When hundreds of fans take to the Internet and radio hot lines daily to swear they glimpsed you dancing in a nightclub or slipping out of a recording studio-five years after you were laid to rest-it's a sure sign something special is going on. So it goes with the firebrand rapper Tupac Shakur, whose celebrity has swelled into a mystique of near Elvis-like intensity since his death in a Las Vegas drive-by in 1996 at age 25. Shakur was an electrifying rapper whose flashes of gangsta bravado (like the petulant song Hit 'Em Up) were counterbalanced by a gentle sweetness (the tender ode Dear Mama). This seesaw battle-played out in his music and his life-made him a fascinatingly complicated figure, and the urge to hold on to him is understandable.
Yet the cult of Shakur consists of much more than imaginary sightings. It has quickly become a commercially potent multimedia phenomenon spinning off millions of dollars and working its way into the cultural mainstream along paths not usually traveled by hip-hop artists. This month Shakur's new double CD, Until the End of Time (Amaru/Death Row), debuted at the top of America's Billboard charts. It is his fifth posthumous recording, and the second to hit No. 1. Meanwhile, the New York Theatre Workshop-whose past hits include Rent-recently unveiled a play about him that could spark even more interest. Up Against the Wind dramatizes the turbulent final years of Shakur's life-his increasingly sharp verbal skills, his growing attraction to gangsta rap and his fateful signing with Death Row Records. Shakur is turning up in bookstores too: a collection of his poems-The Rose That Grew from Concrete-published in the U.S. last year by Simon & Schuster, drew enthusiastic reader reviews. And it won't be long before a Shakur bio plays on the screen; mtv and several film companies are kicking around scripts. "He is a pop-culture icon," says Michael Develle Winn, the playwright behind Up Against the Wind. "People say he's alive because they can't bear the thought that he died so senselessly."
At the center of all things Tupac is his mother Afeni Shakur, 54, a former imprisoned Black Panther who has transformed herself into hard-nosed keeper of the flame, hiring advisers to watch over her son's legacy but calling the shots herself. After a court battle, Afeni won control of Tupac's master tapes, worth millions of dollars. (The court also ruled that Death Row-the label to which Tupac was signed at his death-is entitled to a cut of the proceeds from recordings he made under contract.)
Afeni, who admits to having struggled with crack as Shakur's career blossomed, has devoted herself to the business of turning her son's death into a message of redemption. She has plenty of material to work with. Shakur was a prolific artist who in life released four albums, made six films and wrote more than 100 poems. He also left behind hours of unreleased tapes. Using earnings from his earlier albums, Afeni created a new record label called Amaru (Tupac Amaru is an Incan name meaning Shining Serpent), endowed a foundation and opened a performing-arts camp in Stone Mountain, Ga., like the one her son attended as a child. "The arts saved Tupac," says Afeni.
Until the End of Time, drawn from a fertile period of Shakur's life-1995 and early 1996-shows that his mother knows how to choose wisely. The CDs are packed with his resonant, staccato rapping and poignant subject matter. Letter 2 My Unborn (Shakur left no children), eerie in its prescience about dying childless, is the sort of work that will nourish his mystique. Says poet Nikki Giovanni, who has studied Shakur extensively: "There's an old Nigerian proverb: You're not dead until you're forgotten." By that measure, Tupac lives.