“This [trial] is all about my image, this has nothing to do with me… I’m selling records. This is what I do for a living: I’m selling records. Don’t get it twisted. This is not my real life.”
—Tupac, Monday evening
Riding across the Brooklyn bridge around 9:30 on Thursday morning, the day the verdict in Tupac Shakur’s sodomy trial is delivered, a day after he was shot five times, feels like riding into the front lines of a warzone. Waiting just across the approaching shore are warring generals and soldiers—lawyers and reporters who battle to shape and/or report an event that could stretch on interminably or, end at a moment’s notice—at least one man who is injured and, at the moment, MIA—Tupac—and the gnawing probability, call it tension, that soon, maybe before the day is over, there will be a casualty to report. Tupac’s.
“No matter what happens,” Tupac proclaims to a beehive full of reporters Tuesday afternoon outside the courtroom, “innocent or guilty, my life is ruined.” But after what happens Thursday evening—for those sequestered on some other case: not guilty of two counts of sodomy, one count of attempted sodomy and three counts of criminal possession of a weapon, guilty of 3 counts of sexual abuse that could net him between two and a third to seven years in jail—his life is far from over. See Tupac as part of the Whitney Museum’s Black Male exhibit and the events of last week as scenes in a live performance art exhibit. This is an act that questions the place of rebellion for its own selfish and/or self-destructive sake, debates the value of outlaw subculture and gauges the universe of distance between the militantly politicized generation that gave birth to the militantly commercial one that has taken its place. And it stars a master performance artist whose canvas is his body and whose stage is the world.
There is a massive distance between Tupac’s fame and the amount of substantive professional work he has completed. Despite being an actor with tremendous presence, with the exception of a co-starring role in “Juice,” he has never acted in a good movie. Despite being, along with Snoop, one of the two most famous rappers in the world, he is merely an average vocalist and lyricist, even by west coast standards, and has yet to record one aesthetically important song. But the performance art—the Black Panther bloodline, the flurry of arrests in LA, Atlanta, East Lansing and Manhattan, the escape from five of those six arrests with only a minuscule 14 days in jail, the fact that while everyone else talks about it, Tupac is the only known rapper who has actually shot a police officer, the walking away from being shot five times with no permanent damage, and walking away from the hospital the next day and the rolling into court for a brief, but dramatic, wheelchair-bound courtroom appearance—it’s been dangerously compelling and ecstatically brilliant. It’s kept his lackluster professional work artistically interesting and commercially viable, just as the films and albums have given him the money, attention and legitimacy necessary to carry it off. And it’s threatening to subsume the rest of the Whitney exhibit.
From the front row, that is, in person, the act steps to another level. Tupac is an animated conversator who gestures for the back row, makes lots of audience eye contact while delivering his sometimes funny, usually passionate and always provocative lines. On Tuesday evening he speaks about the court proceeding and his perception of its Kafkaesque nature, then pauses and slays the assembled crowd adding, “I don’t wanna see the Tupac Bronco chase on the freeway.” The overall effect is neatly seductive: it makes you want not only to listen to him and to like him, but to believe him. And a convincing performance is the goal of every actor. “I’m not saying I’m a thug cuz I wanna rob you and rape people and things,” he says Tuesday afternoon. “I’m a businessman! You know I’m a businessman because you find me at my places of business!”
So when he rolls into court just after 10 on Thursday morning, it’s just another scene, and it’s played out with just enough passive-aggressive behavior toward the press that our star remains not only squarely in the middle of the stage, but also maintains the illusion that we were actually not on stage. Tupac is wheeled in surrounded by six Fruit of Islam bodyguards who slice through the deluge of cameras and microphones with elbows and shoves. Keeping the press from their charge seems to be the FOI’s explicit purpose, but after parking in front of the court building’s Lafayette street entrance, the entourage marches around to the building’s Center street side—adding 50 or so yards and 4-5 minutes to their journey. And opening the door for the wheelchair-bound, NY Yankees-ski hat wearing images that dominate the news of the near future. “I’m a businessman.”
When a performer is perpetually on stage it’s hard to know, or worse, believe them, when they do step off. Or, rather, if. For over an hour leading up to about 11:30, Tupac sits in his wheelchair outside courtroom 677 waiting for Judge Daniel Fitzgerald to take the bench. He is surrounded by his FOI bodyguards, his mother, and a handful of friends, including actresses Jada Pinkett and Jasmine Guy (Mickey Rourke arrives a few hours later). While he sits, he takes off his Yankees hat to reveal what appears to be heavy bandages covering the upper two-thirds of his head. But later, he removes that revealing it to be only a white skully: his actual bandages appear significantly less dramatic. They aren’t quite as thick, and cover his forehead, but only circle the top of his head, leaving unwrapped an area of approximately two to three inches in diameter. When the jury walks in for a read-back around 1pm, the Yankees hat is off and he’s wearing the skully, and elicits looks of compassion and curiosity from numerous jurors.
