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Like all Tupac's other songs, "Dear Mama" is set in the streets of New York, Baltimore, and Marin City, a life in the shadow of wealth and privilege with no visible way out.
Tupac grew up on the streets of New York, and as a young teen his mother moved him to Baltimore.
Tupac said, "Baltimore has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy, the highest rate of AIDS within the black community, the highest rate of teens killing teens, the highest rate of teenage suicide, and the highest rate of blacks killing blacks. [...] So as soon as I got there—being the person that I am—I said 'No, no. I'm changing this.'" (Source)
Pac started an AIDS prevention campaign and attended a school for the arts, where he started acting and rapping. But before he had a chance to finish his studies, the family moved again, this time to Marin City, California. The move was ostensibly an attempt to escape the violence and horror of Baltimore's streets.
By the time he and his mother made that final move, Tupac was living on his own, crashing with family friends and then living in an abandoned building with other street kids. He dropped out of high school at 17, and, through a series of breaks, got a record deal and a possible way out.
But as his songs indicated, Tupac never left the street life. His friends, or fellow "outlaws," another term Pac tried to elevate and reclaim, were still pimps, dealers, and actual gangsters. "Dear Mama," though it is wracked with hurt over the lifestyle he came up in, celebrates the contradictions of staying "in the life," as seen in the track's lyrics:
And even as a crack fiend, Mama
You always was a Black queen, Mama
With his newfound success, Tupac had cars, hotel rooms, record deals, and a nice house. But according to his friends, he filled his first house in Oakland with street kids and people in the community who were in need. He never thought about using his fame to "get away."
This may have ultimately been what killed him, but it's also part of what made him a martyr when he died. He was the success story who kept his heart in the ghetto.
Who was Tupac Shakur?
That question fascinated people during his life while he was alive, but since his death, the status of Tupac's mystery and importance has become continually elevated. From star to hero, from hero to martyr, and from martyr to "thug angel" and even "Black Jesus."
After he died—murdered in 1996 by a shooter in Las Vegas—people started to say that he was still alive. His friends and family believed he lived on because of his broad influence, his spiritual presence, and his lasting work. Before he died, he recorded dozens of tracks, which have since been released on eight posthumous albums.
Tupac was a contradictory, controversial, and tortured figure. He was accused of inciting violence and encouraging negativity and misogyny because he used derogatory terms and rapped about murder and drugs.
But after his death, some began to see his words as tragically prophetic. He seemed to have prematurely identified the end that awaited him, and wrote about death throughout his youthful career. It may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some say that Tupac lived the life he wrote about to tragic ends and took his attachment to the outlaw lifestyle too far.
But others believe that somewhere inside himself, Pac already knew what he had coming. He lived on the edge because he never had high hopes for his own survival. His embrace of T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.—which stands for "The Hate U Give Little Infants F---s Everyone" in the 2Pac lexicon—was an extension of his, albeit somewhat embittered, pride at having survived his own childhood and become a successful artist.
To Tupac, being a thug was something we all go through. Because in his words, "America is the biggest gang in the world" (source).
A friend of Tupac's tells a revealing story about his view of language and responsibility. One time while he was sitting on a panel in front of a group of activists, an older woman asked him to change his offensive language. According to Karen Lee, his former manager, he turned to her and said, "I'm sorry if my language offends you, but it can't offend you any more than the world your generation has left me to deal with" (source).
Tupac was more effective than probably any artist in history at bringing together his strictly street identity with a highly educated background. He was self-educated despite dropping out of high school, and equally knowledgeable about his family's revolutionary history, spirituality, and literature.
"Black Panthers was built on education. And streets was built on wildness. When you put them together, it's like gunpowder. [...] That's what he was," says rapper Big Syke. (Source)
The impassioned, revealing sensitivity of songs like "Dear Mama" made Tupac a star during his life. After he was murdered at age 25, it was poetry like this that made him a legend. He had spent his life desperately trying to communicate the consequences of a lifestyle that many people in America didn't want to think about.
When he was shot, his life itself became one of the consequences. When he died a victim of a type of violence he had predicted in his songs and interviews, it left a permanent scar on the American psyche and on the psyches of people who loved and admired him.
"He was one of the ones we just let fly by," says LaTanya Richardson, who acted with Tupac in Juice. "And I think we're all held accountable for that." (Source)
Wherever the accountability lies, Tupac lives on, just like he said he would. "The only thing that can stop me is death. And even then my music will live forever."
In discussions of rap music—and popular music in general—people often forget that there isn't always a direct correlation between personal experience and songwriting.
