Tupac Shakur has an everlasting influence. Had the hip-hop icon's life not been cut short at the age of 25, he would've turned 44 on Tuesday, Jun. 16. Yet even though he was murdered at such a young age, 'Pac has provided a lifetime of inspiration for future generations.
Jhené Aiko was only an 8-year-old, when Tupac died on Sept. 13, 1996, but after she saw the 2003 documentary "Tupac: Resurrection" she was affected forever.
Aiko often acknowledges 'Pac on his birthday, but this year she decided to share her gifts with the world, exclusively through MTV News. To celebrate Shakur, Jhené recreated three classic Tupac photos with photographer Danny Williams.
One of the photos captures the feel of the rapper's diamond-selling 1996 classic All Eyez on Me, by recreating the LP's album cover; while another pays homage to the photo used to cover his posthumous Greatest Hits collection. The third photo, finds Aiko laying in a bathtub, covered in gold, saluting David Lachapelle's "Becoming Clean" photo shoot, which took place right after 'Pac was released from jail in 1995.
In addition to the photos, Jhené shared a video of her covering her favorite Tupac song, "Keep Ya Head Up," and she sat down with MTV News to talk about the influence that Shakur has had on her life, her soul and her music.
MTV: You recreated three iconic Tupac photos, that we've debuted here today. When did you get the inspiration to recreate these?
Jhené Aiko: I would say like a few years ago. It's been a few years, but every birthday of his I always want to do something. I feel like I have to give his legacy some type of present. It started off, one time I did a video shoot where they spread his ashes. And it was a coincidence that I was there that day, we were all like, "Wait a minute, this is Tupac's birthday and we're here on the same beach." So after that, it's been several years since then and every year I want to do something. I wrote a letter one year, I put it on my tumblr. It's a special day because to me he was such a special person, so this year it was just an idea that me and my team had and I'm passionate about Tupac so it was something and I was like, "Yeah." It was just random, it just happened on the spot; it was a really good idea for his birthday.
MTV: The pictures came out really dope. Talk about taking these photos. I could only imagine when you do anything 'Pac related there's pressure, because he has so many fans that love him. Was there pressure?
Aiko: I didn't necessarily want the pictures to be exactly spot-on because I can't channel Tupac. He's so great to me that I don't even compare myself to him, like I'm trying to be Tupac. That's not what it is. It's just that my love for him, I really wanted to do the pictures justice. There were moments, specifically on the All Eyez on Me picture, where I'm sitting on the chair and it was a really uncomfortable position for me because I'm so small. And I'm like, "This picture is not going to look the same as his because I'm not the same body type." I was nervous about looking too masculine, but then I was like, "You know what? This is 'Pac, let me channel my confidence" because he had all that confidence. I wasn't worried about what people were going to think, because it's just a personal thing for me. I'm not doing it for people to be like, "Oh, wow." For me, it's just about expressing my gratitude towards him and his legacy.
MTV: June 16 would've been 'Pac's 44th birthday and he was 25 when he passed away. At what age did you become aware of Tupac? What was your earliest memory of him?
Aiko: My earliest memory of Tupac -- I'm from L.A., born and raised, so I think the station at the time was 92.3 the Beat. They obviously played all the West Coast hip-hop and R&B. I'm super young, I was born in '88, so when 'Pac was at his prime, I was still a toddler, I was a baby. I guess I have early memories of hearing him on the radio and seeing his CDs laying around because I have older brothers and sisters. But I didn't form a personal love for him until I was a teenager and I saw "Resurrection" and living in L.A. they play Tupac still like he's a new artist on certain stations. So I grew up listening to him and loving the music. I always liked the way he looked, I always had a crush on him -- that started in elementary school. When I saw "Resurrection," I was so inspired. I was young at the time and obviously the people that were older, that got to witness Tupac in his prime, they were already -- I was late. I was a kid just discovering something at the right time when I could fully understand what he was all about.
MTV: How did things change for you after seeing "Resurrection?"
