By now you’ve likely seen footage of Tupac’s “performance” at the recent Coachella Music Festival. The rapper and actor, who was murdered in September of 1996, is the only hip-hop artist to have generated the kind of full service mythology that surrounds dead icons such as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. No matter how much we may miss them, there have been no reports of folks claiming to have seen Ol’ Dirty Bastard or the Notorious B.I.G. on a subway in New York. Some of this has to do with the lack of closure experienced by Shakur’s family, friends and fans thanks to his still-unsolved murder, but also the other-worldly aura that Shakur had a hand in crafting during his brief life. The mythology that accompanies Tupac in death—the son of the Black Panther Party, who many believed represented the leading light of his generation of Black youth—was very much present when he was alive.
Audiences gasped when the hologram of Shakur showed up on stage performing “Hail Mary” and later “2 of Amerika’s Most Wanted” opposite Snoop Dogg (who, honestly, looked like more of a ghost than the holograph did). For some, the performance might have been perhaps too authentic. The Tupac who strutted on stage looked as he might have anytime during the last year of his life, and his demeanor was much the same.
Tupac had indeed been resurrected, but sounding like a throwback to an era that was distinctly out of sync with the young people that have shaped hip-hop culture—for better or worse—since his death. One would be hard pressed to think of a contemporary rap artist of Tupac’s stature (okay, maybe Weezy) that would address a crowd, like that assembled for the hologram performance with “What the f*ck is up Coachella?” It was subtle reminder of the extent that the commercial rap industry has become invested in the mainstream, where lawyers and publicists matter more than ever. Can a holograph have a publicist?
Despite the controversy that he often courted, Tupac’s appeal always went beyond his simple popularity as a rapper. Shakur was one of the most charismatic figures of his generation, and arguably the most charismatic Black male figure that we’ve witnessed in the post-Civil Rights era with the exceptions of the late Michael Jackson (whose own holograph will likely be coming to stage near you, soon) and President Barack Obama. When Tupac was murdered, we mourned not simply the death of a rapper, but a true artist. His turn as Bishop in Juice was just a small glimpse at his potential ability to join the ranks of the Depps and DiCaprios as one of the best actors of his generation.
Yet part of our attraction to Tupac was the promise of Tupac ; stories about his reading habits, his interest in history and philosophy and, of course, his connection to the Black Panther Party made him as much a darling to intellectuals, as he was to the thugs on the corner, and the women and men, who adored his shirtless and doe-eyed body. In the aftermath of his death, it was the promise of what Tupac might have become—imagine a figure with the political sophistication of Malcolm X, the musical genius of Bob Marley, and the stage presence of Harry Belafonte—that is continuously recalled as inspiration for this generation of Black youth. Imagine how different Jay Z’s career path might have been without competing with ghost of Tupac.
Yet, when Tupac’s holograph appeared on stage at Coachella, it became painfully aware that even our dreams of Tupac couldn’t live up to the mythology that we have erected in his name; he was not gonna offer anything on par with “The Ballot or the Bullet” or “Could You Be Loved?” but rather some nearly twenty-year-old gangsta-sh*t. The fact that Tupac was revealed as just a holograph is just a reminder that Tupac was just a man.
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: Legible Black Masculinities. He is professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University and host of the weekly video webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.