Afeni Shakur, Survivor [Story from XXL’s October 2003 Issue]
*THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARS IN THE OCTOBER 2003 ISSUE OF XXL*
INTERVIEW VANESSA SATTEN (@VSattenXXL)
It’s been one day since Afeni Shakur celebrated what would have been her only son’s 32nd birthday. One day since she finally buried his ashes in a plot on her organic farm. Coming on seven years since Tupac’s untimely, yet eerily self-predicted death. For the past 2,500 or so days Afeni has sat back and watched as the world dissected the character, quality, talent and soul of her child through unauthorized documentaries, books, self-serving revisionism, and, of course, recent musical beefs that have explicitly conjured up his legacy. But if there is one person who truly knows who Tupac Shakur is, that would be his mama. From the very beginning, all they had was each other.
Born Alice Faye Williams in Lumberton, North Carolina 55 years ago, Afeni spent the latter part of her childhood in New York City. Swept up into the revolutionary politics of the time, she took a new name and joined the city’s chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968. On April 2, 1969, Afeni and several other BPP members were arrested and charged with conspiracy to blow up department stores, subways and police stations—a case that would become notoriously known as the Panther 21. A year-and-a-half later, out on bail and awaiting trial, Afeni got pregnant. Five months into term, her bail was revoked and she returned to prison, where, acting as her own attorney, she beat the state’s case against her. June 16th, 1971, one month and three days after Afeni’s release from prison, Tupac Amaru Shakur was released into the world.
Shuttling Tupac, and his younger sister, Sekyiwa, between New York, Baltimore and Northern California, Afeni struggled to make ends meet. She developed an addiction to drugs, and by her own account, she was less than fully present as her baby boy grew into a man, and a rapper, a movie actor, and, eventually, a hero to millions. He weathered his impoverished childhood, six arrests, three convictions, eight months in jail and five bullet wounds to produce one of the largest and most beloved catalogues of rap music in existence. At the time of his death in 1996, Tupac was the biggest star in the game, one of the most controversial figures in the public eye, and one of the most famous human beings in the world.
Afeni has spent the past seven years trying to build off the dreams her son once had. Thanks to a successful civil suit, much of the music Tupac recorded before his death has gone on to be released through a joint venture between Death Row Records and Amaru Entertainment. In 1997, Afeni created the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation to support education in the arts for young people, and she’s currently in the process of building a performing arts center in Stone Mountain, GA. Over the past four years, much of her time has gone into Tupac: Resurrection, a two-hour documentary, produced with MTV Films, which will be released to theaters this fall.
Today, Ms. Shakur sits on a couch in the cozy living room of her Lumberton home. Afeni, or Faye as she’s known around here, relaxes with friends and family (including older sister Gloria Jean) who attended the interment ceremony. With the marigold walls reflecting off mirrors, sunlight streaming through doors and windows and the smoke from her cigarette spiraling towards the ceiling, memories of yesterday are fresh. A bit weary, but warm and polite and eager to talk about the child she carried in a prison cell, Afeni reminisces.
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