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 Five months into term, her bail was revoked and she returned to prison, where, acting as her own attorney, she beat the state’s case against her.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.
XXL: Tupac’s celebrity seems to grow with each passing year. What do you think of that?
It is quite extraordinary. But Tupac really was extraordinary. I think it’s hard for us to live with the reality of having had someone in our mists who really was extraordinary and then having him leave. In this sense, I’m not trying to make the comparison that people have, but it’s like with Malcolm [X] and Martin [Luther King Jr.] When they were living—and please understand that I’m not trying to make a comparison of the human beings, just of the circumstances. Here’s what I mean: I think that when they were alive, the people around them didn’t look at them and say, “God, you’re great. Oh my God, you’re so smart. I cannot believe that you’re so brave. You are so courageous.” It did not happen. When people leave who have strong gifts that they give, that’s when we feel a hole and a vacuum. We start then to look at ourselves and those of us that are left, and say, “Maybe we can’t repeat that.” And I think that every time someone new gets acquainted with Tupac, what happens is they say, “My God! He was quite a smart fellow.”
Tupac has come through our family, and even we say, “My God! Look at what has become of our family member.” We always thought that he was special, but that’s not the same thing. I always knew he was special because from the moment he was conceived, God started blessing him. When I carried Tupac, when I was five months pregnant they put me back in jail, my bail was revoked. When my bail was revoked, I was not allowed to have my own food. I could only have what was there. So I went and I got a court order so I could have a boiled egg a day—first it was to be fried, then they said to have it boiled—and a glass of milk a day. Tupac, in order to come, he was in my stomach in the worst possible living conditions. Jesus! Why would he want to be here under these circumstances? And remember that while I’m carrying him, I am not only locked up, but I am responsible for my own defense. I’m facing three hundred and forty something years in jail and I am my own lawyer. That’s what I chose to do.
What does that mean? Nights sitting there studying the law?
I am working night after night. But where am I? I’m in jail. Lights go out at 10 so no, no, no, no working late into the night. Whatever you can do in the period of time given, you do it, like a banshee.
Was Tupac your first child?
He’s my first, my only hope. We were acquitted May 13th 1971, Tupac was born June 16th 1971. And while I was pregnant in jail, I lost weight. But Tupac gained weight. Tupac was always coming. He always was meant to be here, he always was deliberate about his coming. God meant for him to be here. It wasn’t a mistake. And even as a child he was a special child, because he was a sweet, precious person.
That might not be the first thing people think of ‘Pac, “Sweet and precious…”
This was a precious human being from day one. And I’m not the only one who could see it. Anyone could see that he was precious, that he was special, that he was gifted. But no one could see that he was what he became. Because we can only see with our own eyes. We only have the examples of what’s here. It was always clear how special Tupac was. Because understand who we are—the place where Tupac came from. Where he came from, really, we ain’t got nothing, we don’t know nothing, we ain’t trying to finish nothing. We ain’t did nothing, and here comes this one right here. In the middle of me using drugs what is he doing? Huh? As I am falling way down what is he doing? He is building himself up anyway. He put a wall between he and I. Because this is him: “If you wanna fall off, you go ahead, that’s on you. I’m not doing that. I’m going forward.”
Did you feel abandoned by him?
Abandoned nothing! I was using drugs. I had no right to feel nothing. I ain’t got no justifications for horse manure, you understand? What a wonderful person he was. How smart of him! And as I say to young people today whose parents are using: Trust me, that ain’t got nothing to do with you. Put up your wall. Do what you need to do. If your parents can figure their way out that paper bag, they will. Thank the blessed lord, I got out that paper bag. But it ain’t the child’s responsibility to lift you.
And I wasn’t the worst dope fiend in the world, but you don’t gotta be the worst dope fiend in the world, you don’t have to be the worst nothing. If you using drugs, and that comes before your kids, that’s enough right there. Even during that period, what was important for me was that Tupac continued to create. Creativity, we’ve always seen as a way for us to survive. We don’t like to admit this but, as African-Americans in this country—especially those of us who come from this country whose parents and grandparents and great great great grandparents were slaves in this country and now we’re still here, with five cents—Tupac taught us so much. Tupac would say to me and my sister, “Y’all stop thinking about that welfare. When you gonna get off of welfare?” In the mind, it’s all in the mind.
You were still controlled in the mind.
Still controlled in the mind. You got it, you understand. And about money—Like, he bought me a house. After that, instead of asking him for some money—“Oh no, I’m too independent!”—what I thought I needed to do was get a mortgage. So he finds out I am trying to get a mortgage, and the boy said, “Mama, why you trying to pawn the house?” You see what I mean? And that’s when I got it. I thought that the thing to do, with my welfare mind, was to get a mortgage. The house was fully paid for, but I’m like, “Oh. Why don’t I go into debt?”
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.
Did you think the first shooting, in New York in 1994 was going to kill him?
I didn’t know. I thought that the first shooting was going to be catastrophic, ‘cause the night after he was shot he was also convicted. So from the time he was shot, the courts were demanding that he surrender himself to prison doctors. My fear, and his, was that he did not want to be in jail in a physically vulnerable position. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to go to jail, but he didn’t want to be in a hospital bed in jail.
He wanted to heal first and then go, but they insisted that he submit himself to Bellevue hospital, Bellevue has a prison ward also. Ultimately that’s what happened but that was my biggest fear. My biggest problem around that was— he was wounded, he was injured, and even though he was able to stay out a little while like a week or so. A week and then from that he went Upstate, and then they took him to a maximum security prison when the time didn’t call for that. They gave him all that they could do to hurt him or to break him. They did everything they could to his physical body and they tried to break his spirit.
