Conspiracy narratives pervaded the life, death, and art of rapper and film star Tupac (2Pac) Shakur (1971–1996). He was born into the black nationalist Shakur family in times of intense political activism.
This was the golden age of political conspiracy, as Tupac’s “parent culture” battled with the covert actions and government informers of the Nixon administration. His mother, Afeni, was one of the famous Panther 21, tried for and acquitted of conspiring to blow up several New York department stores while pregnant with Tupac.
A wide assortment of conspiracy motifs punctuated Tupac’s rap rhymes. His politically insurgent debut album 2Pacalypse Now (1991) critiqued the racist and exploitative U.S. social order, particularly brutal and corrupt policing.
Lamenting a perceived racial genocide of young black men, he raps, “one by one we are being wiped off the face of the earth” (“Words of Wisdom”). In 1995, he released his most critically acclaimed album, Me Against the World, pervaded by paranoid testaments and suicidal ruminations (“Death Around the Corner,” “If I Die Tonite”).
Here he explored the old paranoid adage that to be insane is the only sane response to a crazy world. In the year of his tragic murder, he produced his most conspiratorially redolent album: Don Killuminati: The 7-Day Theory, released under the stagename “Makaveli.”
Here Tupac throws all sorts of plots into the mix, achieving an overblown, baroque conspiracist mode. The album cover depicts Tupac martyred on a cross, and the title marries religion and numerology (“7-Day Theory”), the Mafia (“don”), and ancient conspiratorial beliefs (the play on “Illuminati”).
Taken together, Tupac’s aesthetic gives expressive shape to the idea of “insecure paranoia” (Knight, 229), arising from the confounding complexities and inequalities of contemporary society marked by economic uncertainty and information overload.
Tupac was gunned down in Las Vegas in 1996, generating a fresh spate of conspiracy theories. Two theories predominated: Tupac was still alive and had only faked his own death to increase sales or to evade assailants; his murder was the result of an elaborate plot by the police, by his music industry rivals, or by his own record label, Death Row Records.
Fueling the first of these theories was the macabre video for the single “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” filmed one month before his death and endlessly rotated on MTV posthumously, portraying Tupac being shot and going to heaven.
Influential hip-hop figure Chuck D entered the conspiratorial fray by posting “Thirteen Reasons Why Tupac Is Still Alive” on his website. These included the contention that Tupac died on Friday the 13th (which is true), and that there was no autopsy (which is not).
Despite the best efforts of fans, who tend to rewrite events when confronted with the sudden and premature death of their celebrity idols, the stark fact of Tupac’s demise has become increasingly inescapable—aided by photos of the postautopsy rapper published in Cathy Scott’s book about his death.
However, debate about those responsible for the star’s murder continues to flourish, fueled by the likes of Nick Broomfield’s recent ill-informed film Biggie and Tupac (2002), which—unpersuasively—points the finger for the slaying at Tupac’s Death Row boss, Suge Knight.