Pieces of hip-hop history are now on display at Temple University, courtesy of the donation of a collection that includes handwritten lyrics, notes, and jewelry that had belonged to rapper Tupac Shakur.
"For a hip-hop head, this is truly a dream come true," said Aaron Smith, a professor of Africology and African American Studies who teaches a Shakur-focused class at Temple, on Thursday. "Just 20 years ago, they were saying [hip-hop] was a pariah in society. Here, we have legitimization from the academic community on the highest level."
The items will be on exhibit at Temple's Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. Located in Sullivan Hall on the university's main campus in North Philadelphia, the Blockson Collection consists of roughly 500,000 items that detail "the global black experience."
About a dozen items that belonged to Shakur were donated to the collection by Runnemede, N.J.-based Goldin Auctions. Among the pieces are handwritten lyrics for famous tracks like "It Ain't Easy" and "I Ain't Mad At Cha," as well as handwritten track listings for unreleased albums including Nuthin Gold, Street Fame, and Troublesome. Also included are a diamond earring and a bullet-dented gold medallion that Shakur wore on the night of a 1994 New York City attack in which the rapper was shot five times.
Jewelry, Smith said, played a significant role in Shakur's story. During his career, the rapper popularized the flaunting of expensive chains and medallions, which was "not a big deal" when Shakur started out. However, by the time of his death in September 1996 after a drive-by shooting that remains unsolved, the use of medallions and chains "as a means of identifying with a label" had become popular. Case in point: Shakur's 1996 album All Eyez on Me, where he displays his Death Row Records chain.
Shakur's death could even be attributed to jewelry, Smith noted. The shooting that killed Shakur erupted over a medallion that was stolen in a previous altercation.
"There is a lot of mystery around Tupac and his jewelry," Smith said. "To have some of [it] here means a whole lot."
While Shakur has few direct connections to Philadelphia — he was a New York City native who grew up in Baltimore before moving to the West Coast — bringing items of his to the city still makes sense, Smith said. After all, Philadelphia is the home of "gangsta rap," a genre that Shakur is closely associated. The form was reportedly invented by Philly emcee Schoolly D, who is credited with starting gangsta rap with his 1985 track, "PSK, What Does It Mean?"
"Gangsta rap started in Philadelphia," Smith said. "It's only right that one of the most influential writers and creators in hip-hop music has one of their resting places here in Philadelphia."
Now, with some of Shakur's items housed at Temple, the Blockson Collection will increase its focus on hip-hop culture, curator Diane Turner said Thursday. The idea, she added, is to develop a "large collection related to hip-hop."