From Harlem to Baltimore: The Shakur Family’s Activism Ties

Narrated by Omar Epps

Tupac Shakur will forever be synonymous with West Coast Hip-Hop. Songs like “California Love,” and “To Live and Die in LA,” exist as visceral reminders of how he documented his life in the 1990s. Simmering beefs between Los Angeles’ Death Row Records and New York City’s Bad Boy Records contributed to his reputation as the protector of the Golden State. However, Tupac's’s East Coast roots in Harlem and Baltimore reveal a side of his family’s history that greatly contributed to the forward movement of his Hip-Hop career.

His mother, born Alice Faye Williams, was a country girl from Lumberton, North Carolina. Her grandfather, the Reverend Walter Williams Sr., was a sharecropper and preacher in Lumberton. As a child, Alice witnessed the wars between the Ku Klux Klan and the Lumbee Native American tribe. The visions of Klan flags burned by the Lumbee were engrained in her mind.

Rosa Belle, Alice’s mother, wanted a better life for her children. So in 1958, she took Alice and her sister, Gloria Jean, to New York City to get away from their abusive father, Walter, who was, “stubborn and arrogant,” said Afeni in The Baltimore Sun.

Rosa went to work at a lampshade factory in New York City. Alice attended the Bronx High School of Science followed by the School of Performing Arts in Manhattan but dropped out after one semester. She couldn’t relate to her classmates, who were all from private schools and didn’t understand the racial horrors occurring in the South.

This marked an aimless period for Alice. She experimented with drugs and found kinship with the Disciple Debs, a women’s street gang.

She was without direction until she heard the chairman of Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, speak on a street corner in early 1968. Joining the Panthers soon after, she married fellow Panther Lumumba Shakur in November of that year and changed her name to Afeni, which means “lover of people” in Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria.

“I was a revolutionary and he was a revolutionary,” Afteni told The Baltimore Sun.

Afeni became known as a Panther who could be counted on. She would wake up at 5 a.m. to cook for the organization’s free breakfast program for children. After completing her duties, she would head out to do work in the field.

Her Panther life would be defined by several key dates.

On January 17, 1969, a bomb explosion rocked a Bronx police station. Officers apprehended 19-year-old Joan Bird, a Black Panther and associate of Afeni, in a car across the street.

On the morning of morning of April 2, 1969, Afeni and her husband along with 19 others, famously dubbed the Panther 21, were arrested in mass raids across the city and charged with 196 felonies related to the bombing and other conspiracies to blow up other police stations, subways, department stores, and railroads. She faced 312 years in jail for her alleged role. Afeni was sent to the Women’s House of Detention for almost a year before supporters could raise $100,000 bail for her release.

On February 8, 1971, a pregnant Afeni was called back into court. Her bail was revoked despite her pleas that the conditions at the detention center were inhumane, especially for a pregnant woman. The judge remained unmoved; Afeni returned to prison and again would be bailed out later by her staunch supporters.

During the trial, Afeni represented herself — unprecedented for a woman, if not extraordinary — giving an impassioned speech that she hoped would sway members of the jury during closing arguments. As reported in The Baltimore Sun, on May 14, 1971, she told the court:

“So why are we here? Why are any of us here? I don’t know. … But I would appreciate it if you would end this nightmare, because I’m tired of it and I can't justify it in my mind. There’s no logical reason for us to have gone through the last two years as we have, to be threatened with imprisonment because somebody somewhere is watching and waiting to justify being a spy.”

The jury of 11 men and one woman took less than two hours to deliberate.

Afeni began to sob loudly as 156 not-guilty verdicts were read, acquitting 21 defendants. Spectators applauded, and cried. Cheers of “Right on!” and “Power to the people!” reverberated throughout the court.

At the time, it was the longest-running trial in New York state history.


On June 16, 1971, Afeni gave birth to a son, Lesane Parish Crooks, in East Harlem. (His biological father, Billy Garland, was not wed to Afeni.) When he was 1 year old, she renamed him Tupac Amaru Shakur (the stage name 2Pac came later) after an Incan warrior. His childhood was marked by an openness with his mother. Topics that may have been taboo in other households, such as sex and drugs, were not off-limits. This gave him the freedom to explore many different outlets. He was enrolled in the 127th Street Repertory Ensemble at age 12, taking on his first major role with the accomplished acting troupe in a 1984 production of A Raisin in the Sun at the Apollo Theater. 

“2Pac had a certain Harlem swagger, a certain spirit that would definitely see him in a position of power,” said Abiodun Oyewole, a friend and founding member of the legendary Last Poets.

“He was a poet before he was a rap artist. He had a sensitivity about his people, and that’s the first sign of any great writer or poet.”

