A Tale of Two Mothers


Their sons Biggie and Tupac were slain. Now each has embarked on a mission: to honor their sons' legacies.

In a season of grim anniversaries, another passed last week, little noticed. It has been 10 years since rapper Tupac Shakur was shot on a street in Las Vegas. And in six months Voletta Wallace, the mother of Notorious B.I.G., will arrive for the 10th time at the date on which her son fell to a bullet in Los Angeles. While to the wider world, Biggie and Tupac were multiplatinum artists, hip-hop ambassadors and friends turned envenomed foes, to Wallace and Afeni Shakur they were sons, repositories of dreams and years of nurturing. "It's like I got the phone call yesterday," Shakur says of Tupac's death. "All I could do was learn to live in a world where my child was not there."

That lesson has played out in different ways for each woman. Having been unable to prevent her only son's death, Shakur, 59, has sought immortality for him. Armed with a seemingly limitless catalog of unreleased material, she has supervised the production of seven posthumous albums, the documentary Tupac: Resurrection and the new book Tupac Shakur Legacy. Plus she has opened the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts, to encourage youngsters to pursue their artistic dreams. Mostly through her work, Tupac has become rap's first cult figure. For Wallace the issue is justice. She has spent the past four years embroiled in a wrongful-death suit against the city of Los Angeles. The suit alleges that crooked L.A.P.D. cops conspired with Death Row records owner Suge Knight to have Biggie murdered. (Knight has denied the allegation.) In July, her actions forced the L.A.P.D. to assign a new task force to investigate the murder.

Just as children resolve not to make the mistakes of their parents, the paths the two women have chosen reverse the approaches taken by their offspring. Tupac was a troublemaker. By the time he died at age 25, he had shot two off-duty cops, been convicted of sexual abuse, and assaulted a film director. He had also sold about 20 million records and starred in six movies. Wallace's son spent time as a drug dealer on the corners of Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood but got credibility from his way with rap rather than his rap sheet. Tupac was more prolific (when he died, he left some 150 unreleased songs; Biggie, who was 24 when he died, left none). But Biggie's intricate rhyme schemes, impeccable rhythm and perverse sense of humor made him a god among rap cognoscenti. In death, however, it is Tupac who has emerged as the artist and Biggie as a problem for law enforcement.

Perhaps the mothers also grieve in different ways because of their contrasting relationships with their sons. Afeni Shakur was a black power--era radical who fell into drug addiction in the 1980s. Out of Tupac's difficult childhood, he crafted a tortured persona as a man both blessed and cursed. Throughout his career, he invoked the pride and shame he felt about his mother, making hits out of confessionals like Dear Mama and Keep Ya Head Up.

Wallace, 59, an immigrant from Jamaica, raised her only child Christopher--Biggie's real name--in Brooklyn. Biggie's father left the family before Biggie turned 2. But Wallace forged on, holding down two jobs and enrolling her son in Catholic school. She took pride when he made the honor roll but was disappointed when, at 17, he left school to sell drugs. Much like Tupac, Biggie looked to his mother for inspiration for his music. "My Momma got cancer in her breast," he mourned on his debut album, Ready to Die. "Don't ask me why I'm motherf___in' stressed."

The two rappers met in the early '90s and by all accounts became fast friends, performing together in public and hanging out in private. But the relationship swiftly deteriorated after Tupac suspected Biggie of being involved in a robbery attempt that left him shot and hospitalized. They feuded right up until Tupac's death.

On a broiling day in August almost a decade later, Shakur offers me a tour of her newly constructed ranch home in Lumberton, N.C. She shows off a bathroom the size of a small apartment and talks up the 56 acres of farmland where she's growing USDA-certified organic crops and raising animals. That is what her son has left her. And it's easy to see what she gave him. She is excitable and charismatic, and she talks--and curses--freely, laughing in the middle of crying. In the late '60s, Shakur was one of the more outspoken black power voices on the East Coast--one of the "Panther 21," charged with and acquitted of conspiring to blow up the New York Botanical Garden and several department stores. (Full disclosure: I first met Shakur as a child. She and my father were comrades in the Black Panther Party.)

Shakur is proud of her Panther past and of her son, but she is also brutally honest. Shortly before he was killed, Tupac attacked Biggie and virtually every other rapper of note in New York City in a profanity-laced tirade called Hit 'Em Up. Among things unprintable in this magazine, he claimed he had an affair with Biggie's wife Faith Evans. "To tell you the truth, I was proud that Tupac had found an excellent way to get back at [Biggie] without violence," says Shakur. "He could take a word and beat you to death." But now, given some time and perspective, Shakur is less certain. "Faith has children. Biggie has children," she says. "I'm never going to change my son's words or tell anyone I'm sorry for them, but one of the things we want to do is have a space for Biggie in the garden, so people can understand that those two men were a little off point but they were great men."

The garden she refers to is behind the arts center she created nine years ago as part of her effort to shape the public memory of her son--to "cleanse the stain," as she puts it, from his legacy. Every summer a throng of kids comes to the center, which sits off a busy road in Stone Mountain, Ga., to learn dance, creative writing and music.

While Shakur has concentrated on tending her son's artistic legacy, Wallace has been on a manhunt. Perhaps because Biggie left little to remember him by or to preserve his image for history, his mother fights for his memory the best way she knows how. She declined to be interviewed for this story but said through a representative that she was "sickened by the personal attacks and lengths the L.A.P.D. was willing to go to in order to keep the victim's family from getting to the bottom of this cover-up. All we have ever wanted was the truth and justice."

Her lawsuit resulted in a mistrial after the judge ruled that the L.A.P.D. had deliberately concealed evidence. The case is due back in court early next year.

Doesn't Shakur want justice for Tupac? She isn't holding her breath. One of the principal suspects, Orlando Anderson, was killed a year and a half later, and the investigation seems to have stopped. "They still haven't solved Malcolm's murder. They still haven't solved Martin's murder," Shakur says, alluding to the suspicions around the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In a flash, the fire of her Panther past rears up. "When they solve those, then they can get to Tupac."

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