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'An Amerikan Family' traces the legacy of Tupac Shakur's influential family

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. This week, the late rapper Tupac Shakur would have turned 52 years old. He was killed in 1996 at the age of 25. And over the decades, a flurry of books and documentaries have been created and written about his short life and the way he used rap lyrics to convey messages about the world around him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANGES")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) Come on, come on. I see no changes. Wake up in the morning and I ask myself, is life worth living? Should I blast myself? I'm tired of being poor, and even worse, I'm Black. My stomach hurts, so I'm looking for a purse to snatch.

MOSLEY: That's the song "Changes" by Tupac Shakur. Writer Santi Elijah Holley wanted to delve even deeper into the family behind Tupac and what made him an electrifying presence and the voice of a generation. In his new book, "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created," Holley explores the complex legacy of the Shakur family and the different factions of the Black nationalist movement in which they were a part. Holley is a journalist and historian. His essays, reviews and journalism have appeared in various publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and Vice. He is a recipient of the 2022 National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award and a 2020 PEN America grant. His first book, "Murder Ballads," was published in November of 2020.

Santi Elijah Holley, welcome to FRESH AIR.

SANTI ELIJAH HOLLEY: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

MOSLEY: Well, you know, this is not a book about Tupac, but he was the spark for you. What got you interested in knowing more about his family?

HOLLEY: Yeah, he absolutely was the spark. I mean, I'm an old Tupac fan from the '90s. And, you know, when I listened to him back then, I don't think I really listened that deeply to his lyrics. It just was more about the energy and just the raw talent he had. But in later years, as I got older and I sort of formed a career that was writing about the intersection of social justice issues and racial justice issues and art, I began looking more closely at Tupac's lyrics. And I realized how prophetic he was, how prescient he was and how intelligent he was in the things that he was talking about. He was addressing police brutality, income inequality, and I was just blown away. So I wanted to know more about why he was so intelligent and how he learned all these things.

And I looked more at his upbringing, his childhood and his mother especially, Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther. And as I learned more about her, I realized that there was more stories to be told. And I learned more about Tupac's stepfather, Mutulu, and his work, you know, back in the '70s and everybody else. And I just learned this rich history that I felt like hadn't been told completely. And so for me, I just felt like I wanted to learn more for myself about this family - this remarkable family and their history. But I wasn't - I was coming up against a lot of brick walls or a lot of misinformation. And so I just sort of took it upon myself to say, I'm going to be the one that I think, you know, really needs to tell their story, 'cause I feel like there's a lot of people like myself that want to know this history, too, and can benefit from this history.

MOSLEY: The Shakur surname came from a follower and associate of Malcolm X, James Costin Sr. (ph), who changed his name to Saladin Shakur after Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Can you briefly tell us about him?

HOLLEY: Yeah, he was a - he was an associate of Malcolm X. He converted to Islam - to Sunni Islam and wanted to carry on the work that Malcolm X had begun, especially after Malcolm X was assassinated in '65. And so Saladin Shakur, by taking the name and by converting - and also, he was a Pan-African leader and he was just a mentor to young people. And people looked to him to sort of carry on that work. And there's a lot of people who are still trying to carry on the work and sort of - and honor the legacy of Malcolm X. And Saladin Shakur, by virtue of being older and being an associate of Malcolm, young people looked up to him and - as a father figure. And so people did take the name Shakur for themselves in sort of honor of Saladin Shakur because they wanted to say, you know, we're with you on this ride and we want to learn about Islam. We want to learn about Black nationalism. And that was what the name sort of represented for this younger generation. But beginning with Saladin, obviously.

MOSLEY: This new beginning of a movement - when Malcolm X was assassinated, the Black Panther Party stepped in to fill that void. But everyone, as you mentioned, who took the surname Shakur, was not related. How did people actually become a part of the family?

