Who's Tupac: how it all started

City dramaturge Gerardo Salinas in conversation with writer Fikry El Azzouzi and actor Junior Akwety, who takes on one of the lead roles. 

I grew up under an Argentinian dictatorship. The first time I heard the name ‘Tupac’, it was as a warning. The Argentinian military regime and its followers considered the Tupamaros, an Uruguayan guerrilla movement which at one point even counted ex-president Pepe Mujica among its members, a dangerous band of rebels who wanted to destroy our catholic, Western lifestyle. Over time, I became acquainted with the first two Túpacs: Túpac Amaru and Túpac Amaru II. The first Túpac Amaru was the last emperor of the Inca empire: the Spanish colonisers beheaded him and brought an end to his imperial dynasty. But blood is thicker than water, and his descendant Túpac Amaru II became an important protagonist in the struggle for independence in Latin America. A fact conveniently swept under the carpet in books about world history, even though Túpac Amaru II fought for a more just continent, free of the ethnic classifications imposed by the coloniser, like a real American Spartacus. It would be even longer before I discovered the music and lyrics of Tupac Shakur, the world-famous hip hop icon. I had no idea at the time that there was a link between these various Tupacs.
Fast forward to today, when Jr.cE.sA.r is working on a new creation about the connection between Tupac Amaru Shakur en Túpac Amaru II. After the success of Dear Winnie, they are once again working with Junior Akwety (JA), their collaborator for Rumble in da Jungle, L’Homme de La Mancha, Malcolm X and Drarrie in de nacht, as well as a Tupac-connoisseur. Fikry El Azzouzi (FEA) wrote the text for the production. I joined them for a conversation about the how and why of this new creation.

What does Tupac Shakur mean to you?

(JA): “Tupac is an important figure in my life. He shaped me as an artist and as a human. I have been a fan since ’94, when I was still living in London. The first lyrics by another artist, a rapper, that I ever wanted to write down and keep were those of his Dear Mama – incidentally the first rap lyrics to ever be stored in the US Library of Congress! I would sit down next to the radio – there was no internet, Google or Spotify at the time – and wait for his tracks to come on so that I could write down the words.  I would feel as if I was the one singing those words that came out of the radio, as if I had written those lyrics for my mother. That’s how my love for writing and making music started. Tupac Shakur is one of my biggest inspirations until today. That’s why I’m so honoured to get to work on a theatre performance around his legacy.”
(FEA): “I was already a big fan of Dr. Dre, N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) and Snoop Dogg. I was introduced to Tupac when he joined Dr. Dre’s record label. He was an eye opener for me because he wasn’t just an artist but a real revolutionary as well. The way he said things, the way he lived his ‘thug life’, I found that all very attractive.”

Tupac made an impact on many youngsters, including in Belgium. That fact is woven throughout Drarrie in de nacht, Fikry, as well as through your latest novel De Beloning (The Reward). One of the main characters even calls himself Tupac Shakur. Is that recognisable for both of you?

FEA: “Yes. We all wanted to be like Tupac. To rap like him, to have his charisma, and to fight for our truth like him. The events with The Notorious B.I.G., who Tupac was good friends with, also made a deep impression on me. When Tupac was assaulted at one point, he suspected The Notorious B.I.G. of betrayal. We – my friends and I – immediately sided with Tupac, because friendship was important to him, just like it was to us. He was a very emotional and loyal person. It would later turn out that The Notorious B.I.G. had nothing to do with the attack, but the idea of betrayal alone had touched Tupac deep in his soul.”
JA: “He had been repeatedly deceived and betrayed by then. There was also an accusation of gang rape against him. All other suspects were acquitted, and the victim even admitted that the police had forced her into making a statement against Tupac. A while earlier he had been in an armed altercation with the police, for which he was cleared as he acted in self-defence. The rape accusation was the police’s way to get back at him.”

Were there other aspects about Tupac, beside his music and lyrics, that stood out to you?

JA: “Yes: he could do anything.

