Words by Kiah Fields
This article was originally published in The Source Issue #272
What is a thug, but a mortal man? One engulfed in his own passion to change the world around him for better or worse? With the fire of his own strength fueling his every endeavor, a true thug moves to the beat of his own intuition. He knows his purpose, his place, and the road that lies ahead; and, although it may be one less traveled, he makes his stride with pride and commitment. A real thug needs no affirmation, he can go without collaboration, and is self-motivated to make his success undeniable. A true thug brings life to those around him.
The concepts behind Tupac Shakur’s infamous “Thug Life” mantra have nearly been forgotten. The model of collective struggle to overcome a bleak reality and the each-one-teach-one attitude that once was prominent in Hip-Hop culture, has now been replaced by a level of materialism and self-degradation that has warped the public perspective of what the genre really is about. Before his passing, Tupac was a man who stood for more than tattoos, women, money, bandanas, narcotics, and firearms. In true Gemini fashion, the duality of his message was one that has permeated Hip-Hop’s very core. Despite his brushes with the law and rough exterior, ‘Pac’s words of wisdom were not to be taken lightly. He was Hip-Hop’s own Huey Newton, a true servant to his craft and organizer of the ghetto. With every single released, every public appearance, every interview, ‘Pac moved as the prime example of an artist with a righteous cause.
In a 1994 interview, he guaranteed viewers that he will be the one to spark the mind that will effectively change this world for the better. Through his own “big mouth” and controversial truths, ‘Pac was certain he would not be one to save the world, but would definitely inspire the person who would. His entire existence and musical career were a call to action. He knew what time it was. He had an understanding that was beyond what most could ever hope to comprehend, and even with his untimely passing, was able to hold true to his promise- at a moment even he couldn’t predict or expect.
Among the dust and rubble that surrounded the Compton Swap Meet, while Tupac and Dr. Dre recorded the timeless “California Love” music video, an eight-year-old Kendrick Lamar sat atop his father’s shoulders, enthralled by his own curiosity and excitement. His young mind had not yet found the right words to describe what he was feeling at that moment, but what was certain was that something in him changed forever. More than 20 years later he realized what it was; he was inspired. In an open letter to the late rapper, penned to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his passing, Lamar describes exactly what that moment did for him. From that moment, gazing at Tupac in his white Bentley scolding passing police officers for violating his personal space, Kendrick knew that he wanted to be a voice for all mankind one day; and since the release of his acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly album in 2015 he has not quieted down.
Kendrick Lamar has grown to become less concerned with the politics behind rap music and more with those who live and die by the message its lyrics portray. He has already begun to move away from radio directed hits such as m.A.A.d. city or Poetic Justice to give his audience a message they can hold in their hearts and minds as a positive example. With his past three albums, Kendrick has opened up a Pandora’s Box of streetwise consciousness in an attempt to expand the thoughts of his listeners past the materialism pushed by so many other popular artists. Kendrick holds the key to the city of Compton, literally! Beyond the music his actions in the realm of community service have already been enough to cement his name as one of, if not the, largest philanthropic contributor to the South Central neighborhood. He has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Los Angeles schools, specifically for sports, after school, and music programs, in the Compton Unified School District, keeping countless youth away from trouble of an unknown caliber. He has headlined concerts in support of battered women’s shelters, Indian rural development programs, American Red Cross relief for superstorm Sandy, and Habitats for Humanity using his platform to truly entice a change in not just the American people but the citizens of our planet. His presence in the Compton community has been felt in such a way that he was honored in 2015 in the California State Senate with the 35th District’s Generational Icon Award, adding yet another achievement to the 2-time Grammy Award winning, platinum selling artist’s repertoire.
Kendrick himself has made claims to be a “child of [Tupac’s] legacy”, and it can be said that the apple has not fallen too far from the tree. Tupac’s efforts to help instill moral values in the global community are well documented. His C.O.D.E. foundation, founded in 1994 with step-father Mutulu Shakur, kept the simple mission to keep black youth out of the prison system they were seemingly funneled into and decrease black on black crime in the United States. Pac also took to the streets to encourage collectiveness among the ‘ghetto’ community by petitioning high ranking gang members to sign the Code of Thug Life, and held the famous 1992 Truce Picnic to show the world that unity was possible in the hood.
Kendrick, who’s young life was very much affected by gang culture, has also made strides in ending gang violence, through his lyrics and a partnership with Reebok. He designed a pair of sneakers featuring one red shoe and one blue shoe to promote unity between the infamous Crips and Bloods gangs, notorious throughout California and the U.S.
Tupac spared no expense when it came to touching the lives of his supporters in a positive way. There are countless stories of Tupac extending comfort, wisdom, and support to children, youth, and the community throughout his career. He has attended proms, thrown parties, taken fans to events, and even visited hospitals, without even being asked to show his face. Even now after his passing, The Tupac Shakur Foundation has been an outlet for community outreach and positivity. In the same vein, Kendrick has made his presence known throughout Compton, visiting schools and organizations that aid the lives of the city’s disadvantaged youth.
The immense similarities in the careers of these two decorated recording artists raises the question: is Kendrick Lamar the voice that Tupac was speaking of in his 1994 interview? It may be too early to draw a conclusion, but with what Kendrick has been able to accomplish in his 29 years of life, the sky’s the limit. With the reception of his last three albums, which are arguably his most socially charged, and the respect he has earned among his peers and colleagues, he is well suited to take the reins. Legends of West Coast Hip-Hop, including: Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, The Game, Warren G, and Kurupt, have already decided that Kendrick now sits on the throne after crowning him the new king of L.A. at his August 2011 concert at the Music Box in Hollywood. It is now up to K.Dot to continue to carry out the good work.
Only time will tell if Kendrick will rise to become the cultural leader that he has the potential to be. He holds the hearts and minds of the people in an almost identical capacity as his idol, Tupac Shakur, and there isn’t much standing in the way of his success. At this point, All Eyez are on him.