HOLLEY: The Shakur family, as we think about families, it's not a traditional family of, like, blood relatives or by birth. It's by honoring the commitment. Taking the name Shakur, you were saying I'm committing myself to the movement and to the movement for the freedom of Black people in America. And you didn't take the name lightly. When people took the name Shakur, it was stating a very clear, very intentional act of saying, I'm committing myself to this family. I'm aligning myself with them, and I'm committed for the rest of my life to this cause, the cause of Black freedom. Some people in the Shakur family were Shakurs by birth. Saladin's sons, Lumumba and Zayd, they were Saladin's sons but they also changed their names later to Shakur. So they weren't born Shakur, but they later became Shakur. And many people in the family did take the name Shakur later, and that was a very intentional, you know, process that you just did not take lightly.

MOSLEY: You focus primarily on six Shakurs, many of whom became infamous in the late '70s and early '80s for taking the Black Panther ideology even further and, in some instances, very violent territory. There's Saladin, as you mentioned, the head of the family, his two sons, Zayd and Lumumba. There's Mutulu and Assata Shakur. And then there's Afeni Shakur, who was Tupac's mother. Most of them began as members and leaders of the Black Panther Party. You focus on, though, their presence on the East Coast, in New York. We mostly talk about the Black Panther Party as it relates to the West Coast - in Oakland, more specifically.

HOLLEY: Yeah, that's something I was actually surprised to learn in working on this book is that, like you say, like, most of us are familiar with the Black Panthers in the West Coast, in especially Oakland with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. But there was Black Panther chapters all over the country. And in New York in particular, the Panthers had a sort of different ideology. They had a different way of doing their own thing. You know, they might be more militant. They might be more focused on going out in the streets and helping community members, like, around them. The West Coast was very much more - I don't know - they - they're Marxist-Leninist. They had an economic idea and framework. But New York was just - they had their own thing going and it caused a lot of fractions between the two different coasts.

But the Shakurs, yeah, they were very much - I mean, they were born and raised in New York. Many of them were. And that was their mindset is New York and what does New York City need in particular? And so a lot of them were often clashing with other Panthers in other chapters, especially in the West Coast, because they had had different - obviously, they had different needs. Their community had different needs, and so they addressed those needs. And it didn't always work into what the central committee, especially Huey Newton and Bobby Seale - it didn't really always align with what they, you know, envisioned for the party.

MOSLEY: Well, let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is historian and journalist Santi Elijah Holley. He's written a new book called "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created." He's a recipient of the 2022 National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Award and a 2020 PEN America grant. His first book, "Murder Ballads," which came out in 2020, was an examination of the stories behind the songs of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER QUARTET SONG, "MIGHTY MIGHTY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us today, we're talking to Santi Elijah Holley, author of a new book titled "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created." In the book, Holley delves into the complex story of the Shakurs, a self-defined family known over generations, first as part of the Black Liberation movement and later through rapper Tupac Shakur.

For a generation coming of age in the '90s, we first learned about Afeni Shakur through her son, Tupac. Her song, "Dear Mama," lays out his love and admiration for her, but also touches on the realities of having a mother who suffered from drug addiction. Let's listen to a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) When I was young, me and my mama had beef - 17 years old, kicked out on the streets. Though back at the time I never thought I'd see her face, ain't a woman alive that could take my mama's place. Suspended from school, scared to go home, I was a fool with the big boys, breaking all the rules. Shed tears with my baby sister over the years we was poorer than the other little kids. And even though we had different daddies, the same drama - when things went wrong we blamed Mama.

(Rapping) I reminisce on the stress I caused - it was hell, hugging on my mama from a jail cell. And who'd think in elementary, hey, I'd see the penitentiary one day. Running from the police - that's right - Mama catch me, put a whooping to my backside. And even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was a Black queen, Mama. I finally understand - for a woman, it ain't easy trying to raise a man. You always was committed. A poor single mother on welfare - tell me how you did it. There's no way I can pay you back, but the plan is to show you that I understand. You are appreciated.