At about 2pm it becomes known that Tupac isn’t returning from lunch break—because, his lawyer tells the court, he felt numbness in his leg—and his official whereabouts go unrevealed for the rest of the day. My worry that he will turn up dead never returns. It’s more than simply knowing that Tupac is now probably strapped and surrounded by bodyguards wherever he is that keeps the thought at bay. More than not hearing any ominous music in the background. It’s simply my feeling that this scene won’t feature a second shooting sequence.
Tupac’s brief, wheelchair-bound courtroom appearance is read by many reporters and hangers-on as a rather transparent attempt to manipulate the jury, and leads to skepticism about what really motivated the shooting that landed him in that chair. The incident’s timing—during the jury deliberation in a high-pressure trial—makes it nearly impossible to believe the police conclusion that it was a random robbery. “What thug would shoot Tupac?” one reporter asks. “Tupac is a thug hero.”
While it’s debatable whether a good thug would shoot his idol, it’s still hard to believe that the police had a hand in the shooting as Tupac’s attorney Michael Warren hints. Though it would be in character with Black Panther history, it’s hard to accept simply because of Tupac’s minimal political significance with respect to the power structure in America. The afternoon following the shooting a thin, Black, middle-aged passerby stops long enough to tell a group of reporters that authorities know Tupac is someone capable of getting the Black Panthers started again and they need to shut him down before that happens. But for anyone to ascribe him that much power is horribly ignorant of one key fact: though Tupac is, in some ways, a spiritual descendant of the Panthers, he has no political framework for his dissension and anarchy. He may be an urban superhero, but it’s quite a leap to go from getting people to sing, “I Get Around,” to having them quit jobs to run free breakfast programs, and giving up fly Fort Greene apartments to live underground, and forgetting afternoons spent watching “Menace II Society” yet again (while lamenting that the film could’ve been even better with Tupac as O-Dawg), in order to attend rallies to applaud the pronouncements of Comrade Tupac.
“The way this country is successful,” the Minister of Outlawness told a crowd Tuesday afternoon outside the courtroom, “is if we have one set of rules and everybody follows them. If anybody gets outside of that set of rules and they’re in the public view like I am, it’s like detrimental to everybody following the rules. What they think is that I represent lawlessness and the outlaw mentality and I represent that thug mentality from the street. So they feel like if they can punish me, that it’ll punish people that are like as brave as I am, who don’t speak out against things like me.” But Tupac’s character is far from Huey Newton the revolutionary leader and political organizer, and a lot closer to Huey Newton the chauvinist pig and self-destructive rebel. He is Huey with the misogyny, the sex appeal and the guns, without the ten-point plan.
Indeed, Tupac’s argument that the point of the trial and shooting were to stop someone who speaks out against things is mocked by the presence of his lawyer, Michael Warren. A tall, grand-looking, light brown-skinned Black man with close-cropped hair who appears to be in his 50s, Warren keeps an office in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and lists on his card, under his Christian name, his Muslim name—Tarif Khalil Salim. Warren used to be a member of SNCC and has known Tupac’s mother and surrogate father for 15 years, dating back to his days in the Black Liberation Army. Now, full of Black gladiator cool, Warren swaggers through the halls of court buildings with the grace of say, a slightly battered, but still elegant athlete and makes a living defending the likes of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahmen, the blind cleric convicted of plotting to bomb the World Trade Center. Taking Warren out would be far smaller news story, but a far greater loss to whatever remaining Black liberation movement there is.
Warren’s competition, assistant district attorney Melissa Mourges, is, by comparison, a frail, mousy white woman who wears glasses and speaks tentatively and haltingly. If there is a villain in this scene, she is it, but unlike, say, Marcia Clark circa the O.J. pre-trial hearings, she doesn’t seem to relish her role, but appears to feel powerless to do anything about it. During a slow moment on Thursday afternoon, around 3:30, she and her second chair find themselves in a conversation with a few reporters one of whom jokes that soon on Court TV there will be a credit reading “Prosecutor’s wardrobe by Armani.” After slight laughter she self-deprecatingly jokes that her credit would be, “Jacklyn Smith by KMart.”
