On Sept. 14, 1996, seven days after gangsta rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur was cut down in a drive-by shooting near the Las Vegas Strip, his mother, Afeni Shakur, 50, went back to the family home in Stone Mountain, Ga., to sort through her son’s belongings, including the now-infamous three-page handwritten contract he’d signed from prison with Death Row Records’ CEO, Marion ”Suge” Knight, almost 12 months earlier.
Even in her grief, Afeni, a former Black Panther activist, was angry as hell. The contract locked Tupac into a Faustian deal with Knight, who agreed to put up Tupac’s bail money in exchange for his signature on the three-album, $3.5 million-plus contract. Where were all the advances and royalties the contract promised?
Moreover, how could her son produce three CDs in the last year of his life, sell reportedly more than $60 million worth of records — enough to make him one of the top-selling domestic artists — yet still wind up an alleged several million dollars in debt to Death Row?
Singers, among all the various species of celebrity, seem to have a peculiar affinity for financial calamity. Performers as diverse as Tom Petty, Hammer, TLC, Meat Loaf, and Wayne Newton were all set for life, only to later declare bankruptcy. But Tupac’s postmortem financial saga, which has sprouted a handful of lawsuits, overshadows them all.
Because Tupac Shakur died intestate (without a will), his mother had to file court papers establishing herself as the administrator of his estate and the sole living heir. While he was alive, Tupac supported Afeni with more than $16,000 a month. Now she is concerned about protecting her son’s memory as well as her own future.
Soon after Tupac’s bizarre, and so far unsolved, murder, Afeni called a lawyer she trusted, New York trial attorney Richard Fischbein. Years earlier, he had advised her when she represented herself and won acquittal on 156 counts related to blowing up police stations and other public buildings in the ’70s.
Fischbein flew out to Los Angeles. He found that the rapper, who died at 25, had barely anything to show for his chart-topping career. No mutual funds. No IRA. No real estate. Tupac didn’t even own his Woodland Hills, Calif., home. There was only a five-figure life insurance policy (the beneficiary was his half sister, Sekyiwa), two cars, and a single checking account that contained less than $105,000. Court fees and taxes would consume that quickly. The situation was so bad that when a young woman named Jacquelyn McNealey, paralyzed by a stray bullet during a Tupac concert in Arkansas, sued Tupac and asked for $16.6 million in damages, no one showed up in court to defend the estate.
Death Row has contended that it was Tupac’s own profligate spending that left him so broke. There may be more than an element of truth to this. For example, Tupac spent walletloads of money on a lifestyle that led him into trouble, and lots more on defense attorneys to fend it off. Even at his death, he was out on bail, paying a criminal-law firm to appeal his 18-month-to-four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for sexual misconduct against a woman in a New York City hotel room. Furthermore, Death Row sources have reportedly said that the label advanced large sums of cash to Tupac for everything from recording and video costs to cars and furniture.