by Jane Iwamura
Concert-goers at the Coachella Music Festival this past Sunday night witnessed an otherworldly sight: Tupac Shakur onstage with fellow rap legends, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, performing “live.” This would not be so shocking, except for the fact that Shakur was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip in 1996. “What the f— up, Coachella?” Shakur shouted to the crowd—a seemingly impossible greeting, since the annual music festival began three years after Tupac's death. The crowd was stunned. They proceeded to watch in awe as Shakur was “resurrected” in life-like form, shooting rhymes and working the platform, in sync both musically and physically with his collaborators. At the end of the performance, the image of the rap icon dispersed in an ethereal thousand points of light. Tweets flew and videos of the appearance went viral on the web.
Religion writers and other reporters who covered the event might have missed the beat, however. Most of the news stories — including coverage on MTV and in the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal — focus on the technology behind the scenes: a 2-D image projected on a 30-foot-by-13-foot transparent screen and the digital manipulation of Shakur's body and voice (“What the f— up, Coachella?”). These reports choose to dissect the incredible labor and cost behind the project. Dr. Dre, who collaborated with three imaging companies (including James Cameron's Digital Domain), is revealed as “the man behind the curtain.”
Other pieces talk about the money-making potential of such a venture. Rumors spread that Dr. Dre planned to take the virtual Tupac on the road. Still other commentaries and blog posts bemoaned the state of the “live” (read: spontaneous and unmanufactured) performance.
Tupac's “second coming” is rife with religious overtones and touches on issues concerning contemporary spirituality that we also might consider. Why does Shakur's spirit endure? What did the audience at Coachella experience? (And by digital extension, what's the ethos of a generation that has grown up under the heavy influence of rap and hip hop?) What, exactly, are we trying to see in the video? In this case, does science and technology take away from religion and cultural meaning? Or simply confuse the issue? What sense do we make of the death of iconic public figures in the age of digital reproduction?
One can argue that we have already witnessed the rapper's “resurrection” through the posthumous release of “The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory” and the steady flow of albums ever since. 2003 saw the release of “Tupac: Resurrection,” the official documentary about Shakur's life, narrated in his own voice. Tupac's mother, Afeni Shakur, and dedicated MC's (including Eminem) have kept the rapper's spirit alive.
Their devotion is shared by a much wider audience, who see in Shakur a tragic figure, a hero, a martyr. Tupac's life was complex and embodied multiple contradictions. On the one hand, he was visionary, compassionate and an intelligent advocate for liberation and social change. On the other, he was aggressive, emotional and susceptible to all the trappings of the Thug Life. His music reflected these different dimensions. Shakur, in the end, seemed to transcend his flaws. He is upheld not only as a musical icon, but also as a cultural hero. He seemed to be reaching for something beyond what the system stood for and could provide.
The spiritual dimensions of the phenomenon that is Tupac Shakur emerge precisely from these meaning-making processes as they play out in the lives of those he touched through his work. They imbue his life and music with a significance and aura that few other hip hop artists—dead or alive—enjoy. While there were those in the Coachella audience who took Tupac's apparition as a genius stunt, others fell silent and later described the event as “eerie” and “uncomfortable.” An unexpected reaction, perhaps, yet one that testifies that the spirit of Tupac is still “living large” in the popular imagination. And that religiosity can spring spontaneously to life in places where we might least expect it.
Jane Iwamura is a Visiting Scholar at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She is the author of Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Revealing the Sacred in Asian and Pacific America.