MOSLEY: That was Tupac Shakur's song "Dear Mama," which came out in 1995. Santi, this was a beloved song, really an anthem in many ways, but it only encapsulated a small sliver of who Afeni was. Can you share a little bit about her origins and how she found her way to the Black Panther Party?

HOLLEY: Yeah, that song is the way that a lot of us, you know, old Tupac fans - that's all that we knew of Afeni was through that song. And so it was really a pleasure for me personally to learn about her story. You know, she had a rough childhood - single mother, poverty. She was running with street gangs and dabbling in drugs and just sort of trying to find her way.

Then she happened upon Bobby Seale, who was a chairman of the Black Panther Party, who was visiting Harlem at the time to sort of - as sort of recruitment and support for Huey Newton. And she heard Bobby Seale speak, and she was just immediately captivated by just his presence. And so she decided to go to the local Harlem Black Panther chapter and sign up. And then she soon after that met Lumumba Shakur, who was Salahdeen's son. And she was just struck by him and his presence. And just - she was just - these were people who were so dedicated and so passionate and so loving for the community.

MOSLEY: Some of the work she did, though - well, some of the work that we know about the Panthers - she recruited and trained new members. She helped launch the party's Free Breakfast for School Children program. She helped tenants organize rent strikes against landlords. This militancy also came with deep community work.

HOLLEY: Yeah. And I think a lot of times people just think about the Black Panthers as shotgun-holding, you know, black-beret-wearing - but no, like, a lot of what they did was just community work, sort of uncelebrated, just daily community work - buying groceries for people or helping people carry their groceries upstairs if they're elderly, feeding school children, sickle cell anemia testing for the community - just these sort of just urgent and immediate needs that the community needed. These are the sort of less celebrated things that the Black Panthers did. And Afeni and Lumumba and the other Shakurs and the other Black Panthers - yeah, they did all these things that were just sort of almost bureaucratic, you know, just jobs that really weren't celebrated, but they were just every bit as part of serving the community as self-defense and everything else that we, you know, associate with the Black Panthers.

MOSLEY: You mentioned she got caught up in this infamous trial. In 1969, she and several members of what was known as the Panther 21 were indicted on conspiracy to shoot police officers and bomb police stations, railroad tracks, department stores, even the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. What was Afeni's suspected role in this plot?

HOLLEY: She was just suspected of plotting these things - not necessarily taking part in them herself, but plotting planting bombs and dynamite in certain locations. And so 21 Panthers in New York were indicted on conspiracy with different roles - whether or not they were to be the ones who are planting the bombs or just arranging where they would be dropped off. So she - there was just a mass raid, a mass roundup of Panthers by the NYPD. And some of the Panthers escaped, some were granted youthful exemptions, but most of the Panthers were in jail for up to two years. The trial was eight months.

But it was just sort of - it was at the time when the many different law enforcement agencies were panicking about the Black Panthers. They didn't know what to do. And so they would just conduct these early-morning or late-night raids and then they'd worry about the charges later. You know, they would say, oh, we heard - you know, they had undercover detectives who were infiltrating the Black Panthers all across the country. And so in Harlem, there was two undercover agents, undercover detectives, who would later testify that they heard, you know, some of these Panther leaders, Lumumba and Afeni and others, plotting to do these things.

You know, that's all the evidence they had. But they would round them up, arrest them, indict them, and then worry about the evidence later.

MOSLEY: Afeni was 23 years old at the time. She represented herself in court. And that was when she also found out that she was pregnant with Tupac.

HOLLEY: Yeah, she represented herself. She had no legal training, no legal background whatsoever. But she - that's the kind of person she was. She was very headstrong. And she thought that nobody else could speak for her the way that she could.

Because, you know, there was - the Black Panthers had their own defense, legal counsel. But Afeni - she just wasn't impressed with what they had to say. So she just said, I'm going to do it myself, and I'm going to speak for myself. And she did all that work. And then she was bailed out.

