What If Tupac Went to An HBCU?

Maybe he’d be alive today.

Tupac Shakur was murdered 20 years ago today, and his life and death remain among the greatest elements of hip-hop’s first conspiracy theory and case study on cultural martyrdom.

Did Biggie have a hand in it? Is ‘Pac or Biggie or someone else the greatest rapper of all time?

I’ve participated in my fair share of these debates. In doing so, I’ve also often thought about how being a student at an HBCU could have changed the trajectory of his life. I’m mean, what if 2Pac was a student at one of the nation’s more than 100 historically black colleges and universities? How might his music and message have been different?

Perhaps most importantly, would he — and not just his music — still be alive today?

If you were a black kid growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, chances are that you watched A Different World. And if you did, you probably remember the “Homey, Don’t Ya Know Me?” episode featuring Shakur as Piccolo, the Baltimore-based, ex-boyfriend of Lena James, played by his off-screen friend and fellow Baltimore School of Performing Arts graduate Jada Pinkett Smith.

Who could forget Piccolo’s campus visit? His red from top-to-bottom outfit stood out prominently against the colorful backdrop of 90s fashions and now-old school Black Greek-lettered fraternity and sorority apparel. It was clear that Lena’s Baltimore past stood in tension with her HBCU present, and ultimately with her future — some things had indeed changed and would never, ever be the same.

I wonder if the same would have been true for ‘Pac. There were plenty of real life ‘Pics and ‘Pacs at my HBCU. And while they had different, and arguably more difficult issues to unpack, many of them did the transformative work necessary to become good students and greater people.

I had a friend who probably fit this description. His signature gold-tooth stood out in a sea of otherwise pearly whites on campus. He was friendly, charismatic, a basketball team stand-out, and the sharpest of dressers. Fiskites of my generation undoubtedly still remember that time he sported a cream suit and crimson shirt — an ode to his fraternity membership — to the Homecoming boat ride.

I remember the time he helped a mutual friend pack a borrowed lawnmower into the trunk of her two-door 1998 Hyundai Accent so that he could cut my grass. And I remember the pride on his face when he walked across the stage to receive his diploma.

That’s why I wonder about ‘Pac. In addition to being among the greatest rappers of all time, ‘Pac — like the HBCU mission — was deeply committed to expressions of blackness as valid and valuable. He saw the connections between the black past, black present, and black future as inspiring and instructive. His experiences, good, bad, and ugly as a Black man in America, were a muse for his artistic expression.

I wonder about how different both Tupac and HBCUs would be because they were a part of each other’s life and times. Maybe with an alumnus like ‘Pac, HBCUs would have shed a little more of their preoccupation with black respectability. Maybe with the intervention of HBCUs, Tupac would be alive today.

I can’t say for certain. College degrees aren’t ballistic plates in bulletproof vests protecting their holders from violence, bullets, or death. Sadly, August 4 marked twelve years since losing my grass-cutting, Black fraternity membership-having, HBCU degree-holding, Pac-like friend to them. I still miss him — and ‘Pac too.