But life was not without difficulty. Afeni wasn’t able to hold a job because of her involvement with the high-profile bombing case. While exonerated, the family name still bore the weight of negative press.

In 1984, 13-year-old Tupac arrived in Baltimore with his younger half-sister, Sekyiwa (her father, Mutul Shakur, was married to Afeni from 1975 to 1982), and their mother. They lived in the first-floor apartment of a brick row house at 3955 Greenmount Avenue in the small North Baltimore neighborhood of Pen Lucy. He slept in a small bedroom, while his mother and little sister slept in the dining room, which Afeni converted into a bedroom.

Tupac attended Roland Park Middle School for the eighth grade. While he had been primarily driven by a desire to perform onstage, he found a new interest: Hip-Hop music.

The number 8 bus took Tupac back and forth between home and school. On one particular September day, he sat down on the bus next to classmate Dana Smith, who went by the nickname “Mouse Man.” Smith was eager to get home to watch Rap Attack at 4 p.m. He himself was a talented beatboxer and asked Tupac if he could rap. 

“He kicked a rhyme to me, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy,’ ” Smith told Baltimore Magazine.“It was really good.”

In an era before any Internet sleuth could Google a lyric, Smith had no idea that Shakur had used a line from a Kurtis Blow song.

Their friendship was rooted in a shared love of Hip-Hop acts like Eric B & Rakim and Run- D.M.C. They would meet up every afternoon to write rhymes at the rec center on Old York Road, sitting inside a plastic bubble on the playground behind Tupac's house or in Smith’s basement on nearby 41st Street, reported The Baltimore Sun.

In November 1985, Shakur spotted a flyer emblazoned with “Calling All Rappers!” announcing a youth rap contest with a cash prize. The winner would get to perform at the Enoch Pratt Free Library at Pennsylvania and North avenues. Tupac and Smith wrote “Library Rap,” under the moniker the East-Side Crew, in black pen on a piece of lined notebook paper.

Deborah Taylor, Pratt’s young adult services coordinator, recalls watching a scrawny 2Pac Shakur capture the room with lyrics about staying in school and getting a library card.

“When Tupac performed, you could not take your eyes off him,” Taylor said.

No audience was too big or too small. They performed for drug dealers on Old York Road and at funerals. Song titles like “Babies Havin’ Babies” and “Genocide Rap” were distinct nods to his mother’s sociopolitical background.

“Tupac was always conscious of that shit,” Smith says. “He schooled us on those sort of social justice issues, and Hip-Hop was the perfect outlet. It allowed us to say what was on our mind, and people listened.”

Tupac attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School as a freshman before transferring to the Baltimore School for the Arts to continue his passion for theater. During his two years at BSA, he studied the works of Henrik Ibsen, Sam Shepard, and Shakespeare.


Donald Hicken, the longtime head of the school’s theater department, recalled that Shakur had a “revolutionary perspective on the world,” based on his own life experiences split between New York City and Baltimore. For an assignment, Hicken asked students to create a movement piece based on “a song that speaks to you in a very personal way.” Tupac chose Don McLean’s “Vincent,” about Vincent van Gogh.

Hicken told Baltimore Magazine: “Tupac said the song was about a misunderstood artist, about someone who was an artist but couldn’t be taken seriously because of the world he was in. That’s how the song spoke to him.”

Despite his love of theater, Hip-Hop was never far from Tupac's mind. Calling himself MC New York, along with Smith, Darrin Keith Bastfield, and Gerard Young, he formed the group Born Busy. Hopkins Plaza’s outdoor stage became their de-facto rehearsal venue to hone songs about loyalty and friendship. They made tapes that are considered "2Pac’s" first recordings, eight songs that remain unreleased.

In 1988, Baltimore was named the seventh most-violent large city in America with 234 murders committed. That year, Tupac's progress came to an abrupt halt. With his junior year coming to an end, he cried in Hicken's office as he delivered the news: He was moving to California with his mother and sister.

Afeni had begun using drugs again regularly and dating abusive men. The family decided to leave Baltimore in the summer to escape the violence. Tupac caught a bus across the country to Marin County, California, to live with Linda Pratt, a family friend and wife of the late Black Panther Geronimo Pratt. Afeni would soon follow. Tupac later cited leaving Baltimore as a pivotal moment, the point at which he’d got “off of the right track.”

According to veteran Hip-Hop journalist, Kevin Powell, in The Baltimore Sun, Tupac's time in Baltimore was vital. “His time [in Baltimore] foreshadowed 2Pac Shakur the rapper, foreshadowed 2Pac Shakur the amazing [actor]. It would not have happened — any of that — without Baltimore.”

* Banner Image: Tupac Shakur performs at the Regal Theater in Chicago, Illinois in March 1994. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

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