So, you know, the bail was so high that only a couple Panthers could be bailed at a time, through donations by supporters. So Afeni was the first because she was such a dynamic speaker that, you know, they trusted her to go out there and give speeches to supporters to try to raise more bail funds. And one month after her acquittal and all the other Panthers' acquittal is when she gave birth to her first son, who would become Tupac.

MOSLEY: Yeah. During one of the cross-examinations, Afeni actually cross-examined one of the undercover officers that you mentioned had heard her and others speaking about these plots. And she actually got them to admit that they'd never seen her commit any of the bombings or shootings that she had been charged with conspiring to do. Can I have you read her closing statement to the jury, which you write was spoken off the cuff? She kind of just came up with it as she was standing there. But it was inspired by Fidel Castro's 1953 "Will History Absolve Me" (ph) courtroom speech.

HOLLEY: (Reading) So why are we here? Why are any of us here? I don't know. But I would appreciate it if you would end this nightmare because I'm tired of it, and I can't justify it in my mind. There's no logical reason for us to have gone through the last two years as we have.

(Reading) So do what you have to do. But please don't forget what you saw and heard in this courtroom. Let history record you as a jury that would not kneel to the outrageous bidding of the state. Show us that we were not wrong in assuming that you would judge us fairly and remember that that's all that we're asking of you. All we ask of you is that you judge us fairly. Please judge us according to the way that you want to be judged.

MOSLEY: That was Afeni Shakur's closing argument speech, which was largely ad libbed. And it took the jury about 45 minutes of deliberation to come back with an acquittal. And you write this was, at the time, the longest and most expensive trial in New York state history, costing almost $1 million, something like 750K. How did the trial, if anything, change the way police handled or prosecuted cases in New York?

HOLLEY: I mean, this was - yeah, this was a case that really showed the state and just law enforcement just the way that the - the desperation really showed the world, the desperation that they were trying - that that they had to crush these - the Panthers and other sort of Black liberation groups that were forming. And the fact that they failed in this, that the defendants were acquitted - you know, it was humbling for the state and for law enforcement, but it was also humbling for the Panthers themselves. I mean, they both sort of - even though the Panthers won, you know - or I mean, the victory was - came at a big cost because it really decimated the Panthers. I mean, financially - a lot of them just felt, you know, they'd been in jail for two years and now - you know, they'd lost so much and they couldn't go back to their lives. So it really just - it - no - there weren't really any clear victors in this, even though, you know, the Panthers were free to go. It really - it was the end of this particular chapter.

And many Black Panthers sort of realized that that they could be infiltrated, you know, by special agents, by undercover detectives. And because of that, that's sort of where you see the Black Liberation Army start to come into full because that's - they were like, you know, we have to go underground. We can't be up here doing the work for all to see. We can't be putting ourselves up there. And so the BLA were committed to just being anonymous, being completely underground. And then since they were underground, they would take part in sort of bolder and more militant and often more violent actions. And then law enforcement itself would come down harder on the people who were suspected of, you know, perpetrating these events and these acts.

So it really changed the course of what was happening at the time. And this whole trial was very formative. And that's why I opened the book with this trial, because it feels like it really does sort of set the tone for everything to come and everything - you know, everybody that - how they reacted was a response to this trial.

MOSLEY: Santi, I want to get into the Black Liberation Army. But first, I want to talk a little bit about Afeni and how she evolved over time. While Afeni was incarcerated, at what was known as the Women's House of Detention in New York's Greenwich Village, she formed a connection with the Gay Liberation Front. Can you tell us a little bit about what you learned about that relationship?

HOLLEY: Yeah. When she was incarcerated and when she was detained, members of the Gay Liberation Front would come out and support - just protesting outside the Women's House of Detention, helping her inside with fresh clothes, with food. And she formed a bond with people who were inside who were gay women who were incarcerated there. She really learned about this other movement which she hadn't really been, you know, aware of or she hadn't really been introduced to. But their support was so strong to her.