Tupac wasn’t just a rapper and activist; many people don’t know that he was also a poet. And an actor: he was one of the few rappers who could act. He had a lead role in Above the Rim, an iconic film for African Americans.”

“As a rapper, not only his technique but also his lyrics were important. He wrote in a very poetic yet simple style: straight to the point. That influenced the way I write lyrics or approach themes like love, like he did in Dear Mama or Brenda’s Got a Baby. As an artist, you need to be able to vent your frustrations, and Tupac had many. The society he and his friends were part of was riddled with discrimination. He expressed his frustrations via hip hop, and hip hop to me is about telling the truth as it is.”
“There is a difference between the approaches of Tupac and for example Malcolm X – who, by the way, was an inspiration for Tupac. Malcolm X fought through politics, an option that is not available to everyone and that only lets you reach those who are interested. Tupac used his music as a medium, a way to reach people. You can see his struggle for justice in his lyrics. His messages overcame boundaries that may have been controversial to some – but that’s unavoidable, because hip hop comes straight from the heart and from community. And there isn’t only love and joy in the community, also inequality, violence and frustration.”

After Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X and Winnie Madikizela, Tupac is your next source of artistic inspiration. Is it fair to say that he is just as powerful and important as those other iconic figures?

FEA: “Absolutely. We at Jr.cE.sA.r hadn’t immediately thought about creating a performance about him, but when Akwety suggested the idea, we immediately knew we could make something powerful. It’s a huge challenge, because there’s so many ways you can go with Tupac. We will respect his music and lyrics, but we’ll also make them our own. Just like his story as a poet, actor, revolutionary and rapper. He had so much energy, he was a real creative tornado. How many tracks do you think he made?”
JA: “Many. After his death, several albums with original music were released. There’s even a new release planned for this year – 24 years after his death! He is still musically active and relevant today, and he appears everywhere as an icon. During our tour of L’Homme de La Mancha in Latin America, we discovered some Tupac murals. In the US he is omnipresent as well, and in Africa he is a legend.

He is a source of inspiration for many artists today, in the past, and he will be in the future. He is important for the people of my generation, he was our James Brown, our Michael Jackson. He is an icon in the hip hop world, one of the central figures – maybe even the greatest ever.”

There’s also the connection with Túpac Amaru II. Tupac was born Lesane Parish Crook. But his mother, Afeni Shakur, had his name changed to Tupac Amaru Shakur a year later, the name of a great American revolutionary, the Incan leader Túpac Amaru II. How will you feature that aspect?

FEA: “That’s the main challenge. Tupac was aware of that connection, in an interview shortly before he was murdered, he said: “There’s a gentleman by the name of Tupac Amaru who was a freedom fighter, warrior – similar to myself – a chief, a leader for his people”. The connection between the Black Panthers and the struggles in Latin America and the rest of the world are an important part of our investigation. The choice his mother made to change his name created a link through time, a sort of time-travelling energy that manifested itself against repression and inequality.”

Junior, in L’Homme de La Mancha you played one of the most iconic figures of Western culture, Sancho Panza. You gave him a completely different character, something that greatly impressed international critics, the audience, and even the prestigious Instituto Cervantes. This time, you get to play Tupac and Túpac Amaru. How will you approach those characters?

JA: “In this creation, I won’t literally be playing Tupac or Túpac Amaru the whole time. But I am ready to completely surrender physically and mentally. I want to lift this production to new heights, to me this is more than a performance. I expect that I’ll be able to learn and grow a lot, and to dig deeper into who the two Tupacs were and what they meant. There will be lots of music, that’s my first language. I dream of people going home with tears in their eyes and a smile on their faces. Moved but happy.

Fikry, what should we expect of this production?

FEA: “Depth of character, music, activism, and zeal. We went far in Malcolm X and Drarrie in de nacht, even further in Dear Winnie. For us, Who’s Tupac? is a chance to keep experimenting with our own artistic language.

We want to create an explosion of emotions. And we want to investigate what the two Tupacs mean today, and how these two warriors can help us deal with the world we live in now.”