One of Aaron Smith’s favorite songs is Tupac Shakur’s “Ambitionz Az A Ridah,” because of its bold beat, empowering lyrics and purpose.
“Tupac was an artist with a message,” said Smith, an African American studies professor. “An activist, not the gangster that people portray him as.”
Smith teaches a class in the Department of Africology and African American Studies called Tupac Shakur and the Hip Hop Revolution. The class is dedicated to studying Tupac’s message, the direction of his life and his symbolic significance as an artist and an activist.
“I felt it was necessary to reintroduce Tupac and his message to a new generation,” Smith said. “His vision and his work went unfinished and many people never understood who he was and what he was really about.”
In Smith’s classroom, speakers hang from the ceiling and blare the music of Tupac and other artists of that generation, like the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas.
The music can be heard from the halls of Tuttleman Learning Center during his class, but when an artist drops a controversial line, like Tupac’s “I think it’s time to kill for our women,” from his 1993 song “Keep Ya Head Up,” Smith pauses the music and the conversation begins.
As a rapper himself, Smith is fully emerged in hip-hop culture and explained his class is part motivational speaking, part historical research and contextualization.
“We try to take a metaphysical, life-centered approach to education,” Smith said. “Students are welcome to have conversations about the same sort of issues Tupac advocated for.”
His exams include discussions of U.S. history in relation to Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement — a way to contextualize the conversations rappers like Tupac have in their music.
Smith said he reflects often on an interview Tupac had at the Baltimore School for the Arts when the late rapper was only 17 years old. In the interview at the rapper’s high school, Tupac said he believes traditional education isn’t relevant to real life.
With that in mind, Smith said he tries to make his classroom more relatable to real-life experiences by asking students what sort of issues are being brought up in certain songs and what can be done to solve those issues today.
“What made Tupac’s music revolutionary, and what makes his life important today, was that he had courage and a connection to consciousness,” Smith said. “He understood the issues of the world around him, like racial or gender inequality, and he didn’t hesitate to express how he felt about those issues through his music.”
“Tupac was very vocal about his problems with traditionalized racism,” Smith added. “And he understood that those issues were larger than racial stratification and oppression.”
Jenise Clark, a senior public relations major enrolled in the class, said although the class is centered around Tupac, she has learned about more than just the artist. She said she has learned to be conscious of what is going on around her and of the hardships people may face.
“This class is super relevant and very inclusive,” Clark said. “It definitely fits into the bracket of making people more worldly and more aware of what is going on.”
Amari Johnson, an African American studies professor, grew up hearing artists like Tupac, but said he came to realize Tupac’s significance and message later in life. He said there are always people knocking on Smith’s door to try to get into the class because the class offers a different meaning to hip-hop.
“Tupac’s life modeled a sense of inclusivity,” Johnson said. “He represented different issues and he spoke to a lot of different people so it seems likely that so many people would be attracted to his message today.”
Johnson added that today, it is important to model Tupac’s unapologetic and firm leadership in the face of injustice.
Smith said Tupac remains one of the most influential artists in history, both in the music industry and as a social activist. Through his class, Smith hopes Tupac’s mission can be continued and a difference can be made.
“This class is about being a better person and learning how we can all change the world the way Tupac had,” Smith said.
Patrick Bilow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.