I think the fact that they showed up day after day for her and for Joan Bird, another Panther 21 defendant - that when she finally was acquitted and when she was free, she recognized, like, this was a strong community that she hadn't really known about. And she wanted to speak for them and support them in any way that she could too. And she formed really close friendships with people who were - you know, gay women who really weren't part of the Black Liberation Movement or they're you know, more part of the rising gay movement. And she saw an opportunity just to sort of bring these two causes together, because I feel like there's a lot of division or at least not an awareness between these two causes.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. Our guest today is Santi Elijah Holley, author of the book "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created." I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us today, our guest is Santi Elijah Holley, author of the book "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created," which delves into the complex story of the Shakurs, a self-defined family known over generations, first as part of the Black liberation movement and later through rapper Tupac Shakur.

You know, Santi, it's important to note that while the Shakurs were Black nationalists, as your book lays out, they did not share a single, consistent vision of Black liberation. And this actually became clear with the unraveling of the Black Panther Party and then the formation, as we've been talking about, of the Black Liberation Army. Can you briefly share how the Black Liberation Army was formed?

HOLLEY: It was very loosely organized. It was a group of people who were - a lot of BLA members were former Panthers who were disillusioned with what had happened to the party, just the infiltration, the infighting. And they believed that the next step would be to start - just to strike first. I mean, not so much self-defense, but actually wage guerrilla warfare against, you know, the American system, which was - which looked like shooting police officers, robbing banks, or they would call it expropriation of funds from banks to fund the revolution. They believed that they were - the revolution was imminent and that they were going to lead it by striking against these American symbols of power.

And so they - you know, there are BLA cells all throughout the country. New York really did have the most activity, at least the most accused police killings that were traced back, eventually, to different people who were associated with BLA. But they also went throughout different states, and they would travel, and they were trying to set up places that would be a homestead for them or training grounds. They looked at other revolutions happening across the world, in Africa and Asia, and they wanted to recreate that of forming these guerrilla units.

MOSLEY: The robbing of banks, though, I mean, you paint the picture that they were saying - what did you call it?

HOLLEY: Expropriation.

MOSLEY: But there was also something else happening. I mean, they had a lot of allies, many of the members, when they were members of the Black Panther Party. But as they became more radical, they became more desperate for cash because that type of infusion of cash from supporters just wasn't there.

HOLLEY: That's a great point. Yeah, the Black Panther Party could count on supporters - leftist, progressive supporters, even white - you know, white supporters. Celebrities would give them money. The Black Panther Party support themselves on a lot of donations. I mean, they had the newspaper, but mostly, it was donations. And BLA, you know, they didn't have that luxury of asking for support for what they were doing, and everything was self-funded. And so they had to raise money for ammunition, for guns, for getaway cars, for safe houses. They also wanted land in the South that they could retreat to and maybe build up eventually. But mostly, it was just immediate needs. Like, we need getaway cars, safe houses and things like that.

And the only way to get that money - that kind of money - was to rob banks. And they also robbed drug dealers, like, well-known drug dealers. Late-night social clubs, they would raid those and rob everybody in there. And they believed that these places were harming the community, were - you know, were killing the community. And so it was - they were deserving of being robbed and giving the money back to the community, people who need it. I think they talked themselves in circles trying to justify, you know, what they were doing. These actions were revolutionary rather than just criminal.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

HOLLEY: But, you know, that's what they really believed. And they were young. And I think that they just got in over their heads because they really saw, you know, what was happening in their community and to the people, and they wanted to do something. And they were tired of just waiting, and they were tired of being arrested. And they were just like, well, this is a war. They treated it as if now this is a war that they were fighting.

MOSLEY: That they were at war.

HOLLEY: Yeah.

