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Afeni Shakur, Survivor [Story from XXL’s October 2003 Issue]

So your own son played the role of the teacher a lot?
The story that we tell all the time—my sister Glo and I—we got mad at each other and didn’t speak. So I’m out in California—Tupac frequently sent for the children, and we were allowed to bring them. That’s the reality of it. The cousins, the nephews, the nieces, we’d bring them and we’d get to tag along. So I’m out there on one of them missions and I’m cooking like Edith—‘cause whenever I’m out there I’m like Edith and Archie Bunker, you know. I fix the food, and Tupac don’t eat it, but he wanted me for me to fix it. So I’m doing that and ol’ boy looks at me and says, “Where’s your sister? When you talked to Glo?” and I, being my very fly self said, “I haven’t talked to her this week, ‘cause we not really talking right now. You know how Glo is sometimes.” Ol’ boy looks at me and says, “You what?” Got up from where he was sitting with me—not another word to me. Went and called my sister and told her that she had to be there in the morning. He called and made flight reservations for her, and the next morning he sat me and her down at the kitchen table in his home and looked at us like he was our daddy. It didn’t feel good. We were not comfortable with it. I want you to know it was not a comfortable feeling. But he looked at her and said, “This is not right. Glo: see her [and pointed at me]? You’re nothing without her. Ma: see her [and pointed at Glo]? You’re nothing without her. Together, y’all are whole.”

That boy reduced me to nothing and that’s the truth. But what a wonderful thing as a parent. As an adult who put time into a young person, to have that young person turn around and teach you? Oh my God. There isn’t anything better than that.

There’s nothing better than your child teaching you?
That’s right! That’s success, ain’t it? That’s exactly what that is. That’s as good as it gets. See my great grandmama, when we were little girls, she taught me that my sister, Gloria Jean, is the oldest and ain’t no part of me pretending I don’t know what that means. You understand? In reality its like Tupac stepped out of the circle and he went way down deep. That was dirty what he did. [Laughing.] He went into that bag—he would have no business even having that bag—but he went in there and got that bag out and put some great grandmama stuff in our face. Now what was we supposed to do? We know that woman had told us that a long time ago. No, we gotta wait until we have children, let them grow up and then tell us how it is.

Do you think Tupac’s fans see him the same way, as a teacher?
We got a letter from a young man in Poland. When American Troops were near there they had sex with his mom or somebody raped his mom. And he is a brown baby in Poland and Tupac is his salvation. The letter, he didn’t even speak English well, but through his broken English and everything, all you feel is his heart and how much he needs this music to keep him in his environment as a brown child in Poland. He said there was about three others and they stick together and help each other. Can you imagine? So I’ll tell you, I just find that the places were Tupac helps people—that’s more than any human can accept as, “Oh, that’s my son.” I don’t sit around saying stuff like that, “Oh yeah, that’s my son.” No. I acknowledge that that is the work of the all mighty spirit in that young person. God saw favor in him and used his spirit in ways that were extraordinary. It’s a gift, to our family, and to everyone that loved Tupac. God elevated that young man—who had been so vilified! So vilified in life! What God did is came after and said, “But in my sight, this is perfect.” And you can’t argue with that, you can’t make it untrue. It makes some people very uncomfortable. But me, I see it as Tupac returning to the spirit that he came from, and that spirit feeling like he did okay. That spirit saying, “Since you did OK, I think I’ma help you out a little bit. Why don’t you go help some other people now.”

Do you think that plays a role in why he died so young?
From the moment Tupac was conceived, the day that God said, “You can stay…” God gave him June 16th and he gave him September 13th. He gave him both those days. He gave him 25 perfect years. He allowed him 25 years to do more than any normal person. Most people, now as I speak, the people who will read this article, if some of them are 25—I’m not even gonna talk about 30—but if they are 25, I ask them to consider the magnitude of what that young person did in that time. But to not judge their own life and their own accomplishment by it, because God meant all along to only give Tupac 25. So for that short 25, he gave him an extra gift. That’s how I look at it. And I think Tupac in his microbes felt pretty close that that’s what he had. I think he would’ve loved to live longer. Anybody would.

But he really felt that he wouldn’t?
Tupac prepared for it… He didn’t feel that he didn’t deserve to live. He felt that he deserved to live longer. But he knew where the train he was on was going. He was a very good reader of events, of people and of his surroundings. And what we all know about Tupac—one of the reasons that so many people maintain such real faith and love for him—one thing we know, is that no knee was ever gonna bend. He was not gonna bend a knee and he was not gonna take back a word unless he absolutely had a rebirth or something that changed that. Do you understand? So I think that he understood who he was in the context of where his life was and what he was doing in order to try and bring himself and his people out of the degradation that they’ve lived in for so long. Tupac had his eyes open, he had the information, and he walked straight into it. He didn’t flinch. One thing my son was not, was a victim.