As for the shooting and subsequent whodunit, it makes as much sense (albeit conflicted) that Tupac himself orchestrated the incident. Why? Possibly to cause a mistrial, or evoke jury sympathy, or to boost his position as a feared political figure, relentlessly attacked by The conniving, hapless Man in the courts and the streets. But really, in the context of live performance art, it doesn’t matter who shot Tupac or why and the lack of clarity and attendant controversy only add to his myth and heighten the dramatic impact of the most enigmatic and climatic part of the show.
At 4:45, while Tupac is off stage tending to leg numbness, the jury buzzes. They have something to say. It will be almost two hours before it’s revealed what it is they have to say after over 20 hours of deliberation. During those two hours reporters debate as to what the buzz was about—a verdict, another read-back testimony, another law to be explained, possibly a hung jury (before lunch they buzzed to say they were deadlocked on some counts). During those hours reporters also debate the legitimacy of Tupac’s numbness claim. We soon discover there is a far more important numbness.
Not only had Tupac’s bandaged and wheelchair-bound courtroom appearance semed to elicit faces of concern and compassion from numerous jurors, but on Wednesday attorney Warren observed that on the day after the shooting, when the jury entered the courtroom, and for the first time in weeks Tupac was not in his seat, no one seemed surprised. He was right. As the jurors sat down no one seemed taken aback by Tupac’s absence. Warren, and Tupac’s co-defendant Charles Fuller’s attorney Robert Ellis asserted numerous times that the jury was aware of Tupac’s on-going performance. “No sequestering is failsafe,” said Warren on Thursday afternoon, “jurors get information in the strangest ways.” “From a practical standpoint,” added Ellis after the verdict was delivered, “one could assume that the jurors probably already knew what had occurred since everybody in the world knew what occurred.”
But Thursday evening, about 6:30 juror Richard Devitt emerged and said that the 12 had been completely ignorant of Tuesday night’s shooting. “We knew nothing,” he told reporters. “We were totally shielded from all information. TVs were taken out of our rooms, radios were taken out of our rooms, we were moved to a hotel that was much farther away and in a very remote place. No phone calls were ever permitted at any time.”
Devitt also said despite the much-discussed looks of compassion, the jury had not been affected by the wheelchair-bound appearance. “The judge instructed us to make no speculations whatsoever and we honestly didn’t. We were much too involved with trying to figure out the details of the evidence that we had.”
Among those details, Devitt said, was nothing beyond the facts of the case. “The whole tact of trying to attack the woman’s character was totally archaic and unnecessary and everybody immediately disregarded it,” he said. “We just threw that all out.” “But,” a reporter asked, “do you think it was important to know as a jury that all these things had happened that led up before this event?” “The business at Nell’s and all that stuff?,” Devitt responded. “No. We all agreed that that was utterly irrelevant. And we immediately threw that all out.” And suddenly it was clear that while Tupac had been putting on the performance of his life, the most important audience of the moment hadn’t been paying attention at all.
Sexual abuse is officially defined by the prosecutor’s office as sexual contact with an intimate body part by forcible compulsion. In this case that was kneading and separating the buttocks. It carries a term of two and a third to seven years in prison, but, the prosecutor’s office said, could be merely a probationary offense. The prospect of Tupac escaping time in jail for yet another crime is a significant postscript to the history of the Panthers. One that signals maybe we have begun to see the level of freedom Arthur Ashe spoke of when he said we wouldn’t be free until we were able to be mediocre and still succeed.
Still, Tupac could do over two years in prison for this conviction, taking him off his official stages, but certainly not ending the run of his inspired act. Think of it as merely a setting change. When you’re perpetually on stage, you never get off. The stage simply comes with you. Even if death happened to Tupac’s body, he wouldn’t really die because the audience would keep watching like you do at the end of a really great film when the credits start rolling. The hero/villain’s been blown away and all the other characters have gone home, but you stay hoping, maybe there’s one more shot, one more bit of greatness to savor.
After last week’s command performance we probably won’t take our eyes off the Tupac show for a long time, but Tupac himself may be ending the act. About six hours before he was shot he said, “I don’t wanna just say, ‘I’ma stop smoking, stop drinking, just be regular.’ That’s one of the impossible dreams, but I’m definitely looking for some enlightenment from somewhere. Wherever I see that there’s the light that’s where I’m headin. I’m looking for the light. But I’ma change for sure, cuz this is not it. This is not it. This is really not it.”
To be continued…
[That’s the end. The story concludes “to be continued” to suggest the Tupac story will go on but the story does not.]