No, I cannot get away from Tupac Amaru Shakur, even if I tried. He has been a part of my life for almost as long as he lived, twenty-five years. It has been something to be connected to one person for so long, in so many different ways, for so many different reasons. It is something to say I was there in Las Vegas on that fateful day when Tupac’s death was announced. It is something to say I knew the man, the musician, the artist also known as Makaveli, and have literally watched the movement and myths around who Tupac was seed and grow to the levels of, yes, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean. For sure, in the very first cover story I did on Tupac I referred to him as the James Dean of the hip-hop era, for he possessed that same rebel-without-a-cause spirit. Except ‘Pac had multiple causes: be a voice for those with no voices, get money by all means necessary, make love, passionately, and to as many women as possible, like one of his heroes, Marvin Gaye.
When I first met ‘Pac, in the Spring of 1993, at the historic Jack The Rapper music conference in Atlanta, Georgia, he was fresh off his critically-acclaimed performance in the now classic movie Juice—plus two albums and a few hit songs to his credit like “Keep Ya Head Up.” But I was fascinated by Tupac because of his political background more than anything—son of former Black Panther Party member Afeni Shakur, stepson to U.S. political prisoner Mutulu Shakur, and the Shakur name, including that of Assata, of the famous 1979 New Jersey jailbreak, was legendary in the Black activist circles I was also a part of. I had written the very first cover story for VIBE, the one that featured Treach of Naughty by Nature on the front, and I was lobbying hard to get Tupac his shine in the same way. I knew there was something about him, that if anyone represented what it was to be a young Black man in America, the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly and the controversial, it was ‘Pac. Little did I know in that moment and space that from that first meeting I would spend three turbulent years reporting on Tupac’s tragic saga, in Atlanta, in Los Angeles, in New York City, and even in a prison interview with him at New York’s Rikers Island. I literally watched and experienced Tupac evolve from a brilliant young actor with the potential of Denzel Washington and Marlon Brando to a superstar with more criminal troubles and legal red tape that could have easily belonged to several people. But he never slowed down, right to the very end. Tupac was hip-hop, and he was bigger than hip-hop, too. And he knew it.
These thoughts were in my head as I drove from Los Angeles to the city of Carson, a small but proud community of 90,000 people, nearly a quarter of whom are African-American. Carson is bordered by towns made famous by hip-hop, like Compton and Long Beach. I was there to meet Demetrius Shipp Jr., the 28-year-old first-time actor who plays Tupac in the new biopic. Originally casted way back in 2011, he waited and waited as the biopic was perpetually delayed. A father of three, he worked odd jobs at Lowe’s and Target, collected disability checks, and was just a couple months shy of being evicted from his apartment. Demetrius finally got the call, in late 2015, that the film would finally begin shooting. His life, suffice to say, has been changed forever.
Demetrius would not know it until we began talking, but I met him a lifetime ago, even before I had met Tupac Shakur. It was in the Fall of 1992 and I was in Los Angeles for the first time hosting and co-writing a documentary for MTV called Straight From The Hood, about L.A. after the explosive Los Angeles riots in April of that year. His father, Demetrius, Sr., was a member of the Crips street gang, and a budding music producer who would eventually work with Tupac a few years later. Little Demetrius was all of four-years-old and very much in our camera shots as we highlighted the worldview of diverse Cali young people like his pops. No way could I have known then that twenty-five years later I would not only be reflecting back on the Los Angeles rebellion that was, but also interviewing Little Demetrius as he morphs into Tupac in the first major motion picture depicting the life of the slain rapper.
Demetrius and I met at a local Black-owned café called Juice-C-Juice at a sleepy strip mall in Carson which also included a hair spot named Our People Barbershop. When D walked into the café, I was struck by how much he resembled Tupac: the tall, lean build. The dark chocolate-brown complexion. The thick, bushy eyebrows. The nosering. Demetrius also had stud earrings in both lobes, a grey tee shirt on, black baggy shorts, and the bright green sneakers modeled after his favorite football team, the Oregon Ducks. And there was a cross given to him by one of his grandfathers, a preacher man, dangling from his neck. The café is a potpourri of fresh natural juices, Black-centered books of every kind, local Black newspapers, and since the owner is in the Nation of Islam, multiple references to NOI leader Louis Farrakhan. Demetrius is at ease here, humbly accepting the congratulations of local residents, inside the café and outside on the curb, who make it a point to tell me, the journalist, that they’ve known D since he was a little boy.
