Tupac at 40: His Life, Theology and Legacy

June 16 is an emotional day for me. It was on a sunny June 16 in 1989 that my mother died in my arms while visiting relatives in Plainfield, N.J. Thus, every year around that time, my partner understands why I am a little more quiet and reserved. I pass by her picture in our living room and wonder what she would say about the choices I've made, what she and my daughters would do for fun, what advice she would give me for the daily challenges I wish I could call her about. Sometimes I really miss her voice.

There is another voice that I will miss on this upcoming June 16. Tupac Shakur would be -- should be -- turning 40 this upcoming Thursday.

Every now and then, it seems like someone from the great cloud of witnesses moves a little closer, making his or her presence known. Pac has been very present as of late. We all shook our heads when a hacked PBS website reported that he was alive in New Zealand. Almost on cue, as I was reading that story on my phone, a car drove by blaring the new song by Meek Mills and Rick Ross whose chorus declares that "Tupac's Back! Tupac's Back!"

And just this past Friday, I was sitting with my dear friend and mentor, James Spady, probably one of the greatest black journalists and writers of the last 30 years, winning an American Book Award and the National Newspaper Publishers Association's Meritorious Award. Spady has interviewed nearly every major black figure since the 1970s, especially those involved in the arts. Many of these interviews are collected in his now classic volumes "Nation Conscious Rap: The Hip Hop Vision" (1991), "Twisted Tales in the Hip Hop Streets of Philly" (1995), "Street Conscious Rap" (1999) and "The Global Cipha." Among Spady's greatest "interlocutors," as he likes to describe his interviewees, was Tupac.

During our session, Spady pulled out a recent piece he published on Pac in celebration of what would be his 40th birthday. As always, Spady "tells the truth slant" with his liberated prose. He asked me what I thought of the article. I loved it, but I found myself quieted as if I was listening, waiting for someone to say something or for a beat to drop. My ears were longing for that baritone to sing, "Come with me..."

Much has been written about the theological importance of Tupac Shakur. Of all the classes that I am privileged to teach, my "Hip Hop and Faith" course is the one closest to my heart. Each time I teach it, at least one student wants to do their final paper on Pac exploring the deep religious symbolism, the prophetic utterances, the discrete liberation theology that he did in reconstructing the center of religious spaces, or the staggering icon of him being crucified on the cover of Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. On even the first day of class, students want to unpack the concept of "Thug Mansions" in Heaven. They want to play "Only God Can Judge Me," "Black Jesus" or "Hail Mary," with its haunting bells and Pac's deep voice swaying over the beat, while they try to make sense of his existential genius. Pac was a deep brother.

This week, as I celebrate Tupac at 40, I won't be reflecting theologically on his art. (And it is art.) Rather, I will remember what he meant and means to me as a young African American and his enduring challenge to all of us who work with young people.

Like millions of people around the world, hip-hop has been an important, ever present part of my life. I shared a cradle with rap music, being born during the late '70s as this new sound, which was the offspring of old sounds mixing with urban circumstance in New York City, took the music world by storm. What emerged was more than a new musical genre (rap music), but rather an entire sub-culture (hip-hop) that has effected the way we speak, the way we dress, the way we move and the way we market products. As a globalized youth cultural movement, one will find young people break dancing in Japan, tagging walls in Germany, rhyming in ciphas in Algeria, South Africa, France and many many other places. Urban, suburban, rural, poor, wealthy and even religiously observant folks like me, all around the world, consider hip-hop to be a part of their lives. Along with its mass appeal, it is the ability to communicate, to tell stories, to speak truth, to explore philosophical and theological depths, to provide windows into the experiences of urban folks, all while entertaining, that has led me to explore the intersection of hip-hop and theology as an academic pursuit.

Yet, it has been about more than intellectual interest for me. I have always been moved by what I've witnessed to be the prophetic voice in hip-hop music, be it the truth telling of the Hard Rhymer Chuck D ("Fight the Power!") or the painful realities painted by groups like N.W.A. or Wu Tang Clan. We may not have liked what they had to say about poverty or police violence, but they were sharing real experiences -- experiences that my friends and I had.