Michael Eric Dyson describes this problem as a "thudding literalism" that limits the critic's ability to take in the full scope of a song's meaning. Instead of asking, "What does it mean that millions of young people listen to and identify with Tupac?" critics ask, "Is Tupac for real? Is he positive or negative?"
As a rapper, he's evaluated based on whether his work is a good or bad influence. This is an approach that fails to ask the key question, "Why is he so important?" or, better yet, "What is he actually saying?"
A part of Tupac's brilliance as a writer was his ability to prolifically produce rhymes that were often based on allegory and storytelling. He wrote about prison life before ever being imprisoned, and about drug dealing even though he was never a dealer himself.
He described the harsh streets he'd grown up on, making himself into every character: the gangsters, the pimps, the crack dealers, and the street kids. The writing was more a statement of solidarity than a strict memoir. When they weren't his own stories, they were the stories of his friends, his brothers who called the "n" word. Pac said the "n" word stood for Never Ignorant, Getting Goals Accomplished.
"Me Against the World was all out of my heart. [...] I just try to speak about things that affect me and about things that effect our community, and I try to do it from the viewpoint of the watcher. [...] Sometimes, it's just allegories or fables that have a moral, or an underlying theme." (Source)
He self-consciously molded his voice and image to identify himself with other Black youth, especially those from the neglected ghettos and housing projects who had experienced violence, racism, and belittling poverty.
Of course, as Pac's life descended into a very public mess of trouble with the law, some people came to believe that this was all posturing for Tupac, that he was putting on a show of gangsterism and toughness in order to rake in the dough.
But when it comes to understanding Tupac's art, criticizing him for this so-called posturing tends to fall into that "thudding literalism." It seems to demand that every performance somehow align with the rapper's "real" experience—a demand that is rarely put on any other kind of writing.
The very idea of "realness" can be harmful: it seems to have encouraged Tupac to become more and more embroiled in the violence he rapped about. And it certainly prevents a more complicated reading of Tupac's writing as poetry or social commentary.
"Dear Mama" is one of Tupac's more autobiographical songs, addressing his own mother in a letter of appreciation that's also full of disappointment and conflict. But even in this highly personal track, Pac embellishes the details, presenting himself as a dealer who'd done jail time. In fact, at the time of writing, he was a hard-working and successful musician whose success allowed him to care for his mother monetarily even when he hadn't fully forgiven her emotionally.
Ironically, by the time the album was released, Pac was doing jail time. "Dear Mama" turns out to be a blend of autobiography, storytelling, and dark prediction.
By most accounts, Tupac's "thug poetry" was important because he told a story that millions of other poor Black youth could identify with. His writing was descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning he described the world he lived in rather than scripting a suggested solution or proposing a more optimistic outlook.
Even if you don't agree with his pessimism or don't identify with his pain, the meaning of Tupac's songwriting is best analyzed as a description of the conditions he believed were forced on poor Black Americans by poverty and racism. In a heartbreaking song like "Dear Mama," it's clear that Tupac's writing was more social critique through storytelling than the "gangster posturing" he's often accused of.
Pac was as self-conscious and image-conscious as any superstar, but the picture of reality that he painted was also deeply, sometimes disturbingly, resonant. The fact that he talked so openly about a hard childhood made him an accessible hero to his fans.
Sometimes hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to controversial writing. After all, it's a bit more rare these days to accuse The Catcher in the Rye of encouraging the youth of today to go to prostitutes and slowly self-destruct, even though at least one person has publicly blamed the book for a violent act.
Catcher's protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is going through depression, is nervous, is experimenting sexually, and is behaving totally strangely in the book. All similar descriptions that could be used to summarize Tupac's opus. And these days, the book is required reading in many high schools.
Plenty of people dedicated to Pac's writing feel like he should also be required reading, and that was what Tupac hoped for.
His literary idol was Shakespeare and he wanted to use rap to teach literacy. In addition to rap, he wrote volumes of poetry. He was a huge book-worm, widely informed about everyone from Alice Walker to Sun Tzu to Teilhard de Chardin.
If you're thinking, who are they? Well, point made. The man was seriously well-read.
And in "Dear Mama," it's evident that Tupac became what he'd aspired to become. Michael Eric Dyson wrote, "He narrated his life as a road map to suffering, wrenching a brutal victory from the ghetto he so loved, and the fame and fortune that both blessed and cursed him. As the supreme symbol of his generation, he embodied its reckless, audacious liberties and its ominous hopelessness." (Source)
"Dear Mama" is Tupac at his best: a proud poet from the ghetto who was the voice of a disillusioned generation.