The café was too loud for us to do the interview, but over the next three hours or so Demetrius Shipp Jr. and I would talk in his SUV, drive around his old community, and sit in the backyard of one of his grandparents’ just kicking it as if life, and fate, had meant for us to cross paths once more, in this way, many years later.
VIBE: The question I am sure many want to ask: How did you get this role of playing the most famous rapper, alive or dead, in the world?
Demetrius: About March or April 2011. My best friend lived across the street from my grandparents where I grew up. He’s like dude there is a Tupac audition. This movie’s coming out. You’ve got to audition. And he showed it to me online. [I said] whatever, like I’m not doing that, but people always said I looked like Tupac in high school. So I’m like nah, I’m not going to do it. I’m cool. A couple weeks go by. He’s like you going to do it or not? You ain’t done it yet? It’s the last day to do it [and] I end up shaving my head, applying, all that, learning a monologue, learning to rap slow a little bit. 30 minutes before the deadline. I’m really pushing it. I hadn’t told anyone that I was going to do it or anything. I uploaded it to Facebook. My father saw it, and he’s like oh what’s this? He shared it with L.T. Hutton (All Eyez On Me co-executive producer) on Facebook. L.T. gave my father a call: “I mean [that] you can’t tell me that’s not your son?” From then on the ball was rolling. That’s when I went and actually did an audition with the casting agency. Shortly after that, I was called. They gave me a little flash drive with Tupac interviews and performances and stuff like art I need to learn. All this and like that was about summer 2011. But in September 2011, I got a job working.
You said your acting coach, Angela Gibbs, daughter of the famous tv actress Marla Gibbs, really pushed you. How?
The biggest thing she demanded is that I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
I just wanna lead. I want to lead the youth because that’s the most fertile Generation—16-21—where you’re finding yourself, where you’re coming into things, [and] where you’re following.
Yeah, I’m a different man because I read that book. Honestly. Truly. Because of what Malcolm said. And you know what’s so crazy? I had some of these feelings as far as today. I’m like why is everything a competition? When I read that book I was like oh, that’s why! This [has] been going on. This ain’t new. In some ways, it is because in certain parts of the South like [for] my grandfather—he has fond memories and stories where—the Black communities were all together. They were unified. They were working together, you know what I’m sayin’? It was love. You could pretty much leave your door open. You didn’t have to lock your door, your car door, none of that. They were all together. The one thing that I’m always gonna promote is ‘don’t look at a fellow Black man as an enemy.’ And it’s hard. It’s really hard though when you’re coming up. It’s something that you have to teach yourself and learn. I’m still at this point in my life, right now. This is really honest: I have to remind myself not to look another Black man as a threat.
Playing Tupac and knowing what happened to him and Biggie in real life, did you think about that as you were playing in the role. Did that cross your mind like how this could’ve happened differently with the whole Tupac-Biggie/East Coast-West Coast and all the stuff that happened?
There are a lot of factors beyond what people know and what needs to be revealed–
…That play into that and I think moreso weighs back into your choices. The choices of who you want to keep around, be around. You’ve got to recognize energy. I’ve had great discernment between the type of people that I’ve been around. I think that plays true to that situation with ‘Pac and Biggie as far as, you know, the discernment of not being able to say this is not the crowd I should even be functioning with. For Tupac, it was a crowd of people that he was functioning with that he just shouldn’t have been functioning with at where he was in his life and with everything that he was accomplishing, getting to, money he was makin’, the fame he was coming into. Not to say that I’m better than these people or whatever, it’s just that: are they essential? Do they provide growth, you feel me? Is it something that’s adding to your life in any positive way and if not, then you don’t need those people around. That’s what I think has kept me out of a lot of trouble—the ability to be like okay you know what….
Do you consider yourself a role model now that you’ve overcome so much, have this big platform suddenly, and know firsthand the kinds of ugly public episodes Tupac Shakur experienced, even the ones he inflicted on himself?
Yeah, so this is more in regards to celebrities. What we’ve got to understand is that we are the influencers of the hip-hop culture, the Black culture. We are the way out, you feel what I’m sayin’? As far as who we look to and where we get stuff from—hip-hop culture is influencing the world really, but especially the Black communities. That’s where we get everything from. These dudes are in very powerful positions and not using them in the best way. Everybody else is ahead of us. All of the other races, they’re more together than us and guess what? Guess what they have in common with all the other races? They love us. They follow everything we do, you feel what I’m sayin’? You’ve got White grandmothers dabbing all on TV and like-the Asian kids, and it’s not to say that first all we’re better than anybody or there is a problem with that. It’s just to say we need to be using that to our advantage. I vowed to never be on camera down talking another Black man. That’s out, you feel me? If myself and that man have a disagreement or whatever, then it ain’t for the world to know and it’s not an open discussion. That’s wack. That’s out. I hate that.