MOSLEY: I mean, they would go on to be known as the deadliest Black militant organization in United States history. But some questions that you actually pose to the reader is whether the young people who were drawn to the movement were motivated by maybe the party's Marxist rhetoric and abstract political theory or by these media accounts that kind of, you know, painted them as these sunglasses-wearing anarchists who were out to kill all the devils by any means necessary. Basically, did they sign up to serve or to wage warfare against police? I'm wondering where you came along those lines, or have you even thought about this in this way?

HOLLEY: I have. And I think it's - you know, people were really taken by the media portrayal and just the excitement, the sort of adventurism. I mean, even in the Black Panther Party, there were people in the party who were there for just the - you know, the guns and the adventurism and wanted to go out and shoot - you know, shoot police officers. And so in the BLA, it was - I think that was the people who really formed a core membership. I don't know if there was anybody, in my opinion, who was in the BLA because they wanted to do, you know, quiet, community work like, you know, serving breakfast to people. They were done with that. They had tried that. It didn't work out quickly enough for them, or whatever they thought was going to happen didn't happen.

And they were just angry, and they had no place to put their anger. And I think it's enticing if you're just witnessing people being oppressed and harassed all the time, and then there's a secret group that comes around, and, you know, they want you to join their secret group. And they'll give you a gun, and you'll go on these adventures, and you'll, you know - but also with the framework of the belief that you're doing something revolutionary. I mean, those two things are very enticing and very appealing to somebody who's young and just doesn't really know where to direct their rage.

MOSLEY: Yeah. I mean, I learned about them as a child kind of as a cautionary tale. Like, don't get too radical. Don't veer too far off. This is what could happen. Is that what you learned?

HOLLEY: A lot of this book is a cautionary tale of not just don't get too wrapped up and don't get too carried away with this type of revolution or this type of struggle, but also look out for, you know, the various ways that the government or that law enforcement will repress, you know, these movements in the various covert and secretive ways that they will shut it down. And there's a lot of caution to be seen in all these stories. You know, just, like, you really have to have the community support. That's not as exciting, maybe, to slowly build community support for what you're doing. And I think the Panthers - and, at the best, that's what they were trying to do is build community support before, you know, striking out, before the self-defense, before the guns. You really have to have the support of your community before you do all these things. And I think that's really where the BLA - the biggest thing that they did wrong was, I think, they just did not think about how they were going to be perceived by their own people, you know, by the community...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

HOLLEY: ...The people who they were professing to serve. They didn't have their support. And so if you don't have the support of the community, you're not going to win your revolution.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Santi Elijah Holley, author of the book "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERNARD PURDIE SONG, "KEEP ON SHINING")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us today, we're talking to Santi Elijah Holley, author of the new book titled "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created." In the book, Holley delves into the complex story of the Shakurs, a self-defined family known over generations, first as part of the Black liberation movement and later through rapper Tupac Shakur.

Santi, you write that Afeni raised Tupac to be, I guess, the Black prince of the revolution. Tupac was the chairman of the New Afrikan Panthers, which was a youth organization that wanted to carry on the work of the Black Panther Party. And you write that Tupac was very close to leaving music behind to follow this path.

HOLLEY: Before he even got his start in his career as a rapper, he - I mean, he was going through a lot of personal struggles with poverty and with his mother's addiction. And he was looking for any opportunity just to escape that. But he was raised like you said. His mother, Afeni, literally said, you know, that he was going to become the Black prince of the revolution. He was going to carry on the fight that they started. He was going to take the mantle and continue the work as a spokesperson, as a leader, as an activist. But he's also - you know, he was just a kid who just - he loved rap. I mean, rap music was pretty new, and he loved it. And he was talented at it from the beginning.

