"We're still screaming," Afeni says via telephone. "All we ever wanted was for Tupac to have the opportunity to tell his story. At the moment he was killed, he had ideas, aspirations and dreams -- and he has the right to be able to stand up for himself. He's always been good at that."
Tupac was just 25 when he was fatally shot in Las Vegas in 1996; his death ended a short career that was rife with artistic and commercial achievement as well as trouble. He saved Death Row Records from extinction with 1995's All Eyez on Me, the first double album in hip-hop history, and gave great performances in films like Juice, Poetic Justice and Gridlock'd. But he also did prison time for sexual assault, survived his first shooting -- his bullet scars became as emblematic as the "Thug Life" tattoo that traversed his lower stomach -- and stoked one of hip-hop's biggest feuds when he accused Sean "Puffy" Combs and the Notorious B.I.G. of orchestrating that hit.
Tupac is even larger in death than he was in life. Through Amaru Entertainment, which Afeni founded in 1997, he's posthumously sold more than twenty million albums and made a break into the literary world: The Rose That Grew From Concrete, a book of Tupac's poetry, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1999.
"At the time of his death, there were still some people who were calling him a gangster," Afeni says. "But he's been gone eight years, and he just sold 760,000 units. When you think about that, it's proof that what he was expressing in music was valid.
"Whatever else anyone says he was, he may have been," she continues. "But Tupac really was a great American artist. The passage of time allows us to see things as they really are: We see the poetry; we see the personality; we see different sides."
Afeni's own life story rivals the most hard-boiled scenarios described in Tupac's rhymes. A former member of the Black Panther Party, she was jailed for conspiring to blow up buildings in New York City in 1969. She was later acquitted; Tupac was born in Queens a month later. During his youth, Afeni's addiction to crack cocaine often landed the family on the streets. In 1990, she kicked the habit and reconciled with her son, who penned "Dear Mama," a loving meditation on forgiveness, in 1995.
"When Tupac turned thirteen, we were homeless on that day. His theater club gave him a party," she says. "Sometimes I do wonder that if I hadn't gone on with fool-heartedness, my son would have had an easier transition into this life. But at least I was able to keep art there. Otherwise he would've had no way to get his feelings out.
"That's what art is for me," she continues. "It helps you maintain hope by giving you the ability to either create outside your reality, or to describe your reality. Either way, it's a way out."
Afeni, who speaks for free on Thursday, February 3, on the Auraria campus, is the director of the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, a Stone Mountain, Georgia-based non-profit that provides peace education and arts training for at-risk youth. She also tours the country talking to young people about her son, her story and her vision of a non-violent world.
"My son died because he was murdered, not because he had a disease," she says. "He died because someone put their hand on a firearm, and put their finger on the trigger, and put pressure deliberately on it. There can be no victory in that. There's victory in life, peace."