Shakur's story of anger and love

Tupac's mother credits arts school

March 11, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Reading the book is like eavesdropping on two close girlfriends.

As they talk over greens, yams and fried chicken, you inhale the aromas. You hear laughter and sobs; you feel the warmth and love. Throughout Evolution of a Revolutionary, Afeni Shakur shares her history with Jasmine Guy. The memoir, written by the former star of the '90s TV series A Different World, traces the spiritual and political journey of the mother of slain rap superstar Tupac Shakur.

On March 19, Afeni Shakur will discuss her book at the Baltimore School for the Arts, a significant stop on her national publicity tour. Before her son's rise to international hip-hop stardom in the '90s, he was, for three years, a stand-out student at the school.

Phoning from her home in North Carolina, Shakur says that the arts school introduced her son to what would become his passions - music and acting. "Going there to speak to the students and promote the book is my way to say, `Thank you for saving my child.' School was all he had then."

In Evolution, fans of the late rapper learn about his roots - the trials and triumphs of his mother's life that influenced Tupac's art and political outlook. In a series of conversations with Guy, Shakur vividly, sometimes elegiacally, recounts her years as a skinny poor girl in a turbulent Southern home and as a militant officer in the New York chapter of the Black Panthers. Published by Atria Books, the memoir comes four months after Tupac: Resurrection, an MTV-produced documentary about the celebrated artist who, at 25, was gunned down in Las Vegas on Sept. 13, 1996.

Since her son's death, Afeni Shakur has overseen the release of her son's work: the movie, a book of poetry and six gold and platinum albums. A year after the rapper-actor's death, she founded the Georgia-based Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, which provides art programs for young people.

"I felt like I had done my work for my son," Shakur says. "I had made sure that his story was out and that his story was told right. So after that, I felt I could tell my story."

Which begins in Lumberton, N.C., where she was born Alice Faye Williams in 1948. Her father, a delivery truck driver, was a part-time "street player" whose ways Shakur despised. Mean, embittered, arrogant, he was an abusive husband and distant father.

In the late '50s, her mother left and moved Shakur and her older sister Gloria "up north, up the road" to the Bronx. The awkward girl quickly got used to the rapid pace of New York City, absorbing its tough spirit. Young Alice Faye fought the "biggest boys" in school. Her tongue a razor, she lashed out at her mother, teachers and fellow students. For a short while, she studied acting at New York's famed Performing Arts High School. But she was unfocused, spending most of her days with her cronies, drinking and drugging. During this period, the mid- to late-'60s, however, Shakur also became attuned to politics as the civil rights movement sparked and blazed.

"Black people were taking a lot of abuse," she says in the book. "So, you would dream of yourself as somebody who could and would take care of some of the grievances."

In 1968, a Yoruba priestess gave Alice a new name: Afeni means "dear one" and "lover of people." (Shakur, Arabic for "thankful to god," came a year or two later when she married her first husband, Lumumba Shakur, who is not Tupac's biological father). Shakur joined the Panthers that year, quickly becoming one of the its most visible leaders. She organized breakfast programs for children and led protests. The next year, she and 20 other Panther members were arrested for conspiring to blow up several government buildings. She spent 11 months in jail and then, while free on bail, became pregnant with Tupac. When her bail was revoked, Shakur, five months pregnant, went back to jail.

She read law books while incarcerated, represented herself during the trial and won. Her acquittal came one month and three days before she gave birth to Tupac in East Harlem on June 16, 1971.

"Doing this book was a source of strength," Shakur says. "It wasn't painful, going back through some of that. It's a miracle to be able to live through it and see your life like that."

In 1985, Shakur, who by now had two children and was single, moved her family to Baltimore, where she found solace in a crack pipe. Three years later, Shakur headed to Marin City, Calif., where her son's career took shape in the early 1990s - around the time Shakur kicked her drug habit.

"I'm amazed at how people supported my baby," Shakur says. "When he was in that hospital in Las Vegas, there were so many people of different colors and religions praying for him. That human kindness was so powerful it amazed and changed me."

The anger she carried for years no longer guides her. "I can't say that it's gone," she says. "It sits in the back of the room now ... I spent 43 years of my life in anger and I know what it can do ... Now I pray a lot. I do whatever I need to do to keep me out of that anger, out of that place where I can't grow and be better."

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