Aiko: I remember getting home from watching that and just feeling so inspired and I wrote this long journal entry about how inspired I was and motivated. I was so in awe of his story that I just dove in. I got books and I tried to find everything about Tupac. I started watching all the interviews, I started becoming obsessed and it wasn't about the music at that point. It was about him as a person and what he did as far as aside from music.
MTV: In a lot of ways, I'm a little envious that you caught on "late," as you say, because I remember when 'Pac was just a dancer for Digital Underground, then I remember when he was a rapper, then I remember when he did "Juice." I got to see him grow, but to me he was a rapper first. You got to see him as a whole and not in parts.
Aiko: I just saw the big picture. I never felt there were a lot of people I could relate to as far as wanting to do so many things with my life that don't necessarily have to do with the other. He was so contradictory to people, but to me he was just human and not afraid to express himself. I could relate to that a lot... How dancing turned into music, turned into acting, turned into all of the things that he did. And he still had this passion and this purpose about him. That spoke to me so much.
MTV: You talk about his contradictions and his dualities. There were many sides to him. What was the side you related to the most?
Aiko: I think the poet; the poet in 'Pac and the philosopher. He was thirsty for knowledge and I relate to that a lot, which is why a lot of the things that he did was contradictory to most people. Most people don't understand that it's OK to be human and say one thing, do another thing, think another thing and then act another way. That's what makes us amazing is that we're all these things at once.
MTV: What's your favorite 'Pac song?
Aiko: "Keep Ya Head Up."
MTV: [Laughs] I couldn't have guessed. You cover that a lot at your shows. What is it about "Keep Ya Head Up" that draws you in?
Aiko: I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter and that song came on. I just cried like never before. His words meant so much to me. I just felt like I needed to hear that. I didn't know what was going to happen next. I wasn't in the best position to have a child. I was growing hopeless. At that moment I was leaving a free-clinic-type-of-family-planning-type of place to do my prenatal stuff. I was on the county, I had my E.B.T. card, I had my food stamps. I was in the system and I felt like, "Where was my life going at this point?" It was hard for me to be optimistic. But that song came on and that's what changed the whole mood of my pregnancy.
From that day when I heard that song, I was like, "You know what? He's right. I need to just keep my head up and keep it pushing and do what I have to do." From then on everything turned into a positive experience. It really stuck at that moment, because that was 2007 and the song had been out for years and years and years. Not until I had that full-circle moment of understanding struggle and pain did I relate to the song that much more.
MTV: You talked about him being a poet. I feel like your music is poetic, as well. Is that something that comes naturally you? Is that something that you learned listening to him?
Aiko: I think it's natural. Writing has always been my go-to form of expression. Whenever I was going through something as a kid, I would write it down and I would turn it into a poem. And I was a teenager when I really got into "Resurrection" and really got into his poetry and really got into his life. I related to him so much because I felt like I was the same type of person that was into poetry and expressing myself through words. Just having a love for words, that's something that's always been in me since I started school -- since I started learning letters.
It came natural; that's why I love 'Pac. I remember for one of my birthdays, my dad got me one of his poetry books and I was just tripping out because his voice is his own thing. Even if he didn't write, his voice is powerful enough to stand alone, but then his words are the same thing. They're powerful enough to stand on their own by just reading them. That's something that I would like my words to be.
MTV: I have to commend you for taking these photos and doing this cover and saluting 'Pac, because we're in a generation now where it seems that a lot of young fans don't acknowledge the greats that came before us. Fans say the Migos are better than the Beatles -- and that's a matter of taste and preference, but it doesn't seem cool to acknowledge the past these days.
Aiko: I feel like I grew up in a time where we still had the analog stuff... I got to experience tapes, I got to experience VHS, I got experience a lot of analog stuff and not only that, my family was late to catch on to the digital world. We didn't have a computer for a long time, we didn't have a cell phone for a long time, we didn't have cable. I think it's important to stay connected to that, because it keeps you grounded. I just feel a way about everything being digital. Now, it's all about what's new, who's better than who? We're not celebrating the individual, we're not celebrating us all being great. Don't forget about Tupac, don't forget about Biggie, don't forget about these amazing people that taught us these things.