True Blood: Billy Garland, Tupac’s Father, Speaks [Feature From the Sept. 2011 Issue]
[Editor's Note: Thursday September 13 will mark the 16-year anniversary of Tupac Shakur's death. XXL wasn't around when the icon passed, but the publication and web site have documented 'Pac's life with countless stories in the past 15 years. This week, we'll be digging back in the archives to offer up fan favorite stories on 'Pac starting today (September 10). First up, 'Pac's father, Billy Garland. The story originally appeared in the September 2011 issue commemorating the 15th anniversary of Shakur's death. R.I.P. Tupac Shakur.]
“I thought my father was dead all my life. After I got shot, I looked up, there was this nigga that looked just like me. And he was my father; that’s when I found out. We still didn’t take no blood test, but the nigga looked just like me and the other nigga’s dead. So now I feel that I’m past the father stage. I do want to know him, and I do know him. We did talk and he did visit and help me when I was locked down, but I’m past that.”
—Tupac, to Vibe magazine’s Kevin Powell, June 1996
There were several important male figures in Tupac Shakur’s life. But it wasn’t until he was 23 that he met his biological father. A member of the Jersey City branch of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, Bill Garland met Afeni Shakur at a strategy officer’s meeting in New York City in 1969. The two had a short affair in 1970, which led to the birth of Tupac, on June 16, 1971—while Afeni was in jail for conspiracies to blow up New York department stores and subway police stations.
Living separately, but around the family for his son’s early childhood, Garland fell out of touch in the mid-’70s and stayed that way until ’Pac was recovering from being shot at New York’s Quad Studios in 1994. After ’Pac’s murder, two years later, Garland sued Afeni for half of the estate, citing, in the lawsuit, her false claim on the death certificate that her only son’s father was deceased. Garland lost the case, but a DNA test he took for the hearing confirmed his paternity.
Recently, approaching the 15th anniversary of his son’s death, Bill Garland, now 61, an employee of the Jersey City Incinerator Authority and a father of six, visited the XXL offices to talk about Tupac.—Vanessa Satten
It’s been 15 years since your son Tupac’s death. How do you feel when you look back?
Billy Garland: It still hurts. We’re talking about someone that is a part of you. Someone that you wish you had spent more time with as a father. Someone that you loved and… Fifteen years, it still feels like yesterday. To anybody out there, the last thing you ever, ever wanna do is lose your child. It’s the most painful thing in the world. Fortunately—I don’t know, fortunately or unfortunately—it’s a child that you see regularly. I walk down the street and see his picture on people’s T-shirts. I see magazines.
You hear him…
Every day on the radio. You know, I’m not the only parent who lost a celebrity son or daughter. But I’ve gotta be one of the few parents that have to see that and be reminded of that daily.
Does it amaze you? There are not too many celebrities who are that big, let alone rappers.
Yes, to a certain extent, because it was always my son. He was never “2Pac, the superstar.” You know, we played Monopoly together. And he tried to cheat. [Laughs] Yeah, in prison. Little, stupid stuff. You know, we ate sunflower seeds together. He had that ability to be down home, just as real as anyone else. He cared for people. That was his main thing. He really cared for people. I think that’s why he would get so upset when people tried to question his commitment, his love for Black women or Black men. The East Coast/West Coast, you know, that’s a fabrication. I don’t have to begin to tell you that. So when that was questioned, it bothered him. Because he would give his heart or soul. He was a giving person. He would give anything to people. He would go in a store. [If there was a] Black man who couldn’t afford a $1,500 pair of boots, he would buy ’em for him. Think that Black man would ever forget Tupac? That’s just the way he is. But I don’t think that he did it for that. He did it because he had it, and he didn’t. That’s the way he is.
Tupac passed at 25. A lot of people aren’t really developed into being a full adult at 25. Do you think that was the case with him?
He still had a lot of childish ways. When I’d visit him [at Clinton Correctional Facility] in Dannemora, I’d ask him about some of the instances—the immature things, the spitting at reporters. He’d say, “Pops, I know I was wrong.” He would say that. He wanted to calm down. He wanted to go watch movies, to stay at home more. He wanted to cool out more. You know, but you get caught up in it. You get caught up in being that which they think you should be. And then you start acting that way, unfortunately. But one on one, any given moment, he’s just a down-to-earth type of person to know.
What was your relationship like? I don’t think most people are familiar with the relationship you guys had. People are confused by it.
