The late rapper and actor Tupac Shakur left an indelible mark on American culture as a unique voice for the struggles experienced by black folk in this country. Now, 20 years after his death, unimaginative dolts are cashing in on his legacy. The phenomenon has been in full swing for years: Who can forget the performance by his hologram at Coachella in 2012? But more recently, lazy reimaginings of the rapper have become increasingly common, and confounding. Earlier this month, the widely panned biopic All Eyez on Me was released. Before that, there were Tupac themed restaurants and Tupac tapestries for sale at Urban Outfitters. In February, the car he was riding in when he was shot was put up for auction.
The latest offense is a string of T-shirts released by Kylie and Kendall Jenner. Their eponymous streetwear brand, already guilty of taking trends popular elsewhere and printing their names on top of them, just dropped a set of faux-vintage Ts bearing images of Tupac, Biggie, and, curiously, Pink Floyd. It’s unclear whether or not any of the images were licensed, though a note posted on Instagram by Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, suggests that they were not. The Ts have pictures of the sisters (and at least one John Mayer lyric) printed over various album covers and promotional images of the artists in question. On one shirt in particular, a screenshot of a Kylie Jenner Instagram post is splotched in a translucent yellow over a memorial portrait of Tupac featuring the year of his birth and death underneath his iconic scowl. The shirts cost $125.
The inspiration here is the trend of vintage music Ts that have recently become style staples. But what do these reinterpretations of Tupac do to his legacy? Like the inane Pepsi commercial which featured Kendall Jenner (who once called Tupac her "spirit animal"), these commercialized offerings erase, or at least gloss over, the fact that Tupac was an immensely controversial figure of his time. White politicians vilified Pac, calling him a thug and a negative influence on America’s children. The neutered, revisionist depictions of Tupac that have become increasingly prevalent rewrite history in a way that’s convenient for the very people the rapper railed against; the Jenners have consistently been accused of appropriating black culture without supporting black people. Tupac, whose godmother remains exiled in Cuba for her role with the Black Panthers, was a cultural icon precisely for how much he bucked against mainstream culture. Integrating him into bland cultural products without considering that legacy is at best lazy, and at worst exploitative.
While Kendall & Kylie's Ts predictably sold out within hours, users on Twitter did give them a piece of their mind. In her Instagram post, Voletta Wallace voiced her displeasure over the unauthorized use of her son’s image. Alongside a picture of the T-shirt with an “X” marked over it in read, Wallace wrote, “The disrespect of these girls to not even reach out to me or anyone connected to the estate baffles me. I have no idea why they feel they can exploit the deaths of 2pac and my Son Christopher to sell a t-shirt. This is disrespectful , disgusting, and exploitation at its worst!!!” The Ts have since been removed from Kendall & Kylie’s site.