I have received a tremendous amount of criticism over the years for my love of hip-hop. Ministers and university chaplains aren't supposed to be hip-hop heads. But it is who I am. Like many, I struggle with lyrics that are deeply offensive, degrading of women, over-materialistic or violent (I have the same conflicted feelings about much of film and television). I also find myself deeply frustrated and disheartened by the control that media conglomerates play in deciding which rap gets heard. (By the way if you're looking for a good read where many of these critiques are addressed and wrestled with, I suggest you read Tricia Rose's "The Hip Hop Wars.") So yes, I do listen to rap. I probably always will. I can't move on a dance floor like I use to, but let the right track come on and I still might percolate like I was back in a college.

Rap is a part of my faith journey and rappers have been as instrumental in my theological development as any of the scholars I've read. I've replayed Freeway's "What we Do" and Kanye's "Jesus Walks" as much as I've reread Cornel West's "Prophesy Deliverance" or James Cone's "A Black Theology of Liberation."

And then there was Pac. Pac studied and lived in Baltimore, my hometown. People still point out his house when they drive through that neighborhood. Pac was a big brother to a generation of young black teenagers even with, and especially because of, his ethical complexities. The brother who wrote "Dear Momma" and "Keep Ya Head up" is the same one flowing on "I Get Around." He's not a hypocrite -- he's complex. He was in process -- just like we were. The guy we saw in "Juice" and "Poetic Justice" looked and spoke just like us. The man who C. Dolores Tucker blocked from performing in Philadelphia as she tried to disqualify him from receiving an NAACP Image Award, was denied and told he was not good enough -- just like we were. When I was told that I should not apply to the college I was dreaming of because I wasn't smart enough, it was Pac's music that I came home and played. He understood what I was feeling. And not just me, people all around the world. Travel to Cairo, Gaza, London, Sao Paolo or Tokyo, and you'll see spray-painted images of Tupac, the words "Thug Life" tagged on a wall, or lyrics written out in an alley. Pac was a voice for so many of us. He was brilliant and an amazing wordsmith. He could say what many felt and challenge them to rethink previously held convictions. He was educated and extremely well read. A larger-than-life revolutionary who was simultaneously real and relatable. Tupac lived and he invited us all to live with him.

And then he died. And then Big died. And then Aaliyah. And Jam Master Jay -- and more and more young black men and women who gave us a voice and said all that we didn't know how to say -- died.

I miss all their voices. Not just my mom and Pac's. In celebration of his birthday, radio stations will have Tupac marathons, his videos will play on MTV and BET. He'll trend on Twitter. Many Facebook statuses will betray the thoughts of thousands of fans. There may even be articles exploring how he might have matured as an actor and musician. Others will imagine where he would be in his journey at age 40. More of a political revolutionary working for change? Might he have recessed from the public eye and dedicated more energy to writing? Still rapping? Many will struggle with and wonder where would Tupac be at 40?

On his birthday, Tupac's mom, Afeni Shakur, and Mike Epps will be sponsoring a celebration event in honor of his 40th in Atlanta. Artists like Erykah Badu, DJ Drama, Meek Mills, Too Short, 8 Ball &MJG and more will be performing with proceeds benefiting The Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation for the Arts. If you are in the Atlanta area, I encourage you to go, and celebrate and reflect on an amazing life.

Perhaps something that we can all do to commemorate this occasion, whether we make it to Atlanta or not, is to do what we can to make sure that young lives are not cut short, because the world might be missing out on the next young artistic genius. The next Pac. There are a lot of young people with dreams and with the ability to become something special and bless the world. Yet, many of those dreams will end up unrealized unless those of us around them help to make these dreams come true. Can we care enough to help young roses, like Tupac, grow out of the hard concrete that makes it hard for them to blossom?

The Rose that Grew from Concrete

by Tupac Shakur

Did you hear about the rose that grew

from a crack in the concrete?

Proving nature's law is wrong it

learned to walk with out having feet.

Funny it seems, but by keeping it's dreams,

it learned to breathe fresh air.

Long live the rose that grew from concrete

when no one else ever cared.

Happy Birthday, Tupac.