I know, I know. It used to bother me, but it doesn’t. ’Cause there’s one thing that he told me, and that’s that he loved me. I knew him up ’til he was five. I got married to another woman. This is when we got out the Panther Party—me and Afeni, that’s where we met. So we lost contact with one another. There’s no doubt in my mind that I could’ve been a better father. There’s no doubt. I have to bear the burden of that, because maybe there was something I could’ve said or have done, maybe, that might not have led to the path that his life has led to. So I have to bear the burden of that. The first time we came back together was the first time he got shot, in New York. It was out of a scene out of The Godfather. Go up to the room, and he sees me, and we talk, and I told him I was with him now, and he realized I was his father.
You hadn’t seen him since he was five years old?
No. Not seen or talked to, unfortunately. I’d seen him in Juice, which was the first time. That was in ’91. And, ironically, there was a woman who was his publicist—her name was Karen—I knew her from Jersey City. The idea was that I would communicate with her. But I later found out that there were some other interests that maybe didn’t want me to communicate with him. I’m not gonna mention any names. [Gestures to a picture of Afeni on the wall] So be that as it may, I’m sending out feelers, ’cause the last thing I want for him to think is that I want something. I might be the only one who’s never taken a dime from my son, if you understand what I’m saying. And I’m talking about people, family, friends who have looked at him as a commodity—I don’t wanna be derogatory—but who have used him. He’d be buying people cars, and they’d say, “Oh, it’s not a good enough car.” He would buy people houses and—he would tell me this; I wouldn’t lie on a dead man—they would say, “It’s not a big enough house.” And I was surprised to hear that.
So you weren’t in touch with him from when he was five until he was 21?
’Til Juice. I’m sitting here watching Juice, and I am crying. I saw the advertisement. I didn’t know which kid was mine until I saw him. And I know somebody in that movie theater had to look at me and say, “Why is that goddamn man crying in the fuckin’ front row of the theater?”
But it just shows up on the screen, and you see your son?
Have you seen Juice? Does he look like me?
Yeah. Exactly like you. And you hadn’t shared a word with him over the years?
That’s pretty crazy. You’re sitting in a movie theater, and all of a sudden, he’s up on a screen?
Yeah. So what do you do? Do you show up at his shoot? That’s what the lawyer was asking me in the trial. “Well, you know, he was in New York at a concert. Why don’t you just go?” I’m supposed to go to the back fuckin’ door, like some groupie, and say, “Hey, ’Pac, I’m your father”?
When you did go to see him, at the hospital, what did he say when he saw you for the first time? And saw how much you looked alike?
He knew. He was shocked. When he came down in the chair, when he was leaving the hospital—which he shouldn’t have, because he still had an infection—he looked at me and smiled and said, “Look at this, just like that.” I was the happiest man in the world when I went back to Jersey City. Oh, my fuckin’ heart was swollen. I made contact with my son, and he liked me. He smiled at me. Shit, that got me. I was like, “Yeah, fuck ’em.” So that was that. Shit happens, you know.
But then you find out that stuff was happening that, if I had had a little help… I was like… After the movie [I talked to Karen and asked], “When can I talk to him?” She said, “Well, maybe you should give him a little time.” This was what Afeni was telling Karen. And I didn’t know this. So now I have to get the stories from Karen. I have to go see her when she comes back to Jersey City and listen to her tell me about my son. And I wasn’t pissed at the time, because I was just happy to hear stuff. Like, he’s carrying around $3,000. What’s he need $3,000 for? I would be laughing. But why should I have to go through you to see my son? First time I saw him after the hospital, she came and got me. I had to go to her hotel room for her to take me to the cab. That’s the way Afeni wanted it. So obviously somebody was running block, and I didn’t know why. A lot of shit you just don’t know. You just don’t know. It hurts… From ’91, I gotta wait ’til [’94]? Whatever I was doing, I just kept on doing it. I’m like, “Fuck it, then.” He don’t wanna see me, I’m thinking. But now I find out that he didn’t know about me. So that’s what pissed me off. ’Cause [if it’s] “I don’t wanna see you,” well, I do want to see you. But I can understand. Even though I’ll be hurt, I’ll understand. I fucked up. I’ll pay that. But to find out he’s asking and you’re lying and not telling him, that fuckin’ hurts.
FOR MORE BILLY GARLAND, GO TO PAGE 2