The Tragic Hero Behind Tupac Shakur

In a 1994 interview from PBS’ Blank on Blank web series, Shakur said:

“I feel like a tragic hero in a Shakespeare play, you know what I’m saying?”

This is when it all hit me, this is when it all demystified his character to me. Tupac Shakur was a man with many faces. To some, he was the face of West Coast gangsta rap; to others, a symbol of Black pride and social injustice; and, better yet, others viewed him as a true poet who explored the depths of human emotion through his lyrics and music.

While all of this is true, when I looked deeply into Tupac Amaru Shakur and his life on earth, I saw him more as a human.

It is hard not to exaggerate your hero’s image especially when they have the most admirable qualities. Also, the Hollywood idea of a hero is the cause of this misconception.

Heroes live in our imaginations, but their antagonist resides in the minds of their greatest enemy — that being Death itself. Death stops at nothing to capture its prey, and any living thing falls at the hand of his sword. Tragic Heroes are molded by the hands of Fate himself; he shows these men their tragic flaws and then leads them down a path of destruction.

The tragic hero is one of the oldest literary types used by mankind to provide a mirror of ourselves and our struggles. Nowhere else is this seen as profoundly as it is in the life of Tupac Shakur.

William Shakespeare’s Statue

William Shakespeare is often credited for creating the modern conception of a tragic hero. He never invented it, but he only developed the modern concept. Originally, It was created by Aristotle.

Shakespeare’s definition of a tragedy as he describes in his work Hamlet is “a story with a plot in which an admirable character is destroyed by some evil force.” Tupac Shakur’s short life and the manner of his death prove this idea.

2Pac is a modern-day tragic hero.

Aristotle’s Poetics describes five characteristics that are essential for a tragic hero:

  1. Virtue: A tragic hero must be a good person and have a high stature in society. This means they are relatable and have the potential for further greatness. Also, their actions have far-reaching effects.
  2. Tragic Flaw: He/She must possess a character trait or quality that would be typical of virtue, but under the circumstances of the play, proves to be a downfall.
  3. Torture: The tragic hero suffers both inwardly and outwardly due to their actions. Most have a distorted perception of reality
  4. Audience Response: They elicit an emotional response in the audience (Often called catharsis). Because the tragic hero is a good character, the audience feels the misfortune they suffer.
  5. Death: The typical tragic hero dies. If they don’t die then they live through great suffering.

Oedipus Rex of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles explores the themes of fate and free will. In this classic play, Oedipus unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother — both actions which are considered crimes. He eventually gouged out his eyes when he realized the sins of his actions.

By contrast, Romeo of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a more familiar example of a tragic hero. Such characters have a flaw that leads to their downfall, but they also demonstrate some positive characteristics such as bravery or virtue.

Peter Pan of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie has several classic flaws. He is unaware of the realities of life and lacks maturity and wisdom. His desire to live in a fantasy world prevents him from growing up; he never wants to do anything that requires compromise or acceptance of reality.”

Now let us see how Tupac fits into this archetype of a classic tragic hero.

1. Virtue

Tupac was born in New York City on June 16th, 1971, and named after Túpac Amaru II, an 18th-century South American revolutionary who led an indigenous uprising against Spanish rule near the end of colonial Peruvian history.

In his early years, he frequently moved between New York and Baltimore and was raised by his mother Afeni Shakur in Harlem and eventually Baltimore. And while he dropped out of school in tenth grade, he eventually earned his GED and even enrolled in poetry classes at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

He became one of the most successful rappers in the industry and one of the most influential artists in hip hop history. He sold over 75 million records worldwide.

In addition to his contributions to music, he also fought against social issues that were affecting his community at the time. He spoke out against police brutality and supported black pride, speaking passionately about race relations. His character can be seen in songs like “Keep Ya Head Up” and “Dear Mama,” showing his care.

Tupac Shakur was a man with a deep sense of justice. In his lyrics, he often railed against injustice, oppression, and violence; in his personal life, he worked to help provide opportunities for those who had none.

His status as a successful rapper who influences millions, coupled with his deep sense of justice and community is telling. It proves to us that he was basically a good person and had a high stature.

This means his actions had greater consequences than that of a normal person, he was constantly in the eyes of the public.

2. Tragic Flaw.

In the words of Tupac Shakur himself:

“I ain’t a killer, but don’t push me.”

Just like I mentioned above, If you look at Tupac’s story, it’s like something out of Shakespeare — a tale of greed and excess gone wild, an ambitious young man brought down by his own arrogance. It’s tempting to dismiss him as just another rapper with a chip on his shoulder, but he was so much more than that.

Tupac was an artist, a leader, a poet, an actor, and a revolutionary. He lived like he was dying, and that made us all love him before he died. A quick survey of his lyrics will show you how intimately he knew himself and how deeply he felt the pain and frustrations of the world around him. But his ego and pride were his tragic flaw — and it was because of them that he fell short of so much more potential.

