, minds and microphones as hip-hop’s most enduring figure. A true thug angel, a man full of contradictions and mysteries — ‘Pac was more than just the angry rapper who aggressively waved the middle finger at reporter’s cameras. He was more than just the concerned black man who would speak up and speak out at conferences across the country, challenging the old guard as to how to raise up and change the dire circumstances for our young. He was, to quote the late Ossie Davis, “our living black manhood” and “our shining black prince,” who was of significant meaning to our people and to hip-hop culture. A black James Dean of sorts who had his fire snuffed out way too early in his prime — we continue to mythologize the legacy of Tupac to illuminate what we all are missing in the music and in the hip-hop culture: truth and passion.
To some he was and will forever only be a “gangsta’ rapper,” but as we and our subject, author Kevin Powell knows all too well — Tupac represented the duality within us all and expressed those conflicting emotions in a way meant to activate the minds against a racist America. For those who don’t know, Kevin Powell, a hip-hop historian and author of the new autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood — interviewed Tupac on multiple occasions, even penning a few cover stories for VIBE and Rolling Stone. On the 20th anniversary of his passing, Okayplayer managed to get the poet, actor and activist on the horn to talk about Tupac Shakur, his passing, his influence on the rap game and how his revolution sparked the brain that will change the world.
Okayplayer: With September 13, 2016 marking 20 years after Tupac’s passing — where were you at that moment in time and what did his death mean to you personally after covering him so extensively in your career?
Kevin Powell: I was there [in Las Vegas] on the day of his passing. The essay I just wrote recounted the whole three year journey with ‘Pac from 1993 when I met him at the Jack the Rapper music conference to the hospital visit in Vegas. I was out there for Rolling Stone, and I had let them know that I had done all these interviews with ‘Pac — and they knew. So, I said that I really wanted to go out there [to Vegas] and they sent me. I was actually around the hospital, but you got to remember that this was around the middle of all the craziness. There was the East Coast – West Coast stuff going on, so I had people who were close to ‘Pac calling me, telling me to not go to the hospital and that it might not be safe for me there. Others were telling me that people knew what I had looked like, that they knew who I was and I was just like wow!
So, what I did do was go to the corner of Koval and Flamingo where Tupac was in that car with Suge [Knight] where he got shot. I just wanted to see where he was at when it happened. Then, I went back to my hotel room, where I was for a couple of days. For some reason it was sticking out to me that of all places, ‘Pac got shot [in Vegas]. This place with slot machines everywhere. If you’ve ever been to Vegas there’s even slots in the airport once you arrive in town. There’s no clock [anywhere] in the room, so I don’t know what time it was. It might’ve been the day before he actually passed, but I spoke to Kidada Jones who is Quincy Jones’ daughter, who I obviously knew from VIBE.
She said to me, “‘Is Pac’s gonna make it?!” We had faith that he was going to pull through because he had survived the five shots in New York [at Quad Recording Studios]. By that time, ‘Pac had become this hip-hop superhero — he took five bullets and he’s bragging about it — added to his fighting those two off-duty cops in Atlanta and his legend just became this larger-than-life figure. I’m in my hotel on September the 13th and I’m watching Spike Lee’s Malcolm X movie. I had just flipped it on HBO and it was on the scene where Denzel [Washington], as Malcolm, was heading to the Audubon Ballroom to be assassinated. If you remember, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” song is playing, which is my favorite song in life, and I’m bugging out because it is eerie, y’know?! Literally, as he’s going through it, I get a phone call from my girl Allison Samuels who has been at Newsweek since the ‘90s, saying, “Kev, ‘Pac is dead. We got to go to the hospital.”
I was numb. He died?! I rolled up to the hospital and there were mad cars there. It was like this makeshift funeral that was happening and everyone was bumping ‘Pac’s music! There are certain songs that resonate with me, people know the famous ones like “Keep Ya Head Up” and “Dear Mama,” but “Life Goes On” is my joint! When he gets to that line where he says, “We’re the last ones left,” it still hits me till this day. I didn’t talk to anybody except for Allison and I was just out there observing. People were saying, “The king is gone!” and we stood outside the hospital lobby to find out what the cause of death was. I’m bugging out because dude was only 25 and how could his lungs be that bad? We were either in the hospital lobby or outside when Suge Knight shows up. Word on the street was that he got shot with ‘Pac too, but Kev, when he showed up there was no band-aid, no nothing [laughs]. It was deep because I was looking hard, too, but I’m not letting Suge recognize me because I don’t want a part of this. We didn’t know where the bullets were coming from, real talk, so when Suge moved the crowd moved, too. It was like just in case someone came to shoot at Suge, we wouldn’t be in the line of fire. It was that serious.
OKP: Without spoiling anything from your New Yorker essay that’s set to come out today, were there any unshared memories of Tupac that you could offer that haven’t been published anywhere?