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This Thugs Life

It's a brisk Wednesday morning in November-the day before Thanksgiving-and courtroom 120 at 100 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan is filled to capacity with mostly black and Latino men. There is a uniform sense of disillusionment among them: Some slump on the long benches while others reflexively spin their bodies around every so often to see who is coming into court. There would be little excitement on this day were it not for the presence of the media and a celebrity defendant. "That's Tupac!" a gap-toothed black girl whispers with glee to no one in particular. Two broad-chested white boys with thick Queens accents join in the chorus of saying his name as if they, too, had made a great discovery.

Tupac Shakur notices none of this and glances from time to time at today's presiding judge. Charged with sodomy and sexual abuse, Tupac has been at the center of a heavy media barrage for the past week, made more intense by the arrests of two other hip hop icons, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Flavor Flav. The New York City papers have reported that on November 18, Tupac allegedly forced himself on a black 20-year-old woman he had met days before at a local club. The woman claims that she went to visit Tupac at the Parker Meridian, a posh Manhattan hotel, and that they embraced in his bedroom. When, moments later, three of Tupac's friends came in, she tried to leave. But, she charges, the four men held her there, pulled her hair, sexually abused her, and sodomized her numerous times. As the prosecutor put it, Tupac "liked her so much, he decided to share her as a reward for his boys." These charges come only a few weeks after Tupac was arrested in Atlanta for allegedly shooting two off-duty police officers and released on $55,000 bail.

In an effort to rebut the charges and beat back the negative publicity, Tupac's attorney, Michael Warren, has charged law-enforcement officials in New York with erasing sexually explicit telephone messages to Tupac left by the accuser. Warren claims that on November 14-the night Tupac and his accuser met-eyewitnesses saw the young woman engaging in oral sex with the rapper on the dancefloor of the club. Further, the prosecutor has admitted the woman testified to having had consensual sex with him that night. In a press conference scheduled for later this week, Warren plans to introduce Michelle Fuentes, an 18-year-old fan who visited him at his hotel without incident, in the hopes of portraying Tupac's relationships with women as amiable. The lawyer says his team has interviewed a number of young women who've had encounters-sexual or otherwise-with Tupac and that, "as time goes on, you'll see more young ladies step forward" as character witnesses.

But Tupac's taste for posing with guns and publicly dissin' black women (one young black woman has claimed Tupac berated her in the hotel lobby at last year's Black Radio Exclusive convention) make one wonder how he can survive any of this. That these charges coincide with his biggest hit ever, the Top 10 "Keep Ya Head Up"-which both praises women and criticizes men for disrespecting them-is emblematic of Tupac's contradictory nature.

With a cloud of controversy surrounding him and a movie in progress-he has been in New York City shooting the high school basketball drama Above the Rim, directed by Jeffrey Pollack-Tupac looks nothing like the happy-go-lucky 22-year-old I met at the black-music convention "Jack The Rapper" in Atlanta last August. Back then the surprisingly tall Tupac was fresh off his starring role in Poetic Justice opposite Janet Jackson, and his single "I Get Around" was jacking the rap charts. Unsure what to make of him as he stood in the hotel lobby absorbing the "oohs" and "ahhs" of female and male admirers alike, I introduced myself. The posing stopped-at least momentarily-and Tupac gave me a pound and exclaimed loudly, "Whassup, nigga?! You my man from that MTV show. I had your back, dog..."

Today, Tupac is just a shadow of that B-boy machismo. Surrounded by an entourage of black men of various hues and sizes, he steps before the judge with his codefendants, looking like a lost little boy. The charges are read, he is given a return date, and the reporters ready themselves outside the courthouse. On the night of his arrest, Tupac puffed up his chest and cold-smacked the media: "I'm young, black...I'm making money and they can't stop me. They can't find a way to make me dirty, and I'm clean." But as he and his entourage move out of the courtroom today, that defiance is tucked away, enveloped by the muscular arms of security guards who push him through the throng, into a waiting van that speeds off, leaving news teams on the curb, befuddled.

Before all this trouble, before the New York and Atlanta cases, no one was eager to tell the story of Tupac Shakur, save a few fanzines. As his career evolved and as his brushes with the law piled up, I kept mental notes, preparing for interviews that would eventually provide the basis for a piece not just about a rapper but about the young-black-male identity crisis in America today, about the troubling contradictions inherent in hip hop culture, 1994. Tupac seemed a fitting symbol, a lightning rod, in fact, for many of these issues.

