True Blood: Billy Garland, Tupac’s Father, Speaks [Feature From the Sept. 2011 Issue]
[Editor's Note: Today, June 16, 2019, would've been Tupac Shakur's 48th birthday. 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 23 years. We dug back in the archives to offer up a fan favorite story on 'Pac: An interview with his 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.
Did you feel like he understood you with all that, in the end?
I don’t know. I wish we would’ve had one of them…maybe got drunk together and just let it all hang out. It was always people freakin’ around. The first time we meet, there’s six people in the room. What can I ask him? And I felt so bad. And now I wanna be a part of him and his crew. I start my grown ass smoking the chronic. Never had chronic in my life. Chronic will fuck you up. I got fucked up. Now I’m stoned stupid, don’t know what to say. But I’m tryin’ to, you know—like the Indians. When you go with the Indians, everyone smoking the pipe and shit. “I’ll smoke. Give me that.” And there’s a fuckin’ kid over there with a fuckin’ big-ass bowl of fuckin’ pot. And they got this box of cigars, and they’re rolling blunts all fuckin’ night. And I’m bluntin’. “Yeah, I can hang. I’m a tough muthafucka.” But I was fucked up. Jasmine Guy’s apartment—that’s whose apartment it was. I almost passed out. I wake up. Jasmine and him on the couch. I’m the last fuckin’ one. I felt like an idiot. First time I see you, I’m in the fuckin’ place passed out! You know? I felt so stupid. I said, “Damn.”
What was that first sit-down like, when you went to visit him in jail? That was when you got to talk to him more, with fewer people around.
Oh, I was so excited. [Laughs] I got a speeding ticket driving from New Jersey to Dannemora prison, wanting to see him so much. And when I left that visit, I turned to him as I’m walking out the door, when they said visiting hours are over, and I said, “I love you.” He said, “I love you, too, Pops.” So that’s all I needed.
Were you ever concerned that, because so much time had gone by and you guys were reconnecting, he would think, Hey, I’m a celebrity. Now here my father is. He wants something from me.
No, I never thought that.
You weren’t worried that he might?
I didn’t think that ’til later. But I never thought about it then. I just wish I’d have wrote and communicated more with him. ’Cause I was doing some things then. Wasn’t in the greatest interest of being a father. You know, it was the ’80s and ’90s, and I did some things. The social drugs that were out there, I did some of those. They seemed to soothe the emotions over, if you know what I’m saying. You tend not to think so much about…
And then, by the time you get yourself together, he’s a man.
Exactly. Well, the only bad thing I feel? A month before he died, he called me. And for some reason, he woke me up. And I felt bad we didn’t talk more. So he did reach out. ’Cause I had been calling Death Row and found out they weren’t giving him the messages. So maybe he’s thinking, Well, my dad doesn’t care for me. So we had that disconnect. But then Afeni said to me, the night that he died—and I tend to wanna believe her—it was in September, and she said that that November he was planning on sending for all the siblings, and we were gonna have Thanksgiving together. And that just swelled my heart. ’Cause I don’t think she would’ve said that if it wasn’t true. So that made me feel good. You gotta remember, we had a kid who had nothing, who got a little. But not really a lot before he went to jail. Not really superstar status. Didn’t really see his money develop. Not to go to the bank and take out $50,000. Sent to a prison for something we know he had nothing to do with.
Were you a fan of the music?
Yes, I loved it. And that’s what’s so funny. This is a kid who writes about things that I love. Political things. You got other rappers—what do they write about? I call it “gas, cash and ass.” A new car, flashing money and pretty girls in the videos. That’s all it is. The lyrics, the beats are wack. But they make gazillions of dollars rapping about that. He tells a story. A profound one.
And he came from an authentic background. That was such a huge factor for his fans.
Yes, he did. Very political. They always say he came from a Panther. No, he came from two Black Panthers. You have to understand that. And that contributes a lot to that. So I didn’t mind it. I knew he was living his life. He wasn’t even out a year. Got out in [October], got killed in September. He was living his life, feeling good about himself, feeling like a star.
How angry do you think he was when he got out of jail?
He never showed it.
’Cause the public perception was that he was angry at Biggie and Bad Boy and the East Coast…
He’s raging, and in comes Suge to put the battery in his back, you know?
But you know what? It’s a funny thing. First time I saw him after 15 years, I went to the hospital, Biggie came and walked up to me and said, “Mr. Garland, I’m sorry for your inconvenience. If there’s anything I can do for you, feel free to call.”
That was after the first shooting?
The first shooting, the one that everybody thinks Biggie had something to do with. There’s no way in hell that a man who was involved in a shooting would do that. Not the way he did it. There was no fear; there was no hesitation. You could see he was just as concerned about ’Pac as anybody.
How did you find out he was shot the second time?
I think somebody called. I can’t remember. I jumped on the next plane out there. And I went in the room, and he was comatose—induced coma. Staples here, little swollen here. And they said that, if you talk to him, he might be able to hear. So I would just stay in the room for hours and just kinda talk. But, uh, it was never no response. He never responded. And that lasted for six days. And the one time I leave the room, I go back to the hotel, get in the car to go to the hotel, and I gotta hear it on the news: Tupac Shakur died. I made a U-turn. I think I hooked up with Afeni down at the Golden Nugget [Hotel and Casino], and we talked a little bit. And then I left town that night. I didn’t even wanna stay in Vegas. I haven’t been back since. Fifteen years.
At first, did you think he’d survive?
Yes. I knew he was strong. I just thought he would. He’d been through a lot of shit. I knew he would. I was shocked.
When was the last time you spoke?
The time he called me on the phone. After I tried to reach him.
And you had the quick conversation?
Yes. And it haunts me to this day. It really does. I had so much to say. You know, don’t you wish you could take that back? If you thought you’re not gonna see somebody or talk to them again, for the rest of your life? To know that you didn’t basically offer anything of substance, just, “What’s up? How you doin’?” You know, “Yeah, Pops, yeah. I’m busy doing this, doing that.” You know, “Okay.” I had been up all night, I ain’t gonna lie, doing shit. I was still out of it. I gotta live with that. Certain shit you gotta live with. It hurts, but you gotta just live with it.
After he passed, there was a lot of talk that he was still alive.
Nah. Ridiculous. Ridiculous. I saw the wounds.
Did that hurt?
Nah. People kinda… I like people, but they’re kinda…silly, I guess. Lack of a better word.
Yeah, okay. I didn’t really wanna say that, you know? I don’t wanna call people who like Tupac nutty.
But it’s interesting how Tupac fans are die-hard. They can be a little crazy.
Today. People stop me and ask me for an autograph. I feel stupid. But I feel honored. ’Cause I know they don’t want me; they want him. And they want something related to him. So I do. I sign that picture. I sign this. Makes me feel good. Then I go about my way, and I realize, you know, he’s gone. Only benefit I got is listening to… I got a couple of his unreleased music, and I listen to it, and it feels like he’s talking to me from the dead. I can hear his voice, and he’s saying something, and I think, I have that, you know? I don’t think many parents who’ve lost a kid can say they can hear their kid again. And I do. See what I’m saying? On a consistent basis. And here’s the kicker: If he wasn’t my son, I’d still fuckin’ like him. He’s the best fuckin’ rapper out there, ’cause nobody can rap! And the beats! You understand? The way he lays it down! I got that. That’s all I got. On my phone and at home, I listen.