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When I was young, me and my mama had beef
17 years old, kicked out on the streets
Tupac's mom was a famous Black Panther Party activist, Afeni Shakur, but during Pac's teenage years, she also became addicted to crack.
Afeni was arrested, along with 20 other members of the New York City Black Panther Party, less than a year before Tupac was born in 1971.
She became pregnant with Tupac while out on bail, and a month before his birth, she won an acquittal for herself and other members of the Panthers, acting as her own defense lawyer. But after the dissolution of the Party, Afeni Shakur ended up back in extreme poverty, abandoned by the Panthers and unable to get a job. She developed a crack habit and moved Tupac from place to place throughout his childhood.
Although he often speaks with pride about his revolutionary roots, his childhood caused him a lot of anguish. Indeed, by age 17, Tupac was living on the streets, crashing with friends, and trying to scrap together a rap career with no family to support him. See the Meaning tab for more of this story.
I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell
Huggin' on my mama from a jail cell
Although Me Against the World was released while Tupac was incarcerated, he wrote this lyric before he'd ever seen jail time.
Tupac didn't want to end up behind bars, but he also saw it as a part of his fate. As a young Black man from the ghetto, his chances of ending up in prison were higher than his chances of going to college, and as an educated young man raised by revolutionary activists, he knew it.
And even as a crack fiend, Mama
You always was a Black queen, Mama
This bitter honesty was probably Tupac's greatest artistic strength.
Afeni Shakur was apparently less than delighted that Tupac went public with telling people that she was a "crack fiend," but she later said "I do not have to agree with [the lyrics]. I needed him to say how he felt, specifically about the pain that I had caused him." (Source)
Both she and Tupac ultimately believed it was the right thing for him to do, and that his raw honesty was a part of his appeal as an artist.
Tupac said, "My music is spiritual, if you listen to it. It's all about emotion; it's all about life. Not to dis anybody, but where other rappers might paint a perfect picture of themselves, I would tell my innermost, darkest secrets. I reveal myself in every one of my records... [...] and people can relate to what I believe." (Source)
No love from my daddy, 'cause the coward wasn't there
Pac's absent father was probably Black Panther activist Billy Garland.
Although Afeni Shakur never publicly revealed who Pac's father was—and told young Tupac that his father had died—it eventually came out that Billy Garland, a fellow Black Panther, was Pac's biological dad.
When Tupac was hospitalized with gunshot wounds in 1994, Garland came to meet him for the first time. Some believe that his father's absence was one of the influences that led him to be as bitter as he was proud about his revolutionary pedigree.
I hung around with the thugs
And even though they sold drugs
They showed a young brother love
"I didn't create T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. I diagnosed it." – Tupac, The Lost Prison Tapes
"It's not an image; it's just a way of life," he said in 2005. "It's a mentality." (Source)
In Tupac's creative lexicon, T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. stood for "The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everyone," basically meaning that like it or not, thugs are the products of this society.
Tupac was widely criticized for embracing T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. People argued that Pac's words and behavior encouraged violence and criminal behavior, especially for Black youth. It was also criticized from within the Black community for giving white America the impression that violence and materialism were all Black people stood for.
In an interview for MTV, Tupac responded to the criticism: "It's not thugging like I'm robbing people, 'cause that's not what I'm doing. I mean like I'm not scared to say how I feel. Part of being [a thug] is to stand up for your responsibilities and say this is what I do even though I know people are going to hate me and say, 'It's so politically un-correct' and 'How could you make black people look like that?' [...] I want to be real with myself." (Source)
Even though the media spilled endless ink fretting about Tupac's encouragement of gang activity, he didn't like the label "gangsta rap" and had a complex analysis of what gangs were.
Tupac also spoke out firmly against Black-on-Black violence, and despite the media's attacks on him, was very clear that he thought people in his community should be using their power to organize, to build something better, and to stop violence and rape.
After a shooting in 2003 that put him in the hospital, he said, "I really did believe that no Black person would ever shoot me. I was their representative. I believed that I didn't have to fear my own community. [...] They would never harm me, they would never rob me, they would never do me wrong." (The Lost Prison Tapes)
Tupac's mentor, rapper Big Syke, had an even more succinct and straightforward breakdown of what "thug" and "outlaw" meant, saying "I call thugs the nobodies, because we really don't have nobody to help us but us. And then outlaw is being black and minority. Period." (Source)