We know how his story ends, so you might think it’s reductive to say that this is a tragedy, but hear me out. His ego took control of his rational mind. This in return caused him to make notoriously impulsive decisions.

It was his pride that killed him, as he couldn’t stand being defeated or held back by anyone else. He was so caught up in his stardom that he didn’t realize what kind of danger he was putting himself in when he declared War on Biggie Smalls and the East Coast.

Suge Knight of Death Row Records had ties with the Bloods and Sean “Puffy” Combs had his own ties with the Crips, two rival gangs. Shakur was stepping into a dangerous dynamic of gang violence. He couldn’t see through the smokescreen, and his declaring of war made things worse.

Tupac Shakur could have used the time behind bars to reflect on himself; instead, he succumbed to his rage and anger toward those who “wronged him.” He couldn’t stand feeling like his enemies won.

Slated to star as Sharif in the 1993 Hughes Brothers’ film Menace II Society, Shakur was replaced by actor Vonte Sweet after allegedly assaulting one of the film’s directors, Allen Hughes. In early 1994, Shakur served 15 days in jail after being found guilty of the assault.

On October 31, 1993, Shakur was arrested in Atlanta for shooting two off-duty police officers, brothers Mark Whitwell and Scott Whitwell. Shakur’s car pulled up and he shot the Whitwells in the buttocks and the abdomen. However, there are conflicting accounts that the Whitwells were harassing a black motorist and uttered racial slurs.

While his actions were well-intentioned, they were also irrational. He could have recorded the officers on tape or even protested against them using the proper channels.

Listen, I’m not judging his actions but I’m merely stating the reason behind his actions, which had a lot to do with his psychology. Hell, I might’ve done the same thing in his position.

Shakur had a lot of ambition. However, this ambition transformed into ego. His ego, subconsciously made him feel that he could do anything he wanted without consequence.

This was the fatal flaw that led to his downfall.

3. Tortured

Have you ever felt like your life was spiraling out of control? Like you were just trying to do the right thing and somehow, things kept getting worse and worse?

Tupac Shakur felt that way. He was a young, successful rapper in California who loved his life and what he did, but he was also growing up in an environment that constantly put him in danger.

At that point in Tupac’s career, he had made a name for himself in rap as someone who was unapologetic about his experiences, often speaking out against police brutality and institutional racism. He was not afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve and this led to a cult following of fans who felt they could relate to him.

Tupac All Eyez On Me

His album All Eyez on Me released that February, went diamond only two months after its release — a first for any musical artist at the time. His next album would not be released until after his death when it was released posthumously in the spring of 1997.

The year ’96 was a tough one for Tupac.

After the success of his first album, he was living a life of excess. He had everything he ever wanted: money, cars, girls, and fame. But there was something missing from his life — he wasn’t happy.

Like any celebrity musician in their early twenties, Tupac also suffered from the misconception that substance abuse would be an effective way to deal with the stress of his newfound fame and fortune. Almost half of Tupac’s songs were recorded over a bottle of Hennessy and a joint of marijuana — and since he released five albums in the four years before his death (including posthumous releases), you can imagine just how much weed and booze this guy consumed. But even as these substances began to take their toll on his health, Tupac still found himself faced with gangsters trying to kill him and lawyers trying to sue him for various things.

Before his death, Tupac had been convicted of sexual abuse and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, though he was released after nine months for good behavior. He had also been arrested for assault and for driving without a license.

Once he died, however, the lawsuits really started pouring in. He faced charges of assault and battery, defamation of character, libel, negligence, and more from all over the country. The cases ranged from “What happened when he was accused of stealing a woman’s $10,000 necklace?” to “Can we sue him for recording a song that makes fun of our group?”

It’s not clear how many of these cases were settled or filed before his death, but it’s safe to say that Tupac Shakur is one of the most-sued rappers who has ever lived — outpacing even 50 Cent and Sean Combs by an impressive margin.

This entails all the great deal of suffering he had to live through. In the 9 months, he had lived after his release from prison, his life was filled with a plethora of obstacles he had to endure.

4. Audience Response

The type of devastating audience response that Tupac Shakur elicited was so incredibly powerful that the reverberations of his musical impact are still felt today. The way he advocated for those who were unable to defend themselves, while simultaneously helping them find their own voices, is truly extraordinary.

‘Pac was a controversial figure. His lyrics were often explicit and violent; he had been arrested multiple times, and he seemed to have an attitude problem. Not to mention that he’d already survived being shot five times just a few months earlier.

But while he wasn’t the most polite rapper on the scene, many people had come to love him anyway. Even though his songs sometimes glorified gangs and violence, there was something about his music that made the listener feel powerful — even if they weren’t part of those experiences themselves.

