Despite the fact Tupac Shakur has now been dead (23.7 years) for nearly as long as he lived (25.3 years), his name appears in headlines more often than a lot of artists who are still breathing. In the last few months alone, Tupac has been resurrected via deep fake technology to appear in a Snoop Dogg video and fronted the new season of Supreme as a hologram. This is a continuation of an aggressive posthumous life cycle for the late rap legend, with Tupac releasing seven of his 11 platinum albums in death, headlining Coachella (again, as a hologram) back in 2012, and giving Kendrick Lamar a pep talk on arguably the most important album of the 2010s.
One of the main reasons the late rapper still feels so omnipresent is the enduring conspiracy theory that he didn’t succumb to gunshot wounds sustained in a drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas Strip on 13 September 1996, but escaped to Cuba, and has been laughing at us ever since. Just a quick search of ‘Tupac” in Google News and you’ll find monthly tabloid stories dedicated to the subject, with new sightings of the rapper and fresh reports on the method in which he faked his death.
One of the latest theories suggests Tupac switched with a double and was flown out of Las Vegas by helicopter after learning someone was planning to assassinate him. Filmmaker Rick Boss, the director of new documentary 2Pac: The Great Escape from UMC, claims Tupac is hiding out in New Mexico. “Let’s just say Mr. Shakur — the family is aware of the movie and they’re okay with the title so that should tell you more or less what’s going on,” Boss told Las Vegas TV station KTNV.
There is no end to such stories, but it fails to explain why this particular conspiracy has endured. It does, however, tell us a few things through the way it continues to spread.
The “Tupac Is Alive” theory exists primarily due to clever marketing and a playful campaign of misinformation by the music industry to push record sales. Pac’s corpse was still warm when his posthumous album Makaveli was being marketed in November 1996, with billboards that read “Listen very carefully” and a music video for lead single “Hail Mary” which featured Tupac quite literally rising up from the earth to murder all of his enemies. “I know ad-libs and stuff were added to the 7 Day Theory album after Pac’s death to keep him feeling alive,” revealed Ronald Brent, who was responsible for the record’s haunting artwork, in a 2019 interview with Crack Magazine.
Although some may find it incredibly tacky, Death Row CEO Suge Knight (who had a vault filled with hundreds of unreleased Tupac songs) knew that creating the illusion of his prized asset faking his own death would generate an intrigue which could sustain record sales long after the rapper’s passing. In 2017, Knight — who is currently in prison — was still peddling this theory, suggesting to Ice-T in a TV interview: “With Pac, you never know.” His son, Jacob, has even claimed Pac is living in Malaysia and working on a new album.
This marketing plan was even furthered by the Tupac Shakur estate itself, which was managed by his mother, Afeni Shakur. The 1997 music video for “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto” features an off-camera Tupac arriving by helicopter in the desert just a day after his murder, furthering a conspiracy theory that the aforementioned Mr. Boss would later take to heart. Meanwhile, Tupac’s 2003’s posthumous double album Better Dayz features an outro where Tupac repeats the words “Expect me nigga like you expect Jesus to come back / I’m coming” over and over. On 2004’s woeful Loyal To the Game, which was problematically signed off by Afeni, the project’s awkward producer — Eminem — shamelessly manipulated Tupac’s ad-libs so that he shouted “G-Unit in the motherfucking house!” and had conversations with guests like Obie Trice and Jadakiss.
The fact Tupac was such a paranoid individual, prone to rapping lyrics which referenced plots to overthrow his enemies or surviving being shot (on “I Ain’t Hard 2 Find,” he raps “I heard rumors I died / murdered in cold blood, dramatized / pictures of me in my final state / you know momma cried / but that was fiction / some coward got the story twisted”) has only aided the conspiracy theories, with fans interpreting some of these lyrics to reference his 1996 murder rather than the five shots he survived after getting robbed outside New York’s Quad Studios back in 1994.
His music is fertile ground for being misunderstood by conspiracy theorists, and the people who own Pac’s music must have been well aware of the power behind this confusion. There’s a prevailing sense that a label executive knew pushing the idea Tupac was still alive could be a very lucrative business decision, and that they are gleefully rubbing their hands together right now, watching the monster they’ve created continue to mutate.
I used to believe in the conspiracy theory myself. I distinctly remember staying up all night on September 13, 2003, convinced I was about to read a Yahoo story about the return of Tupac Shakur. Like the thousands of other teenagers on the “2Pac Lives” forum that I spent my summer holidays studying, the idea that Tupac faked his death, and would return seven years later, was an all-consuming obsession. The “evidence” felt overwhelming: Tupac named his last album Makaveli: the 7 Day Theory, an interesting source of inspiration as its author, Niccolò Machiavelli, wrote in his masterpiece The Prince about faking death to fool your enemies.
Weirder still, Suge Knight wasn’t listed as the record’s executive producer, but “Simon” was; yeah, the first apostle to see Jesus rise from the grave. Tupac (who was shot in Las Vegas on September 7 1996, and died on September 13) took seven days to die, and if you listen to “Hail Mary” loudly enough you can hear someone whisper: “You think I’m dead?” around the three second mark, followed by Tupac’s slightly louder reply of: “Wait seven years!” Right? Right?! Tupac’s political revolutionary aunt, Assata Shakur, has been hiding from the FBI in Cuba since 1979 — a perfect location for her nephew to hide out in, or so I told myself. Someone even persuaded me that Tupac’s autopsy picture was faked by cutting his sleeping body from the “California Love (Remix)” music video and pasting it onto a mortuary table via Photoshop.
In life, Tupac was a walking contradiction — capable of both empowering women and calling them thirsty hoes in the same verse. Even though his targets weren’t always the right ones, the fact Tupac thunderously delivered his thuggish sermons from the very back of his throat was so compelling that it made you directly invest in his perspective, no matter how clumsy it might have been (on “Hit Em Up,” he famously pledged to use a magnum to kill his enemies’ children). Whether he was rapping about the struggle of single black mothers cooking up miracles in the kitchen or the idea of smoking weed to stave off suicidal thoughts, Tupac made your hairs stand up and your chest stick out more boldly.
Yet by continuously reanimating Tupac’s corpse to sell records, the music industry isn’t paying tribute to his visceral power, but distastefully bending his message out of shape. Tupac’s entire existence, rightly or wrongly, was driven by the idea of speaking without limitations, so propagating the idea that Pac would stay silent in hiding for 24 years is an insult to the incendiary way that he lived his life. To believe Tupac could live in exile just shows that you fundamentally don’t understand who he was.
The media and the music industry won’t let Tupac Shakur die because they know the conspiracy is easy money, but by shutting out these theories completely, we can start to honor the legacy of Tupac correctly. Tupac, an artist who spent large swathes of his life behind bars, would have hated the idea of coming back in various zombified forms that feel more like digital cages than accurate manifestations of his firecracker energy. His voice was based around winning control for black people in a world where white people pulled the strings, so the idea he himself could become a capitalistic pawn, exploited by these same shadowy forces for quick clicks, or that his vocals could be altered by producers who he never met to rap over beats he would have dismissed as trash, feels distasteful beyond belief.
One of Tupac’s most famous quotes had him boldly stating: “My only fear of death is reincarnation,” and in 2020, these are words which we should finally start to heed. Remember Tupac for the life that he lived, not the after-life that the music industry created.