Tupac Shakur left us twenty years ago in September, but the rapper’s words continue to capture the pain of black America like no other. In these troubled times, the Black Lives Matter movement marches against police brutality wherever a viral video and lack of justice provokes outrage. Retaliatory killings by black gunmen slayed officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Shakur’s first posthumous single “I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto” off 1997’s R U Still Down? (Remember Me?) served as prophecy for this current moment.
Three black women—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi— founded Black Lives Matter when a jury acquitted George Zimmerman in 2013 for the Sanford, Florida killing of Travyon Martin, a teen walking home with a can of Arizona ice tea and a bag of Skittles. Twenty-five years ago, the L.A. Riots simmered beneath the surface when a Korean convenience store owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed LaTasha Harlins. The 15-year-old black teen wanted to buy a bottle of orange juice when the store owner accused her of shoplifting. A brief scuffle ensued before Harlins walked out the door. Du shot her in the back of the head.
A jury convicted Du of involuntary manslaughter with the judge handing down probation, 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine. The injustice ignited Shakur’s rhymes on “I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto,” where the rapper pondered the devaluing of black life, a question at the essence of Black Lives Matter. “Here on Earth, tell me what’s a black life worth?A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” Shakur said Harlins’ name many more times in his music, dedicating “Keep Your Head Up” to her memory and rhyming about her in “Hellrazor” and “White Man’z World.”
The filmed beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police and the following acquittal of officers sent the city over the edge. Riots engulfed LA for days in April 1992. “Ask Rodney, LaTasha and many more / It’s been going on for years, there’s plenty more / When they ask me “When will the violence cease?” / When your troops stop shooting niggas out on the streets,” Shakur continued on in the song. Ferguson and Baltimore erupted in smaller scale riots over the police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. The rapper’s response to the “peace police” remains timely as ever these days.
The Black Lives Matter movement is advancing in the backdrop of Barack Obama’s administration. Shakur had something to say about that before it happened, too. “And though it seems heaven-sent / We ain’t ready to have a black president,” he rhymed on the track. Obama’s election in 2008 completed the post-Civil War Reconstruction project of political integration, but just like that pivotal era, a white racist backlash responded to it whether in the form of the “Birther” movement or the political rise of Donald Trump. Far from ushering in post-racial harmony, Obama in the White House shows how far the US has come, but still has yet to go; or in the words of Pac, “we ain’t ready.”
“I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto” portrayed the frustrations of being black in America while building up to a final, ominous thought. With the beat fading out, Shakur repeats twice, “Just think if niggas decide to retaliate.” Micah Johnson carried out an ambush attack on police officers in Dallas during a Black Lives Matter protest earlier this month. A few weeks later, Gavin Long did the same in Baton Rouge, a city roiled in rage following the filmed police killing of Alton Sterling.
Tupac Shakur’s prophetic verses only bring us this far. What happens next is anyone’s guess.