The world of hip-hop was rocked to its core in the mid-1990s by the death of the revolutionary rapper. In one fell swoop, the entire genre lost one of its most outspoken and talented voices. One critic called his murder an “act of cultural treason,” and no artist since has been able to capture the raw emotion, political frustration, and overall humanity that Tupac embodied.

Many fans were left with a sense of loss and wanted to know more about how such a tragedy could happen.

Shakur had been instrumental in ushering in a new era of hip-hop and rap that was more lyrically sophisticated than the mainstream sounds of the 1980s, and his music reflected an emotional depth and intellectual curiosity that fans rarely saw from mainstream rappers

His death was untimely, but it allowed fans to believe that he was still alive somewhere — in Cuba or Mexico — and that he would return someday soon with brand-new music.

In interviews, rappers ranging from Snoop Dogg to Jay-Z have spoken about the pain they felt after losing their friend and fellow artist, who often collaborated with them. In fact, many artists who worked with Shakur have said that he was a mentor to them, giving them advice and supporting their careers while they were all still early in their journey.

In an interview with MTV after Shakur’s death, Snoop Dogg said that “he’s as great as Elvis Presley or Bob Marley — he has influenced so many different artists and people,” pointing out that Tupac’s message of freedom and self-expression would continue on through the generations of rappers who had come after him, inspired by his example.

5. Death

Tupac Shakur Death

Shakur preached about death in his last days

It is no surprise that he romanticized the idea, right down to when he got killed. It even scared most of his close friends. It seemed like he had a death wish. A true stoic approach to life.

The truth is, ‘Pac didn’t really want to live for very long at all.

He wanted to go out with a bang, and he totally did. I mean, he knew exactly what he was doing when he made his last album. It’s called The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, and it came out seven months after he died of gunshot wounds on September 13th, 1996 — and it’s basically his last will and testament.

But that’s not even the most interesting part. You see, Tupac engineered every single aspect of his death — from the moment he got shot to being taken off life support on the exact day that his album dropped. He even predicted what would happen after his death in one of his songs:

“If I die in a gunfight tonight, bury me with my guns so my enemies know who won tonight!”

Shakur went as far as shooting a music video for the song “I Ain’t Mad At Cha!”, where he staged his death.

His story is one that inspires us all to be better people in our own lives. It is my hope that we can learn from his example, live up to his legacy, and not shy away from what makes us different but instead embrace it wholeheartedly.

Tupac Shakur altar | John W. Schulze | Flickr

Tupac was a rockstar. He was a revolutionary. He was a poet. He was a rapper, an actor, and a producer — but most of all, he was a human being.

He had his demons like everyone else; he made his mistakes and he paid the price for them. But through it all, Tupac Shakur will always be remembered as one of the greatest artists of our time — a man who wasn’t afraid to take risks and challenge the status quo.

In life and in his music, Tupac Shakur exemplified the characteristics of a tragic hero. According to Aristotle, a tragic hero must “…be neither completely good nor completely wicked…their downfall is not wholly deserved.” (Gardner and Champlin).

Tupac was raised by a single mother who was outspoken about the Black Panther movement. He was also close friends with Jada Pinkett Smith, who he credits for having an impact on his spirituality, which became an important part of his lyrics later in life.

These two experiences show that despite being raised in the midst of gang violence, Tupac understood the value of peace and spirituality.

He was also self-aware enough to know that he had made mistakes that were detrimental to his career and personal life:

“When I get to hell there will be one less Angel there.”

-Shakur

Despite being aware of his own flaws, he still saw himself as an angelic figure — not with a sense of hubris or arrogance — but rather because he saw himself as a flawed human being capable of redemption. This line exemplifies the tragic hero archetype perfectly because it shows a character who is aware of their flaws but still sees themselves as an angelic character that is capable of goodness.

He is also an example of how fame can corrupt and corrupts quickly —

“It’s like I got this little angel on one shoulder and then I got this little devil on the other shoulder, and they’re always fighting.” -Shakur

In a way, Tupac Shakur is the perfect example of this dichotomy.

Aristotle also noted that the tragic hero should have “excessive pride” or hubris. As a young aspiring rapper, Tupac once said “I mean, I’m not saying I’m gonna rule the world or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee you that I will spark the brain that changes it.”

Understand this: Tupac Shakur is a real-life character and a modern-day tragic hero. In the movies, we have superman, spiderman, batman, etc.

Real-life, however, is filled with tragic heroes.

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Owner of hip-hopheads.co.za. I have been working to inspire and educate individuals through hip-hop culture, using hip-hop as a tool of self-expression.

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Tshegofatso Masumbuka

Tshegofatso Masumbuka

Owner of hip-hopheads.co.za. I have been working to inspire and educate individuals through hip-hop culture, using hip-hop as a tool of self-expression.

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