He knew the Mumias and the political prisoners. He knew what he was talking about, he just didn’t spew it…
And he knew who he was. And that he, as a man, was a human being given art work he couldn’t not accept. And I think he had a right to that. I think there is beauty and joy in having a principal and living for it. I’m not saying you should die for your principal, because the challenge to all of us is to live. But I think Tupac was from [The Harlem Renaissance writer] Claude McKay school: “If I must die, let me not die backed up in a corner like a dog.” That was him. “Let me die standing on my feet like a man.” And that was every piece of blood that flowed in his 165 pounds. That’s who he was and I respect him for that. And I thank God to have known him. Because when I see young brothers and sisters with not exactly enough courage—not to criticize or have bad things to say—but we need to cultivate, within ourselves, personal courage. And when I see so many young people without it, I’m glad I got to meet one with it. And I think that also has to do with why people love Tupac so much. Because we are all trying to get to a place of moral purity or ethics, do you understand? A higher ground, morally and ethically within ourselves—and it’s hard! It’s hard to find direction, to know direction, to stay on the path, to know the path, to take direction, you know? I am grateful whenever, however I see that in anyone, it’s a good thing. But I got real lucky, I got to see it in my son, and I’ma tell you that’s about as good as it gets.

When you say that people tried to vilify him, do you think that’s because he put himself out there so much and so far?
I think it came with the territory. Trust me, you can’t change anything without causing some degree of disruption. It’s impossible, that is exactly what change is. Some people are uncomfortable with the disruption that change causes, but the disruption is necessary if anything is going to change. I need to stop smoking cigarettes, which I haven’t. In order for me to stop smoking cigarettes I absolutely must have seven days of withdrawal. That’s just the way life is. We have to be willing to pay the price. You have to be willing to pay the price for what’s right—and for what we do wrong. That’s one of the things that I love about my son. My son was always willing to take his weight.

So he would except his punishment? He accepted the sentences judges gave him?
That boy knew he done did something. Whether he disagreed with the law or not, the law says what is says. So yeah, the judge did the best he could do with it. His beef going right back to, “I thought we was gonna have a fair fight.” That’s a little silly thing. I know it’s silly, but that’s my baby. That was where he was coming from with it. But the punishment, you know when you do something… Tupac was taught—and it was banged into his head—and I say it here for you, for everybody: If you shit in the middle of the street, you should stand next to that shit and say, “This is mine.” If you are unwilling to do that, then you should not shit in the middle of the street. And that’s the bottom line. I think that’s how we should feel when we get caught doing something that is illegal. Do you understand? It’s OK to fight—get your lawyer, that’s right. Let your lawyer go on and do what the lawyers do, but truly truly truly truly don’t fool yourself. Because every time you allow yourself to get away with something wrong, every time you do that, you’re changing your character. Now that’s something you don’t wanna do.

That affects your soul.
And all you got is your soul. That’s the bottom line. It goes back to having some personal courage, really. The worst thing that can happen to you is if you don’t take responsibility for what you did wrong. I could tell you that. That’s why I’m not gonna go further into this interview without saying this: I’m a recovering addict. I smoked crack-cocaine and I did bad things. That’s an important thing for me to acknowledge, because every time someone looks at me or looks at what I’m doing and says, “Oh, what a wonderful thing that lady is doing.” What I need for them to remember is that I came from somewhere. And some of those where’s where I came from were not bright lights. Some of them were the pit of the garbage can, underneath the corroded bottom of the garbage can, where only the maggots live. It was there that I resided until, by the grace of God, I was plucked up with a pair of tweezers [laughs], very gingerly removed from the garbage disposal. So I try to live my life, first in gratitude that God cared enough about me pluck me from the garbage can, and then to try to be a better person everyday. To do the very best that I can do, and that’s since May 12th 1991. But before then, you got that me too. It’s me with a lot of larceny, a lot of manipulation, you got me with a lot of things. Where I am today, thank God, is a better place. And the best thing is that my son had five years of this me, so that’s a very good thing.

Once you brought yourself out of that spot did it take a lot to emerge yourself back into your son’s life?
It was a long time. What he did, when I went into recovery, he didn’t automatically think that I was so special. Matter of fact even after I reached a year, he wrote me a nice nine page letter, hand-written, explaining to me that there ain’t nothing automatic about that. “You need to show. I don’t know if you’re gonna do that again.” He was right what he said in the letter. “Nah man, I ain’t that impressed with that, that’s all cool…” but I’ll tell you, what he did at the same time—and it’s good to have the Ying and the Yang, the balance of both—is, when I was there, I think maybe after nine months, Tupac sent me a check for five thousand dollars. He had not been giving me any money, ‘cause he knew I was using. So that was huge. He sent me five thousand dollars. And I kept the receipt for every dime [I spent], because that was the first time that I could have a receipt for every dime in a long time. He was right. His letter kept me humble, ‘cause I’m arrogant by nature. He got his arrogance from me. That’s why I had to go so far down. I wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t pay attention until I was totally broken. I was hardheaded and extremely arrogant. And now I can hear. Now maybe I can just do what’s right. But yeah, Tupac always supported me. I wish I could have every child or every young person or every grown person even, who has a family member using drugs use his model, because it works. And I had a wonderful sponsor.

Now you said that you believe that Tupac knew he wasn’t gonna live long. How do you deal with your son living like he’s ready to die?
It hurt. Pain. Pain. Pain. How I dealt with it was—thank God—I already had recovery. So what did I do? The serenity prayer, that’s all I can do. And another thing that I did, next to my bed, I keep The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: “Your children or not your children, they are the sons and daughters of Life longing for itself. They come through you but not from you.” That’s basically it.
They taught me in recovery that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

So it’s about acceptance
Right. Not to say that I wasn’t in pain looking at my son, knowing where my son is going.
But it’s about accepting it. Right, that’s exactly right. So my choice was to accept it, and go Kahlil Gibran and to go to the serenity prayer. And to say that even so, you just go into the universe, the flow of the universe with it and that’s how it helps. Because otherwise I think you end up on them pills.

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