Nov. 12 marked the 25th anniversary of 2Pac’s 1991 classic debut, 2Pacalypse Now. Although the album’s title is a reference to the film Apocalypse Now, I always thought it was a nod to Public Enemy’s Apocalypse 91 … The Enemy Strikes Black, which was released a month prior.
My brother bought me Strikes Black on his visit home from art school. Before I heard that album, I thought black history was a long dreary story that shamed me. Its pain was so dark that it infused my skin with melanin, superimposing its long shadow over me every February. Strikes Black was like a revelatory audio comic inspiring revolution. Public Enemy turned black pioneers into superheroes, making the X-Men look like white appropriated stand-ins for revolutionaries like Toussaint Louverture and Harriet Tubman. It made me think about my grandmother born on a plantation becoming a teacher, my godfather fighting as a paratrooper in the Vietnam War, and my other grandmother who, despite getting beaten and raped by five white men, raised 17 children.
If Strikes Black was the bed of soil underneath my pavement of denial, then 2Pacalypse was the rose that grew out of the concrete. I was in the sixth grade, one of few black students at my school. At lunch we were an island of misfit toys. The track “If My Homie Calls” turned our island into a crew.
This was before MP3s, so I got the album through Columbia House’s mail-order CD club, which offered 12 CDs for a penny. The shipment came months after I saw the film Juice, in which Pac played Bishop, a kid who romanticized “going out” like James Cagney in the 1949 gangster film White Heat, yelling, “Top of the world!” Juice tried to tell a crime story about lost innocence, but Pac’s performance as a self-destructive young black man consumed by nihilism dominated the film.
2Pacalypse was the embodiment of young black males who, like Bishop, were angry and trying to articulate their rage. “No Malcolm X in my history text, why’s that?/’Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks/Why is Martin Luther King in my book each week?/He told blacks, if they get smacked, turn the other cheek,” Pac rapped on “Words of Wisdom.” From the hood to the ’burbs, the rulers’ version of black heritage had no place for black unity. It informed my self-hatred, binding me up in the seemingly inescapable straitjacket of stereotypes, making me scared of my own people. “Wisdom” was like that moment in a fight where this white kid Austin hit me hard enough to make me cry but also fight harder — not because he pushed me and called me “nigger” (I wasn’t a nigger, I was a N.I.G.G.A.: “Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished”), but so the other white kids watching wouldn't wonder if they could punk me, too.
“You grabbed me ’cause I’m black, right?” I asked the white male teacher who let Austin go. “Well, you said it, I didn’t,” he responded.
That same year, some of my boys started going out with white girls. Following their lead, I was messing with this white girl that we’ll call Lisa. Dating white girls was like this sea-splitting moment of, “I didn’t know I could do that.”
The night Lisa French-kissed me was also the first time I heard Pac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” on the radio. The agony of the song’s hook sounded like a church choir pleading to a neglectful God. Until Lisa, I thought, “That’s never going to happen to me.” Having sex seemed like a dream away from watching my brother’s pornos. All the black and Latina girls were messing with high school dudes. They were “men.” I was “a boy.” My cousin had a baby when she was just 17, but my sixth-grade eyes saw her as grown. “I think I’m pregnant,” my cousin said over the phone. “What?” I said. “What” was about all I knew how to say.
Brendas started popping up everywhere, like pubertal pimples. Soon girls in my neighborhood started having babies. I was still thinking about Lisa’s big bazookas. While these girls were worried about formula, diapers and becoming single mothers, I was trying not to scuff up my new Air Jordans that I spent all my school-clothes money on. It got Moms thinking she’d be an older Brenda. “If you get a girl pregnant, don’t have an abortion. Have the baby and I’ll take care of it,” she said. Fortunately, Lisa’s mother acted as a prophylactic when she found out that the “nice boy” who kept calling her house was black.
Four years later, a black kid got Lisa pregnant and her parents kicked her out. She was living out of her car. “All you see on the news is niggers in handcuffs,” Lisa’s stepfather told her.
As old Southern black folk, my parents were cool with my brother having a Jheri curl and listening to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, but dressing like the “niggers on the news in handcuffs” was tempting fate. “Look like one of them drug dealers,” Pops said. Tracks like “Young Black Male,” “Trapped” and “Violent” told me that me and my brother weren't criminals, which eclipsed how whites (and my parents) judged my baggy jeans. “Pull them damn pants up,” Pops said, walking his beer belly around the house, wearing only his underwear.
Just as my parents taught me that getting my education is a political act, Pac taught me that my voice is a “weapon” for waging war against a rigged system that was historically intended to incarcerate or kill me before I was 25. As America transitions from its first black president to a reality TV star, whose chief strategist is a white nationalist, 2Pacalypse Now is as relevant as the voters who got Trump elected. It’s like Austin punched all the Brendas and Bishops of the world, making them cry, but also making them fight harder.