But his early raps - starting in Baltimore and then after he moved to Marin City, his early raps were very much - he's talking about Black Panthers. He's talking about movement stuff that nobody else was really talking about. And rap was still pretty new, but nobody was going into, you know, really, intricacies of Black liberation. And he knew all his history, and so that's what he was rapping about. But he wasn't having any real success. He was winning some little, like, local award shows and competitions. And, you know, he had his little rap crews. But he wasn't making any money off of it. And by the time he was in Marin City, he was crashing on couches, homeless a lot of times, you know, having to scrounge for food, really struggling.

And he met up with some people, some movement elders, who really encouraged him to go in this direction of, OK, well, let's come back to that. You can still rap, but your focus has to be on - you know, we have to sort of get the youth back to having interest in these topics and these issues. You know, we have to, like, bring the youth back in. So these elders were going to coach Tupac in how to do that with music and just with just being the chairman of the New Afrikan Panthers, which was, you know, a new group based in Atlanta. And Tupac was - he was at that crossroads. He was like, I'm going to go either - if I don't really make it with rap, if I don't make any money with rap, I'm going to move to Atlanta and really...

MOSLEY: And do this, yeah.

HOLLEY: ...And really focused on just being the chairman of the Panthers, selling newspapers, you know, recruiting young people to this organization. Almost at the zero hour, he received a call from Digital Underground's manager, Atron Gregory, who was - Digital Underground, the sort of party rap group of the '90s. And they said, OK, you know, we want to hire you. You have some skills. You're really hungry. So we'll take you on but just as a dancer and a roadie for now. You can come on tour with us. We'll give you some money.

So Tupac really - then all of a sudden he's onstage. And he's dancing. And he's, you know, sort of a minor celebrity just with the group. But then he starts rapping and then starts getting even more attention. And, I mean, even his early raps, he still talks a lot about social issues and racial issues and economic issues. And - but he's - you see him sort of - after the first album, you see him starting to kind of drift away from it a little bit because now he's a celebrity. And he's a - you know, now he's a movie star also. And so he's...

MOSLEY: And it - was it also about success, because he could be more successful talking about other things, not talking about Black liberation?

HOLLEY: In a lot of ways, you know, he thought that he needed to have the sort of more commercially viable songs or sort of party anthems and everything to draw people in, to draw listeners in. Because, you know, like, if you are just a political rapper and that's all you do, you're going to lose a lot of your audience, at least the audience that he was trying to connect with. He wanted everybody - he wanted young Black men from wherever they came from, you know, like, cities and, you know, just on both coasts, people who were, you know, suffering from poverty.

He just wanted - he wanted to reach them where they were and then bring them in, and then hit them with something a little deeper, a little more introspective, a little more historical. But you couldn't just do that, so he had to do both at the same time. So you saw that sort of back and forth a little bit in his early records. But then it was so conflicting for him because he really did still want to stay true to - you know, he really did still think that he wanted to - he didn't want to disappoint his mother in leading this charge and really carrying on the movement. But he also - he liked the attention. He liked the celebrity. And so he had to sort of - he struggled with both of those at the same time within him throughout the rest of his life.

MOSLEY: You know, Tupac's plan was to still be an activist, but through music. And as you said, we can listen to his music now and we hear those messages, especially as you get older. There's a deeper understanding. But for me, his music also speaks to the contradictions of Tupac and his mother, Afeni, and the movement itself, this violence and misogyny intertwined with these messages of love and determination and liberation and community. How do you reconcile that?

HOLLEY: Tupac was just - he was a young man who faced a lot of trauma growing up. I mean, he faced trauma of growing up with a family that was - that had been really pursued by governmental forces. And he grew up with the trauma of having a mother who was addicted to drugs. And that came out in his music. Like, that sort of trauma and contradiction came out. He was not a perfect person, obviously. I mean, he had many mistakes. He had many flaws. But he did not shy away from those mistakes and those flaws, and those contradictions. You know, he aired those out for everybody. And he was a young man who was living through all this in the public eye.

