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"In real life, just like in Macbeth, all women are not just pure and true. Just because I write some songs about bad women, though, that doesn't mean I hate women. I've written songs that show great love and respect for women too. Songs that talk about strong, upstanding women and their pain.
"Look around you in this studio right now. I have women working on my music. They understand where I'm coming from. So does my mama. I always play my music for her before it comes out. Why do you think I wrote 'Dear Mama'? I wrote it for my mama because I love her and I felt I owed her something deep." - Tupac Shakur, 1995
Tupac Amaru Shakur's life had unusual beginnings. In 1970, his mother, Afeni Shakur, was arrested along with 20 other New York Black Panther Party activists on bombing charges. The Black Panther Party ideology advocated armed self-defense against white violence, and many Panthers carried guns and had planned or attempted targeted bombings. Afeni Shakur, serving as her own defense lawyer, still won acquittal in the spring of 1971, a minor miracle. A month after her release, her son was born. She named him Tupac Amaru after an 18th-century Peruvian indigenous activist who had led an uprising against Spanish conquistadors.
In the early 1990s, a young, idealistic and bright-eyed Tupac Shakur burst onto the hip-hop scene in full force. Interviewed on camera at age 17, just before his rise to fame, he bragged about Afeni Shakur's wisdoms and political involvements. He said that he and some friends had decided to re-start the Black Panthers, succinctly explaining the group's goals of bettering the community. Those who knew him also credit him with teaching other kids in the ghetto about politics and history: "I think adults should go through school again," Tupac said at 17. "I think that rich people should live like poor people and poor people should live like rich people and it should switch, every week." He also had a plan to educate other youth about the issues affecting them: "There should be a drug class, there should be sex education, there should be a class on scams, there should be a class on scams religious cults, there should be a class on police brutality, there should be a class on apartheid, there should be a class on racism in America, but there're not. There are classes on gym" (see the documentary Thug Angel: The Life of an Outlaw for more from this incredible interview).
Tupac's ambitions and worldly knowledge soon led him into a hugely successful career, but his smarts came with a steep price. Shortly after he was born, the Black Panther Party had dissolved under the pressure of government crackdowns, targeted FBI spying, and the arrests or assassinations of many key leaders. The Party's ideals were not enough to sustain it beyond the political chaos and anti-Civil Rights backlash of the 1970s. When the economic recession deepened in the 1980s, black urban neighborhoods were hard hit. Afeni Shakur ended up virtually homeless, staying with friends and family and sometimes in shelters. It was difficult to get work with a name like Shakur (she shared the name with famous fugitive Assata Shakur, among others) and moved her kids from New York to Baltimore to Marin City in desperation. By the time Tupac was seventeen, Afeni was addicted to crack. Tupac had dropped out of school and was supporting himself and living between friends and the streets.
"You know if money was nothing, if there was no money and everything depended on your moral standards and the way that you behaved and the way you treated people, we'd be millionaires," Tupac said at 17. "But since it's not like that, then we're stone broke. That's the only thing that I'm bitter about, is growing up poor, because I missed out on a lot of things." His mother, he said, "chose to analyze society and fight and do things better. So this is the payoff" (Thug Angel).
Tupac was stone broke, out on his own, and clearly sharpening his tools of verbal criticism. Then, almost all of a sudden, he was famous. Connections he forged in Oakland got him a record deal. 2Pacalypse Now, his first solo album, did well on the charts in 1991. The openly political album featured songs like "Trapped" and "Brenda's Got A Baby" that talk explicitly about racism, incest, teen pregnancy and prison. Was Tupac following in his absent mother's footsteps?
"That birthright of black nationalism hung over Tupac's head as both promise and judgment," writes preacher and intellectual Michael Eric Dyson. "Some saw him as the benighted successor to Huey, Eldrige, Bobby, and other bright stars of black subversion. In this light Tupac's career was best imagined in strictly political terms: Rapping was race war by other means" (Holler If You Hear Me, 48).
