Jesus and Tupac had a lot in common.
Their dramatic early years began with conception under non-normative circumstances. Mary's mysterious virginal conception could have led her community to accuse her of adultery. Afeni Shakur's decidedly non-virginal conception occurred while she was out on bail. Afeni was accused of planning to bomb New York City public spaces. Neither woman was guilty of the accusations raised against them, but scandal still surrounded their pregnancies. The stress of the accusations was augmented by the fact that Mary was traveling while pregnant, and Afeni was imprisoned while pregnant.
Jesus was born into poverty in a manger in Bethlehem. Tupac was born into poverty in New York City. As poor minority babies, their families moved around a lot. Jesus' family fled to avoid the state-sanctioned oppression that was Herod's wrath. Herod wanted to kill Jesus simply because of who he was. Tupac's family moved in and out of shelters to avoid the state-sanctioned oppression also known as institutionalized racism. No one wanted to help Afeni because of who she was: a former member of the Black Panther Party. Both boys' stepfathers came from lineages filled with unscrupulous characters. There was no silver spoon for either child.
Under these circumstances, Jesus and Tupac matured into brazen intellectuals who spoke truth wherever there was injustice. They loved words and were master storytellers. As single men in their 20s who were self-taught and unemployed, they cared very little about others' perceptions and fraternized with sexually licentious women, cavorted with sinners, enjoyed a good party, appreciated good wine, had tempers, used profane language with religious people, praised faithfulness over stilted forms of religious piety and honored God more than the government.
Public demands for justice accompanied by a seeming disregard for social mores quickly placed Jesus and Tupac under constant surveillance. They were both betrayed and ultimately killed while still in their prime. Here's where the comparisons break down. Jesus was blameless. Tupac was found guilty of sexual abuse. And his body of work does indeed cosign plenty of immoral activities.
Despite many other obvious differences, comparing the particulars of Jesus and Tupac's lives creates broader implications for the relationship between religion and hip hop. Although they appear antithetical, religion and hip hop share immense potential for creating safe spaces where people who feel like outcasts can express themselves. Irrespective of whether you believe Jesus was the son of God or whether you believe Tupac was a thug, paying attention to religious influences in hip hop humanizes thugs. Paying attention to how hip hop uses religious themes humanizes religion.
For example, Jesus' resurrection must not be limited to the Christian narrative of death, burial, resurrection, ascension and promised return. Jesus is resurrected every time someone like Tupac can see a reason for his pain and persecution and decide to persevere. Tupac literally saw himself as Jesus.
Tupac intended no disrespect because Jesus helped him understand himself. When religious doctrines about original sin, eschatology and God seemed impractical, Tupac found hope in a Jesus who understood oppression as well as the inevitability of death. In fact, Tupac and the Outlawz rapped in "Black Jesuz" about a not-too-perfect saint who hurts, smokes, drinks, understands their pain and carries them through hard times.
As I write in my book "Rap and Religion: Understanding the Gangsta's God":
Gangstas who depict death as a way of life are drawn to crucified Jesus not because they want to die, but because staring down death makes them feel most alive. According to cultural critic and minister Michael Eric Dyson, gangstas see a crucified black Jesus as "the God who literally got beat down and hung up, the God who died a painful, shameful death, subject to capital punishment under political authority and attack, but who came back, and keeps coming back, in the form and flesh we least expect."
Resurrection power is the ability to live in the midst of death. Jesus is immortalized by humanity in the same way that, 16 years after his death, Tupac's is immortalized within the hip hop community.
Tupac was the first rapper to depict himself on a cross, but he was not the last. Many rappers have depicted themselves as Jesus crowned with thorns, and many more have appropriated the themes of return, rebirth and resurrection.
Hip hop's affinity for Jesus encourages resurrection as a form of resistance when religious platitudes fail. Although it may appear blasphemous, hip hop heads push the boundaries of religion until they arrive at Jesus -- an accessible model -- for surviving oppression. Jesus is a cultural icon for resisting the rules, especially those for life and death. By imitating a Jesus who suffered and yet emerged victorious over death, they boldly appropriate Jesus' resistance as their own.