And so every time he contradicted himself - yeah, we all contradict ourselves. We're all human. And in that, he's sort of following in the path worked by his mother, who also was this great leader and a great person and great thinker and very influential, but also had a long struggle with drugs because she was human. And I think that is what makes them more influential and better leaders, is to address those shortcomings and address your mistakes and say, look, I'm just figuring this out. I mean, my heart's in the right place. I'm going to make mistakes. But you can learn from me and my mistakes what not to do, how to do it better. But the important thing is just to keep going. You know, with a family that faces this kind of pressure and trauma, there's going to be a lot of difficulties and road bumps along the ways and contradictions, too.

MOSLEY: For those who are - who were rap fans in the '90s when Tupac Shakur was murdered, there's a lot of pain around Tupac's death. He died at age 25, and he was murdered.

HOLLEY: You know, a lot of members of the Shakur family were either incarcerated or murdered at young ages also. And the murderer was never arrested or never found. You know, the case is still open, his murder case. And when he died, it was a blow not only to rap fans but to people who - like, who did watch him grow up and who did still continue to expect more from him, especially - the time when he died was a really, really, really challenging time for Tupac. He was - you know, from people who I've spoken to who knew him at this time, sounds like he was trying to get away from Death Row music, away from Suge Knight - sort of start over again and, like, get back on the sort of path that he'd started with 'cause he'd gotten so carried away with Death Row, with this one sort of lifestyle that he was promoting. And I think his heart really was wanting to get back to sort of addressing the social issues and social - and racial justice issues. And I think he just was cut short before he could get there. And, you know, he was murdered at a time - you know, the short amount of time when he was with Death Row Records, when that's not who had his best interests at heart. And it didn't really reflect who he was as a person. But...

MOSLEY: How do you reconcile this reality, though, that so many leaders, so many Black leaders - it is always this story. They were just leaving something. They were just coming into an awakening. They were just changing their lives. We tell this same story when we think about Malcolm X.

HOLLEY: Yeah. And who knows what - you know, what they could have accomplished. And I think people like Tupac and like Malcolm X, who are always growing, who are always challenging themselves - they're always learning more and wanting to just be better at their message and sort of figure out exactly what the best way to get across that message is - and so, yeah, with Malcolm X, he was in a - he was still developing, as a speaker, as a leader. And Tupac had sort of gone astray a little bit. He'd been misdirected for a little while, and he was trying to find his way back. And we don't know - you know, obviously, we don't know what that would have looked like if he had not been murdered.

MOSLEY: You know, Santi, to just tie this back to the title of your book, "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created," what is the nation they created? How do you define nation when you're thinking about this?

HOLLEY: Yeah. I mean, the nation - nation does not necessarily have to be a nation-state, right? A nation can be a community that's organized by similar religious beliefs or political beliefs or, you know, ethnicity or whatever. Like, a nation is who your people are, and you form together. You unite for a common cause. The Shakurs were a nation. They were a nation. And any oppressed peoples in the U.S. are sort of a nation within a nation, right? So the nation that the Shakurs created was this community, this strong community of people who were dedicated to the struggle, to the liberation of Black people in America. And like any nation, sometimes nations fall. Nations rise, and they fall, and then they rebuild, or they don't, and they rebuild differently. But a nation is not a permanent thing. And so the nation that they created was - anytime you see anybody who's fighting for, you know, liberation or fighting for struggle or fighting for the betterment of oppressed people in this country, they are joining this nation, you know, by - just, like, by taking the name Shakur. Like, that is saying, I'm joining this nation.

MOSLEY: Santi Elijah Holley, thank you so much for this conversation.

HOLLEY: Thank you so much, Tonya. It's really been an honor and a pleasure to talk to you.

MOSLEY: That was Santi Elijah Holley, author of the book "An Amerikan Family: The Shakurs And The Nation They Created." Coming up, John Powers reviews the ninth and final season of the detective drama series "Endeavour." This is FRESH AIR.

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ABRAHAM INC: Tweet, tweet. Tweet, tweet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.

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