The world of commercial rap elevated black heroes, but it definitely did not share the ideals of Black Panther radicalism on every count. The Panthers were anti-capitalists, and the same can't be said for Tupac. He was very clear about his desire to be successful, make monetary gains, and support other young rappers to do the same. As he quickly climbed the ladder to global success, he also embraced a growing identity as a "thug." His goal was to represent the streets in all their hard reality.
"Thug life is just the life of the streets, and what America think of the minorities. America was built on murder," says Big Syke, Pac's friend and mentor (Thug Angel). For Tupac and his friends, T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. (which stands for The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everyone) was an in-your-face form of resistance to oppression, but it also entailed a sort of machismo and potential for violence that made some people uncomfortable. As he built up his thug image, he also found himself involved in a series of controversies over his brushes with the law. In some media sources, these brushes got him more attention than his music, and older generations—black and white—were especially critical. Cultural critic Stanley Crouch wrote a column the week of Tupac's death in which he raked Pac across the coals for his adoption of "thug life": "Shakur attended very good schools, but, like the middle-class white kids who are drawn to anything they find sufficiently rebellious, vulgar and offensive, our boy Tupac bit the thug bullet."
Whether they liked it or not, no one could deny that Tupac's message about the hard life of the streets was a bitter pill to swallow. Tupac grew up with a proudly held Panther idealism, but he also grew up with the knowledge that Black Power had failed to win revolution, or even drastic social change, for blacks like himself. And members of the movement he was so proud of were the very people who had abandoned his mother—along with a young and vulnerable Tupac—in her times of need. He never rejected the past, but he was never happy with the outcome. He was, after all, living with the fall-out.
That's where "Dear Mama" comes in. Writing in 1995, Tupac addressed his mother with brutal honesty, forgiving her for abandoning him and thanking her for raising him as well as she knew how. "Even though you was a crack fiend, mama / You always was a black queen, mama," he rapped. The song sings, almost in a moan, the story of his childhood on the streets, his loss of faith, and his struggle to forgive his mother. "I aimed that one straight for my homies' heartstrings," he said later.
Tupac didn't blame his mother for the trials he'd faced. His contradictory legacy instead turned him against mainstream America and all that it represented, especially the government and the police. Asked why he rapped about violence and drugs, here's a typical response: "Everything in life is not all beautiful, not all fun. There is lots of killing and drugs. To me, a perfect album talks about the hard stuff and the fun and caring stuff. What I want to know, though, is why all of a sudden is everybody acting like gangs are some new phenomenon in this country? Almost everyone in America is affiliated with some kind of gang. We got the FBI, the ATF, the police departments, the religious groups, the Democrats and the Republicans. Everybody's got their own little clique and they're all out there gangbanging in their own little way."
T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. backfires
Tupac's brushes with the law reflected his disillusionment and anger towards law enforcement, and eventually endangered both his freedom and his life. In 1991 he tried to file suit against the Oakland Police Department after being beaten up by cops who didn't believe him when he said he was Tupac Shakur. In 1992, he was sued after a young man killed a state trooper in Texas and then claimed he was listening to a Tupac song about killing police when he did it. In 1993 he was arrested in connection with the shooting of two off-duty police officers, but the charges were dropped when it was discovered that the cops may have used a stolen gun in the face-off.
Despite his self-righteous front and his obvious brilliance, Tupac's friends and family attest that he was serious about the inner exhaustion revealed in his songs. "His deepest feeling about himself is that he didn't feel he was s--t," long-time friend Jada Pinkett Smith remembers (Dyson 44). As a result of low self-esteem and pain about his past, Tupac was easily insulted by rejection from both women and men, and his venom came out in person and in his songs.
His relationships with women were a particularly potent site for these internal conflicts. Despite uplifting songs addressed toward the women in his life ("Dear Mama" and "Keep Ya Head Up"), he was also capable of lashing out, using his songs as a platform to brag about sleeping with lots of women and having sex with his rivals' wives. The lyrics to "I Wonda Why They Call U B----" demonstrate Pac's contradictory approach to gender: on the one hand, he castigates a woman for not respecting herself and tells her that he sees her as his sister. On the other hand, the goal of the song is to explain why it's okay to call women "bi----s": some of them just are, says Tupac.
