The revolutionary, controversial and too-short life of Tupac Shakur has inspired books, documentaries and films from the time he was killed at age 25 in 1996. The latest is the new biopic All Eyes on Me, starring Demetrius Shipp, Jr and directed by Benny Boom. But while the film touches on the forces that shape Tupac as a defining voice of the 1990s hip-hop movement, it doesn’t dive deep enough into the historical context of the genre. In search of a better sense of the musical legacy that molded the legendary artist, Smithsonian.com sat down with Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Reece delves into the long history of hip-hop and explains why Tupac is the Bob Dylan of his generation.

Let’s talk about the essence of hip-hop. Where does it get its start?

It’s people reflecting real circumstances. Generally, you look at the country being prosperous in the 1980s and things like that. But there’s still class issues, there’s still poverty, there’s still violence, there’s still discrimination, racism. So hip-hop and rap is a community voice; it’s real people speaking about real circumstances of where they lived and showing their social conscience. It’s really speaking for the underrepresented and people who don’t have a voice for themselves.

What happens is that you start to have this message and then the musical elements of it catch wildfire, and it starts feeding into evolving genres. Like the social message coming out of rhythm and blues in the 1960s and 1970s, and soul music and funk and jazz, it coalesces into something new on its own. It’s a contemporary reflection of another way of voicing not only creative expression, but cultural expression and commentary on social circumstances, which really is a historical tradition in African-American music. It’s always been that quest for freedom and voicing the concerns of the communities and life circumstances of African Americans, and so it’s our contemporary evolution of that.

There’s a moment in All Eyez on Me where the film touches on the divides between the Civil Rights music and the hip-hop music. Is that fair?  

Hip-hop is like any other genre revolving style that comes out of different generations. When rock came out older generations rejected it, and said it was nonsense, and it didn’t reflect the values. It’s the same thing as jazz.

And it’s cyclical in a way, about the gains and the points of view of the Civil Rights generation, then what was happening in the 1970s and hip-hop really started to gain ground in the mid 1980s and really flourish in the 1990s. There are different styles, different regional styles, different messages, and it’s so much more complicated than what a film can really present.

Who are some of the specific forefathers of Tupac?

You think about Public Enemy in the late 1980s, and the social conscience of early artists, like Afrika Bambaataa, what they’re speaking to. But this was also creating something new when you start getting into the violence and the social situations, and really reflecting that. You have to think about this as music that’s also growing up in an industry that’s marketed this for consumption. [In the film,] you see the scenes with the record labels. They’re bristling with some of the images [in reference to "Brenda's Got A Baby"], but they also see that this making money and speaking to people in a way that we haven’t seen before.

So you’ve got this collision of creative expression, cultural expression and entrepreneurship and industry politics to a fad that really blows up in a way that musically has never really happened before. You then tie that into what’s going on contemporarily and the avenues that are open to people. It’s not a simple story.

There are lots of contradictions to hip-hop and who it speaks for, lots of contradictions and different messages from the varying artists that come up at that time. You think about the women like Queen Latifah. They’re trying positivity in their images and giving women a voice in contrast to sometimes some of the misogynist lyrics and the way women are framed in the narrative.

How do you feel the movie captured Tupac’s relationship to hip-hop?

We see him and he’s a rapper and he was really famous because he sold a lot of albums. But he was so much more than that. And I think those are the things that lose the meaning of what hip-hop is. It’s not just the gold records or he was first to have a double album, but the artistry and the creativity and the larger social and cultural messages and ways of expression that speak to all people; it speaks for African-Americans; it speaks for people in urban communities; it speaks to spiritual, larger life messages. When he calls upon Shakespeare and things like that [in the movie,] you get the hints of what was behind the scenes, and in his mind, but the big moments [are about] trying to tell a story.

What makes Tupac’s legacy still feel so pressing today?

We create myths. I think the tragedy of his death at 25; the conspiracies; the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. The narratives that we create or that underlie the nature of hip-hop as a community and the wars that people have—whether they were cultural wars or individual beefs with each other—all feeds a larger narrative. We are embodied in that, and we see ourselves in some of that, so we create iconic figures to live out some of our own frustrations and dreams, and we look to these figures to lead us.

[In the film,] you have the stepfather [Mutula Shakir] pointing at him as a leader, and he led people through his music. That got lost [in the film]. We talk about it, but then we go back to the stories of joining Death Row and Interscope and some of the beefs that he had with Biggie or what was the root of that and the relationship he had with Suge Knight.   

He fulfilled a voice for people, and a lost voice. Not only what he meant at the moment for people, but what could he have done if he had lived and what he could have continued to see. So I think that people want to hang on. They want to say, Tupac still lives, that he didn’t really die, and that his message of what he was trying to do still continues. I think that’s part of that quality. People want to keep him alive. He reached people in ways they couldn’t express themselves. And that’s what music is about. It speaks to your deepest emotions, memory, sense of self.

How would you describe Tupac as an artist?

I really think of a poet, a poet of our time. He’s a poet who can take language and apply it in a way that’s really real, that’s very contemporary, but poetic at the same time. Poetry that tells us hard truths but in a creative lyrical way that finds the beauty in pain, the beauty in violence, the beauty of the lyricism that deals with the ugliness of the day to day -isms that we experience and face and struggle with.

He uses very real language. The way we speak, the way we talk to each other. It’s not erudite language but real language, and it imposes a sense of beauty and lyricism upon it that really gives us a way to consider it and not shy away, but embrace it.

The poetry is what I go back to, and how it opens doors at how to confront and wrestle with real issues. What I’d love to point people to is to look at that. Look how he’s an arbiter of our times. He’s a poet like Bob Dylan is a poet reflecting the 1960s.