I was hooked the first time I heard his voice:

Brenda’s got a baby

But, Brenda’s barely got a brain

A damn shame

The girl can hardly spell her name

(That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family)

Well let me show ya how it affects the whole community

Tupac Shakur had that ability to grab you, to tell you a story and take you somewhere, like all of the greats. He didn’t have Biggie’s flow. But he had that special something that caused you to stop and stare.

Fifteen years ago, he died after being gunned down in a hail of bullets in Las Vegas. The night he was shot, I had friends over. Many were still lingering after we watched the Tyson fight. When he died later that week, I remember attending a vigil on Howard University’s campus. Attendees were young and old. All have come to pay homage to a powerful voice felled way too young.

I still listen to Pac every now and again, and my favorite songs of his, I still remember all the words. But I have a different relationship with those words now. Part of it is that I have gotten older and experienced more. One of the things that those who knew him well say is that there was no grey area with Pac. Whatever he was doing, he was all in. All in with black nationalism for a while. All in with his love for black women. All in for the West Coast. All in for the Thug Life. All in.

His songs tell that story too. Listen only to Brenda’s Got A Baby or Dear Mama and you hear a socially conscious brother trying—through his music—to lead his people somewhere. Listen to Hit Em Up and feel the unadulterated rage of the streets, raw and powerful and angry, ready to kill or be killed.

Pac embraced his rough edges and challenged the nation to do the same with him, using the imagery of a rose growing out of the concrete. Instead of complaining about the rose’s torn petals, he said we should marvel that something as delicate as a rose grew from concrete. It was a metaphor for today’s youth who grow up hustling, living in broken homes, scratching just to survive.

It’s a message that lots of young people—even today—latch on to in America’s poorest neighborhoods and across the globe.

I sometimes cringed at Pac when he was with Death Row records. It was all partying and anger. I longed for the return of the storyteller who could address head-on domestic violence, rape and other issues of the day. But like many of us, he was both/and rather than either/or.

Sadly, he only got to be that for 25 years. Rest in peace, brother.

I leave you with Pac’s words from Keep Ya Head Up

“And when he tells you you ain’t nuttin don’t believe him... And if he can’t learn to love you you should leave him... Cause sista you don’t need him... And I ain’t tryin to gas ya up, I just call em how I see em...”

The Root DC

Packing for Paris

Hate in the Wake of 9/11

God is our refuge