Tupac joined his polarized views on women with an aversion to commitment, dating a lot of women and sleeping with even more as he rose through the ranks of fame. But even though Pac was reputed to be generally respectful and safe, even this spiraled out of control: in 1993 he was accused and convicted of sexual abuse in a case involving a young female fan he brought to his hotel room. Although he and most who knew him believed he was not guilty, he admitted that he had been asleep in the same room while the woman was assaulted by other men. Some charges were dropped, but he received a sentence of 1.5 to 4.5 years for sexual assault. Others involved got probation, and Tupac saw the sentence as an example of the government targeting him as an individual.
Even if he did not assault the woman (and, as he asserted, merely stood by while others did), this behavior at age 24 was a huge contrast to Tupac at age 17. Speaking as a late teen, Pac told a story about being rejected by a girl from another high school because he was "too nice." He complained bitterly about men mistreating women, and touted himself as a completely different kind of guy. Just a few years later, Pac had simultaneously shaped himself as the most prominent celebrity "playa," and the most prominent figure in rap in prison on sex abuse charges, and arguably the most prominent thug feminist. Even though the sentencing process may have been unjust, the transformation was a confusing one.
Even worse was the transformation that occurred during and after Tupac's jail time. Smith says, "I think a part of Pac just died right there, and then he just sold his soul." "That was where the Tupac that I knew ended," says friend John Singleton. "Prison kills your spirit," said Tupac (The Lost Prison Tapes).
Fame and celebrity had caught up with Tupac, and so had prison. He'd been swimming in a mess of attention ranging from intense praise and huge record sales to snarky press criticism and terrifying threats on his life. While briefly out on bail after his initial 1993 charges, Tupac had been hospitalized with gunshot wounds in what appears to have been a robbery. Pac lashed out against New York rappers Sean "Puffy" Combs and Biggie Smalls, accusing them of making attempts on his life. His incendiary behavior is credited with sparking and fanning a sometimes-violent rivalry between East Coast and West Coast rappers.
Not even Tupac Shakur's closest friends deny that he was a contradictory figure, as capable of spitting venom and getting angry as he was of serving up ingenious insights on stage and in the studio. But toward the end of his life, he became hard to keep up with. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and the elevated hopefulness he had as a teenager had receded. "It was all part of one person, it was all Pac, but he had two sides to him…everybody got a good side and a bad side, but Pac's was amped up just a little bit more," said step-brother Mopreme Shakur (Thug Angel). Despite the antics, Tupac's success upon his release from prison only grew—his best-selling album, All Eyez On Me, came out in early 1996. But in fall of 1996, Tupac was shot multiple times in his car in Las Vegas. He died on September 13 of injuries related to the gunshot wounds. The murder was never solved.
What about his mother?
Despite the complicated nature of their relationship, Tupac felt his mother's influence strongly. "My mother taught me three things: respect, knowledge (…), and she taught me to not be quiet," Tupac said at 17. "If there's something on my mind, speak it" (Thug Angel). He knew that the feelings expressed in "Dear Mama" would resonate with other people, too: "I think all young black males…especially the men from the ghetto, we have a deep love for our mothers because they usually raise us by they selves" (The Lost Prison Tapes).
Afeni Shakur eventually got into recovery, and Tupac lived to see it. Afeni Shakur now manages Tupac's estate and runs the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, which supports arts programs for youth. But when she reached out to him hoping for forgiveness, his response was understandably conflicted and defensive. He apparently wrote her a nine-page letter explaining "how he hoped that I really was going to stay clean," but reminding her, "you cannot erase every single thing that you've done. You cannot expect me to believe that you can change simply because you said so" (Dyson 43). In a way, then, "Dear Mama" was the second letter Tupac wrote his mother—a letter of love and forgiveness after years of estrangement. To the rest of us, "Dear Mama" is a moment of tenderness and a sliver of truth.