But then the story changed. Yeah, he is an angry young black man. But why is he so angry? Where did he come from? What compels him to say and do the things that he does? Are the cases pending against Tupac Shakur merely coincidences, part of an elaborate "setup," as his lawyers would have us believe, or evidence of a deeper problem? Is he the symbolic young black man shackled by the system, or an individual young black man out of control?

Tupac seemed on the verge of a breakdown as I pursued this interview in November and December, calling his publicist, his manager, his record company, close friends, even his mother. The media had been unfair, they said, and he didn't want to talk anymore. He finally agreed to talk to me, perhaps because I had been working on the story long before these arrests, and perhaps because he saw it as his one good chance to tell his side of the story.

Tupac has always been the person who's made up the game-always," says Afeni Shakur, Tupac's 47-year-old mother, a week after his New York arraignment and a day after a hearing in Atlanta. A tiny, dark-complexioned woman with close-cropped hair and deeply etched dimples, Afeni lives in a modest apartment in Decatur, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, and speaks with an urgency that, she says, comes from her lifelong political activism. "He would have make-believe singing groups," she continues, "and he would be Prince, or Ralph in New Edition. He was always the lead."

But life wasn't quite that simple for Tupac Amaru Shakur. Named after an Inca chief, Tupac Amaru means "shining serpent," referring to wisdom and courage. Shakur is Arabic for "thankful to God." Although he was shaped by many of the problems of inner-city youths growing up in post-civil-rights America-poverty, fatherlessness, constant relocation-Tupac's story began even before he was born.

Afeni Shakur (born Alice Faye Williams in North Carolina), was "like everyone else in the early '60s and watched the civil rights movement on television." A member of the notorious Disciples gang as a teenager, Afeni points to two primary factors that channeled her frustrations in a political direction: The historic Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, parent-student strike (where her nephew was a student) in 1968, and the formation of the Black Panther Party in New York City.

Founded in 1966 in Oakland by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers quickly grew into a radical wing of the civil rights movement, with support in the hardcore ghettos as well as white patronage from the likes of Jane Fonda and Leonard Bernstein. Best known for their militant display of guns and insurgent tactics, which earned them FBI surveillance and raids, the Panthers were also a community-based organization that provided free breakfast for children and free health clinics in black neighborhoods across the nation. Growing Up, I could cook, clean, and sew, But I just didn't feel hard.

Afeni joined in September 1968. In April 1969 she and 20 other members of the New York Panthers were arrested and charged with numerous felonies, including conspiracy to bomb several public areas in New York City. The case dragged on for 25 months. While out on bail, Afeni courted two men-Legs, a straight-up gangster ("He sold drugs, he did whatever he needed to make money"), and Billy, a member of the Party. She had previously been married to Lumumba Shakur, one of her codefendants who remained incarcerated. When he found out she was pregnant, he divorced her.

When Afeni's bail was revoked in early 1971, she found herself at the Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village, pregnant with Tupac. While defending herself in the Panther 21 case, she says she had to fight to receive "one egg and one glass of milk per day" for herself and her unborn son. Tears fill her eyes at the memory. "I never thought he'd make it here alive."

In May 1971, Afeni and 13 of her colleagues were acquitted of all charges. A month later, on June 16, Tupac was born. Her hands shaking, Afeni leans forward, clasps her fingers around a cigarette, and inhales deeply. She touches her lips and thinks for a moment.

"I was scared they were gonna take my child when he was born," she says, her elbows pushing hard on her knees. "I was nuts and out of it. The doctor took the baby right to my sister, who was standing outside so that she could tell me later;" she begins to cry. "So that she could identify him later and tell me it was really my child."

My mother was hella real with me," Tupac says later the same day, as he takes a long, reflective drag on a cigarette, sitting on a sofa in his new home outside Atlanta. "She just told me, `I don't know who your daddy is.' It wasn't like she was a slut or nothin'. It was just some rough times."

Rough times meant Afeni juggling her political activities with the economic realities of raising two children. Tupac says his family moved between the Bronx and Harlem a lot, sometimes living in homeless shelters. "I remember crying all the time," he says. "My major thing growing up was I couldn't fit in. Because I was from everywhere, I didn't have no buddies that I grew up with.

"Every time I had to go to a new apartment, I had to reinvent myself. People think just because you born in the ghetto you gonna fit in. A little twist in your life and you don't fit in no matter what. If they push you out of the 'hood and the white people's world, that's criminal." He brushes smoke away with his hand. "Hell, I felt like my life could be destroyed at any moment..."

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