What I’ve gathered from our talking on and off the digital recorder is that you come from a family of people who are leaders—
I just wanna lead. I want to lead the youth because that’s the most fertile Generation—16-21—where you’re finding yourself, where you’re coming into things, [and] where you’re following. I got lucky. I got sucked into some stuff several times, you feel me? There are some things that are really out here pertaining to [the] streets and I’ve teetered with it very, very closely. I wouldn’t say I was fully involved in gangs, but I was walking around with a gun and nobody even knew; my pops didn’t even know that there’ve been times, crazy stuff. I think I just told my pops this crazy story where I had a gun in my car. I feel like I got lucky and not everyone gets that lucky so you gotta be careful. You have to recognize okay, what are the long-term effect of me playing with these type of gangs and doin’ this and playing with these type of people? And that’s when I made my decision like okay I’m not doing this. I almost got caught with a gun.
You don’t wanna share it?
No, I said I do. It’s not something to be glorifying. It was senseless, but nonetheless… Man, I got pulled over with my homeboys in the car. I had my gun on me and I use to always keep my gun in a CD case, my little chrome 380. We got pulled over right at the Carson Mall. My boy had just got a car. His first car his pops got him, an old BMW. So when we and my boy was rollin’, I didn’t have a car at the time so we jumped in his car cause we ‘bout to go to Wingstop. He gets behind the mall and he’s speeding, bro. He’s smashing! I’m like yo, you gotta slow down, the police may be over here! I promise to God not even ten seconds later, we get right at the stop sign by Ikea, then ‘Whoop! Whoop!’ I’m like oh my god. I hadn’t even put it in my mind that I have my gun on me!
Two cars pull up and they don’t come up and ask nothin’. Ain’t no why are you speeding, put yo muthaf_____ hands up. They’re doin’ the whole thing, guns drawn. They don’t say anything the whole time. They just pull us all out of the car. I’m so my mad ’cause I know they’re about to find the gun. I had the gun in a CD case in my backpack. I had a little NBA backpack that I use to always carry with me. They go right to my door first. I’m like here we go and they come out and they go to the next door then they go back to my door. I’m sitting directly behind the driver so I’m like what? We’re all looking at each other, me and my boy. Man, they come back. They finish, then they come back to the car! We’re all lookin’ like what? The cop was like, why were you speeding? He’s [my boy’s] like I’ll never speed again. He’s like my bad. I’mma be real honest with you. My pops just bought me that car so this is my first time.
You played a character. Based on a real-life person. Tupac didn’t have what you had, like a consistent father figure in his life. How did you get into that knowing that that’s, unfortunately, a story for a lot of us Black males of different generations?
I think I just tapped into it in a different way by using it as conflict. You know there’s still the thing, too, [where] you can have somebody that has an abundance and a great big family, but still at disarray with any human being. There’s no good in that either. So with him, I think he had friends where he was who he considered family. He was close and in very very tight with him. And when those relationships became broken, you know, messed up or whatever, that can affect you and that can affect anybody. When you’ve got a strong bond with somebody and it’s just a couple of us, and that void is missing, then we aren’t getting along.
When did Tupac first come into your consciousness?
I mean we knew about ‘Pac. But my fondest memory is that my pops did the track, “Toss It Up.” You know I was open once I saw the video. I’ll never forget it.
What was the hardest challenge of making the movie for you as an actor?
The hardest challenge would have to be when we were recreating scenes. There’s no way I could give a sub-par performance to Tupac’s Juice performance that everybody’s using.
Are there any kind of roles that you really want now that you’ve had this major breakthrough? Are there things that you think about now that you really would love to do in your next movie?
I would say the next best type of movie that I would like to do is [something] like The Pursuit of Happyness. My thing is inspiration. I thrive on it. Not just for myself, I want to inspire so much but I thrive on reading or seeing someone else’s story. That motivates me, inspires me. It changes me. I welcome myself to anything that will make me want to be better.
Photographer: Peter Dokus
Stylist(s): Wayman + Michah
Groomer: Sydney Sollod
Kevin Powell was a founding staff writer at VIBE and wrote multiple cover stories for the magazine, including many on Tupac Shakur. He is the author or editor of 12 books, including his autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood. You can email him, [email protected], or follow him on Twitter, @kevin_powell.