Are your excited about the release of the movie?
It’s the seventh year since Tupac has physically left and for seven years his family has listened to other people talk about him—try and explain him—have opinions about what he might’ve thought. And with this movie we felt all the time doing it, that it had to be in Tupac’s words. What’s surprising for us is how powerful his words are in America. I think that’s what hits everybody who sees the movie. He’s just sitting down talking to you, and explaining the things he knows you want to know about. So to the extent that that happened, we are basically elated, because we have always known that no one can speak for him or explain him better than him. We are really happy that Tupac has an opportunity to explain himself, and then we don’t have to do this anymore. We don’t have to say, “This is what Tupac thought or what he said in his life time.” The only answers are right there, and if there are more, we don’t have them.
What’s your relationship with Death Row like right now?
Whatever relationship we have is based upon the relationship that Tupac built business-wise that we are stuck with. Whatever we are here with, we’re here with. But Amaru is Amaru—built solely on the sweat, blood, and tears of Tupac Amaru Shakur and his family. And we stand on that. We answer to him and his vision, and to what we think, or believe, or heard, are his wishes. And that’s the only thing that guides us. We don’t function off what’s good for anyone else. It makes it easy for us. We only have to look to answer to Tupac—who we feel speaks in our ears, or yells at us when we’re not pushy enough. [Laughing] Everybody has had it when you’re kind of moseying along, feeling sorry for yourself mostly, and then that boy starts talking in your ear. And you’ll get back to work so he can shut up. Like, “OK, shut up! Alright already!”
What do you think about people always trying to create a new Tupac or rappers trying to take the Tupac throne?
It’s good for marketing is the best thing I could say because I think that Tupac is Tupac. And it’s not fair to any person, certainly not in the rap industry, to try to get them to be anything like Tupac. I have a lot of respect for 50 Cent, for his answer to stuff like that. He be like, “Man, I ain’t Tupac. What y’all doing? What y’all trying to do to me?” I feel him. I understand. That’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody who’s trying hard to make their own name. Tupac came into the industry with, I wanna say baggage but I don’t wanna say baggage. But he came into the industry wearing stuff already. You can’t invent that. You can’t make that happen. If he could’ve changed those things, he would have. They didn’t give him joy all the time. Not even most times, but that’s who he is. And that had more to do with the elevation of him, I think, then anything else. So I don’t want people to go through what Tupac went through to be successful at what they’re doing. I would love it if they could learn from him, though—actually look at what Tupac was trying to show them.
What did you think about the Los Angeles Times article that connected Biggie to Tupac’s Murder?
Let me tell you what’s puzzling about that for me. Chuck Phillips worked on that article a very long time. But the article he worked on was not the article that came out. The article that he was working on for two years was about Las Vegas’s police department refusal to listen to the Los Angeles police department’s information on that car and on who they believe committed those murders. That is what we believed he was doing an article on until two weeks before press passed when he called us and said cryptically that the article was going to name Tupac’s murderer and that’s all we knew until we read the article. I don’t know what happened ‘cause what he told me was that something happened in the process of his working that turned him on to that. I don’t know, and I don’t speak on it. I don’t speculate on it.
Do you have any ideas on who was involved?
Let me say this, it’s very important. You see I’m so basic. I think the person who killed Tupac, I think he’s dead. But beyond that, if I’m wrong and it’s somebody else, I still believe that that person has to carry that. What I know about the criminal justice system in America is that they cannot punish him like God is going to punish him. And I don’t mean when he’s dead. I mean in his everyday life and not just him. Imagine being the grandchild of the person that murdered Tupac. You have condemned your entire family forever. What can the criminal justice system do? Not to mention the fact that the criminal justice system is not very successful at doing criminal justice like that. Many people feel that police caught the person that killed the person and then they get 10 years and they home. I don’t wanna be bothered with none of that. I don’t wanna be off into it. I’ve never cared in that sense. Whoever that person was, I know that person got big problems.
Did you think he’d make it out of that second shooting after making it through the first?
Tupac was never conscious from the time I saw him. He was never conscious. I believed that he would make it through because the doctor said that even with one lung, Tupac was extremely healthy and strong, and it was entirely possible that he could recover if we could put him somewhere quiet for six months. We were prepared to do that, but Tupac’s organs started to shut down. Once they tried to take Tupac out of the coma, and Tupac started to fight, we believe that Tupac was not interested. Tupac died seven times and they revived him seven times, [and then] I asked the doctors to allow him to be. And that’s what we did. We let him be.
And what do you think of people believing he is still alive?
It used to bother me. In lots of ways, it still does bother me. Because on one hand it’s, you know, it’s irrational. And at some point you have to deal with rationality. However, I was speaking to some students at a college in the South. It was just packed. And I always ask, “Are there any questions?” and the question came up, and I said, “It is ridiculous, and why would I be…” And a young girl in the back held her hand up and I called on her and she said, “Ms. Shakur, I respect you and I appreciate what you just said, but if they have Elvis, why can’t we have Tupac?” And you know what, I had no answer for her. So in that sense, I get it. And I don’t have anything to say. But on the other hand, I just want people to know this: This is the thing to know: Know that yesterday, which was June 16th 2003, we put Tupac’s ashes in the ground. After seven years. As the person who did the service said, seven years is the number of completion. And we pray that people will allow him to be gone. He did everything he could do—and what he’s available for still. He’ll always whisper in your ear and encourage you. If you’re having a hard time, he’ll be there. He could still do that. But otherwise, I think we should let him be. He earned it. He earned it.