Rose from the Ashes

Tupac Shakur's Stone Mountain legacy

In June, Afeni Shakur-Davis and her Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation opened the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts in Stone Mountain. It's a permanent extension of TASF's 8-year-old PACamp, a free annual summer program that has given area kids age 12-18 training in the arts, including dancing, singing and writing. The center receives funding largely from the artistic legacy of her late son, including his multimillion-selling musical recordings and last year's Oscar-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection. Shakur himself attended a performing arts high school in Baltimore, where he thrived on the curriculum.

Shakur's epitaph normally focuses on his gang affiliations (through rap mogul Suge Knight and Death Row Records) or his violent death (he was shot in Las Vegas in 1996 alledgedly by rival gang members but the murder remains unsolved). Despite his infamous end, Shakur also had a passionate side that was educated, well-read and chiefly concerned with nurturing young minds. He famously had "THUG LIFE" tattooed on his torso, but it's a lesser-known fact that it was an acronym for "The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone."

It's hard to reconcile that one person could have such duality; it's easier to pick either the good or bad version of Tupac.

"Tupac will forever be the most misunderstood artist in America," says Adisa Banjoko, author of Lyrical Swords Vol. 2: Westside Rebellion. Banjoko first interviewed Shakur in 1990 for Black Panther newspaper the Commemorator. "From the time he became famous, his life was on public display through every stage of his evolution, and because of it people choose different aspects of Pac to embrace. That makes it hard for people to perceive Pac with anything near authentic balance."

TASCA serves the role of living in the positive while moving past and trying to learn from the negative rumors and truths. The bronze statue in the outdoor Peace Garden portrays an image of Shakur that's more a poet or statesman than thug. The artistic choice promotes Shakur's inner qualities that were not necessarily visually represented among his gold rings and chains, or the bandannas he so often wore in photos promoting his albums.

U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney seems to believe that the government may be hiding something about the Tupac Shakur story, and last month introduced the Tupac Amaru Shakur Records Collection Act of 2005 into the House of Representatives. It calls for public access to governmental documents concerning Shakur's life and death, to be housed at both the National Archives and TASCA.

Though they never met, Stone Mountain's Celina Nixon is also part of Tupac's legacy. Now 22, Nixon attended one of the first PACamps at a crucial point in her life: as a 15-year-old single mother.

"Back then, I was thinking what society is telling me, 'It's over for you, chick. Sit back, you're a mother. You can't do anything but be a mother and try to graduate high school,'" she says. "The foundation helped me realize I could still sing, act, and do all the things I wanted to do and be a mother and graduate high school on time. And I just worked hard at it and [Afeni] Shakur asked me to stay on the team when I graduated. This is my first job out of high school and I'm still here."

Nixon now runs the PACamp, and appears on the new CD inspired by Tupac Shakur's poetry, The Rose, Vol. 2. On "The Eternal Lament," she sings, "If you changed the game, I can change it, too."

It's surreal, but she's not complaining. "When I look at myself in the mirror, or look at my situation, it's like, 'Wow, this is really me? That's dope!'"

Once TASF has raised an additional $4 million, it plans to offer an intensive arts program to kids year-round. For now, there are yoga, dance and vocal classes all year, as well as a monthly teen night providing fun, safe, and educational alternatives to being on the street with nothing to do. Stone Mountain is where Tupac bought his first house for his mother, and where the family has felt welcome for years, so there is a special hope to contribute to the revitalization of Memorial Drive.

Though many hip-hop artists claim postmortem camaraderie with Shakur, few have supported his foundation by endorsement or donation. That's an ugly truth about hip-hop — the image isn't always followed by the action. Nixon can barely fill up one hand with names of major rap stars who have come through with cash.

TASCA is making progress, though, individual by individual. "You couldn't save the world," Nixon sings on "The Eternal Lament," "but you saved your girl!"