When Tupac Shakur was gunned down in 1996, in a way he became immortal. Not a literal way - he was dead at the age of 25 - but in the way that anyone at the top of their game, taken in their prime, does. Immortal in the same way as Kurt Cobain or Jimi Hendrix, forever young and beautiful, gone before they did anything rubbish, or their looks faded, or they gained weight. Gone before they got a big tax bill and did some shitty adverts, or appeared in reality TV shows following messy divorces. Shakur died as the best rapper in the world, and went from being a superstar to a legend.
Except, was he really dead?
Yes, he was, he was dead. He was shot four times by an unknown assailant and placed in a medically-induced coma for six days while doctors worked around the clock to save him. Eventually his mother asked the medical team to stop attempting to resuscitate him. What a horrible, tragic, appalling shame.
He was cremated on 14 September, just a day after he died, and theories started to circulate immediately that his death had been faked. Nobody saw his body, and there were rumours that the body that was cremated just wasn’t him - people spoke of autopsy photos in which he was missing a neck tattoo.
His notoriety in life, the lack of a conviction and the similarly mysterious death of the Notorious BIG six months later all contributed to the idea that something unusual was going on. Fans combed his lyrics for supposed clues about his death, piecing together snippets from his posthumous release The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (released under the name Makaveli, which theorists noted is an anagram of ‘AM ALIVE K’ - there’s no suggestion as to what the K stands for) to conclude that his death was faked. The ongoing mysteries surrounding it remain a source of fascination to millions - last year, the BMW he was riding in when he was shot sold for US$1.5 million.
And then there are the sightings. Like Elvis before him, Tupac is frequently ‘seen’ alive and well, all over the place, and occasionally even photographed. All of these seem to come down to either:
- A lookalike/actor
- Just some dude who is similarly handsome and was possibly inspired by his resemblance to Tupac to try the nosering/bandana look as, come on, it looked great on Tupac
Large amounts of the sightings, even in futuristic 2018, seem to assume that Tupac would look the same 22 years after he was last seen. He’d be 46 years old now. He might be a bit podgy, and not have maintained the lithe physique of his youth. He might dress more like a 46-year-old man, and be slightly less likely to whip his top off at the drop of a hat in middle age.
There’s something compelling about the sheer relentlessness of the rumours, though…
The first mysterious photo
This photograph, dating from the ‘pre-Photoshop era’, seems to show Tupac alive and well on 8 September 1996 (damn American date formats), the day after he was shot, in a car with Suge Knight. The two most plausible explanations for this picture are, like most plausible explanations, very boring - ether yes, the photo was doctored, or whoever owned the camera just had their date thing set up wrong.
Knight has claimed that something iffy was going on with Tupac’s death though, saying in 2012 that he had paid a huge amount of money to the cremator. He told an LA radio station: “Nobody seen Tupac dead. The person who supposedly cremated Tupac, this guy got about $3 million, personally, from me, cash, and next thing I know I never heard from the guy or seen him again. He retired and left.”
That’s more than it costs to cremate someone. If it costs that kind of money to cremate someone, the streets would be piled with bodies. Something odd was clearly going on there, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s alive…
The impossible collaboration
In 2009, TMZ claimed to have spotted him in New Orleans, saying: “We were unable to get any sort of DNA evidence – but this photo is good enough for us. Thug life, bitches.”
In 2010, Waka Flocka Fame met a Tupac lookalike at a New Jersey hip-hop festival. It’s a lookalike. Waka Flocka Fame is a fan of Tupac Shakur, and is posing with a Tupac Shakur lookalike he has met. That is not the real Tupac Shakur. Wake Flocka Fame knows this.
The megastar spot
Schizophrenic in Sweden?
The Snoop spot
Ballin' in Boston
The Rihanna romancer
In 2014 several really obvious Photoshops like this were picked up by global media organisations despite having originated in spoof articles. As lovely as the idea is that a secret romance between Rihanna and Tupac has been going on for years, none of the pictures stand up to more than about half a second of scrutiny.
The cagouled anticapitalist
In 2015, a black man with a moustache was seen at an Occupy Wall Street protest. That’s it.
Why do we refuse to accept that our heroes are dead and gone? There are still occasional Elvis sightings 41 years after his death - he’d be 83 now. Even if he was alive, he wouldn’t be able to dance very well. Dr Michael Wood, a University of Winchester lecturer specialising in the psychology of conspiracy theories, told the Independent within the context of Elvis-is-alive theories: “If you are a fan of a celebrity and you like and admire them, perhaps you don’t want to think they are dead. It might be something as simple as that. Alternatively, we have this general tendency to match up the sizes of cause and effect, so we think if something has a large effect, it must have a large cause. [Princess] Diana is a great example: a slightly drunk driver and some aggressive paparazzi – this is not the usual way you think a princess would die. It’s not satisfying. One of the major psychological drivers of these kind of conspiracy theories is we have this mismatch between size of cause and size of effect. We can [make them balance] by hypothesising a bigger cause or denying the effect.”
Tupac left an incomplete legacy. His tale isn’t satisfying narratively - it feels like a story without an ending. By dying when he did, he’ll always have unfulfilled potential. Photographer Chi Modu, who snapped him several times, told the Guardian: “Right now, with Ferguson and everything, Pac would be at Pope level in terms of galvanising the black community.”
There’ll be speculation, guessing, theories, sightings and bullshit for decades and decades to come - the idea that Tupac is alive is wish fulfillment, a nice what-if in unpleasant times, and a cultural meme that everyone from Dave Chappelle to the CIA has chimed in on: