Thug Life: Tupac Shakur’s Protest Against America’s Systemic Oppression
For those who are not intimately aware of Tupac’s body of work, whether it be his book of poetry, The Rose that Grew from Concrete, or any of his albums, he is mostly remembered by the last six months of his life which were riddled with trauma, paranoia, and Death Row antics. Yet, the son of a Black Panther, Tupac Shakur left behind a legacy of protest; the same war that his mother, Afeni Shakur, fought, Tupac also fought. The war against Black bodies, Black intellectualism, Black spirituality, and anything pertaining to the African American communities in America has been prevalent since its inception. Protests throughout the years have all had the same message, just different eras, different tones, and little to no results. Tupac defiantly objected the oppression of his community in many different ways; he was a walking protest. He was rebellious, unapologetic, and prolific. Tupac was unyielding in his protest through his art by being emphatically vocal and speaking up for those whose voices are suppressed (especially the youth), by telling stories of how Black communities across America are symptomatic of systemic oppression, and by being courageous enough to be vulnerable, a trait not often associated with Black men.
Shakur’s revolutionary foundation was laid by his mother, Afeni Shakur, a former Black Panther Party member famously involved in the “Panther 21” case in which 21 members of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party were falsely accused of planned bombings against a police department. Not only was his foundation marked by revolutionaries such as his mother, and Geronimo Pratt, who Shakur named as his Godfather, but it was also plagued in poverty and the struggle. Growing up, Tupac’s mother fell victim to the crack epidemic and became addicted to the drug. This resulted in loss of work for her, and is the reason she and Tupac moved from Harlem to Baltimore, and then eventually to Marin City and Oakland, California. In those moves, Tupac became acquainted with poverty and as he once said, the poverty helped him to “relate to everyone’s struggle,” (Lazin 2004). Tupac’s witness to this struggle also inevitably laid the tracks for his lyrical poetry and literary poetry.
While still a teenager, Tupac laid down one of his earliest recordings, “Panther Power,” which criticizes the myth of the “American Dream” that is sold to people, but which does not apply to all Americans. In the song, Shakur condemns America, saying:
“As real as it seems, the American Dream / Ain’t nothing but another calculated scheme / To get us locked up, shot up, back in chains / To deny us of the future, rob our names / Kept my history a mystery but now I see / The American Dream wasn’t meant for me / Cause lady liberty is a hypocrite, she lied to me / Promised me freedom, education, equality / Never gave me nothing but slavery…” (2Pac 1988).
Here, Tupac calls out systems within America that portray stability, but in reality, end up further oppressing the Black community, while also embracing his Panther roots. Later in the track, Tupac addresses the pride in his family history, rapping: “Panther power is running through my arteries,” (2Pac 1988). This song is an early example of how Shakur used his voice to speak for the voiceless, and to tell their side of the story.
In a documentary entitled, Tupac: Resurrection, the legendary rapper claimed his inspiration for writing, “is like Don McClain when he did ‘Vincent,’ Lorraine Hansberry with A Raisin in the Sun, Shakespeare when he does his thing. Like deep stories; like raw human needs,” (Lazin). So, his intentions have always been to reach people and to have his stories affect people; to implement empathy. His first studio album, 2Pacalypse Now certainly reflects this notion. Tupac described this album as, “the story of the young black male, from track one to track thirteen. It’s about teenage pregnancy, police brutality, or just straight up poverty,” (Lazin 2004). By writing and recording these songs, by releasing this album, Tupac gave a voice to the unheard and ignored, and echoed the sentiments of Black communities across America. He gave an inside look into the poverty and struggle that raised him.
Songs like “Trapped” speak to the police brutality that has and continues to plague Black communities. Tupac raps, “They got me trapped / Can barely walk the city streets / Without a cop harassing me, searching me / Then asking my identity / Hands up, throw me up against the wall / Didn’t do a thing at all,” (2Pac 1991). These lyrics reflect incidents that happen in our society even today. These kinds of tracks also reach audiences outside of the Black community and inform them of what is going on, whereas they may not have had this information otherwise. This is another important aspect of Tupac’s protest: his reach. Using hip hop culture and music as his medium almost guaranteed his messages reaching a bigger audience, which is important in protest. Shakur once said, “our brothers and sisters, our youth, and some of our adults, their ear is pinned to rap music right now and if we really want to get our message out, if we really want to start teaching, we need to start doing that; we really need to start using our methods.” Further explaining, “the last poets did it with poetry, and even in our history, in ancient African civilization, poets went from village to village, and that’s how stories, and messages, and lessons were taught,” (“Tupac Interlude” 2000). Thus, Tupac used this medium to his advantage. He was aware of who was listening and who needed to hear his messages, his protests, his stories.
In her article, “All I Need Is One Mic: Mobilizing Youth for Social Change in the Post-Civil Rights Era,” Andreana Clay expounds on Michael Eric Dyson’s comments on Tupac’s impact in Black popular culture by exploring Tupac’s impact on the youth she surveyed and how his lyrics both inspire and help to mobilize the youth. She notes, “Xochitl,” a 15-year-old participant from Teen Justice stated, “when I think of an activist, I think of Tupac.” She said she believed he was an activist because of “what he stood for [and] who he was,” (Clay 2006). Being able to reach the youth and young adults is important in protest because these groups are usually the mobilizers, the loudest, and often times, the most effective. Additionally, the youth are the ones most affected. Take Tupac for instance, a lot of his poetry, both musical and literary, comes from what he saw and endured as a youth. He took those experiences and shared them with others as if to say, ‘I understand; I see you; let’s change this; let’s make them hear us.’ He took his experiences as a child and adolescent, and turned them into a way to mobilize, while still only in his early twenties.
A song of Shakur’s that specifically speaks to and for the youth is “Brenda’s Got A Baby.” The song details a young girl who becomes pregnant after being raped by her molester. Shakur wrote the song after reading a newspaper article detailing a 12-year-old girl from Brooklyn, New York who gave birth and then disposed of her child in the dumpster. The article referenced states, “The boy was born in a six-story tenement on the corner of Stone Avenue, a depressed area of littered streets, empty lots and broken sidewalks. A security guard is posted at an iron gate in front of the building, and floodlights illuminate the courtyard,” (McKinley 1991). This description embodies the imagery Shakur included in his lyrics. In fact, it’s a testament to his stories, that what he was telling his audience was not simply fiction or allegory, but reality. The article also states that the young girl never mentions who the father of the baby is or how she became pregnant, but coming from impoverished communities himself, Tupac creates a story that is plausible, yet undeniably devastating.
In the song, Tupac says: “I hear Brenda’s got a baby, but Brenda’s barely got a brain / A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name / “That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family” / Well, let me show you how it affects our whole community,” (2Pac 1991). The song as a whole, protests against the conditions of depleted Black communities throughout America, but Tupac also uses the song as a teachable moment; Yes, this story is devastating, and it doesn’t seem like it should affect you, but here’s how it does. By telling this story, loosely based on actual events, Tupac is giving the world a report on what is happening in his community.
In describing his efforts to produce songs like “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” Shakur compares his lyrical poetry to news coverage of the Vietnam war, explaining:
“You got the Vietnam War, right? Because the reporters show us pictures at home of the Vietnam War, that’s what made the Vietnam War end when it did end, but the shit probably would’ve lasted longer. If no one knew exactly what was going on, you know, and we just thought that they were just dying valiantly in some beautiful way, but because we saw the horror, that’s what made us stop the Vietnam War. So, I thought that’s what I’m going to do as an artist, as a rapper: I’m going to show the most graphic details of what I see in my community, and hopefully they’ll stop it, quick,” (Lazin 2004).
Therefore, this notion of using his art to protest by telling stories about his own communities in hopes it would affect people, wasn’t lost on Tupac at all. In fact, it was his sole purpose.
This sentiment is also echoed in Shakur’s literary poetry with poems like, “Life Through My Eyes” where he assures readers that life through his “bloodshot eyes / would scare a square to death,” (Shakur 11). The tone of the poem is somber and reflective as Tupac describes the hopeless feeling that is accompanied with living in poverty. Yet, like much of his work, the end of the poem offers some hope with the lines in which Shakur declares, “But mock my words when I say / my heart will not exist / unless my destiny comes through / and puts an end 2 all of this,” (Shakur 11). Tupac assures himself in the poem that it his destiny to put an end to those suffering in poverty. Similarly, in his poem “And 2morrow” Tupac speaks of “tragedies” and “violence in the air” while offering optimism, saying, “2morrow I c change / A chance 2 build anew / Built on spirit, intent of heart / and ideals based on truth,” (Shakur 141). Thus, while Tupac made sure to bring issues of his community to the forefront of American society, he also simultaneously represented a beam of hope because he spoke out, and because he was optimistic about bringing on change.
In addition to his protest poetry both in music and in literature, it’s more than worth it to note that Tupac Shakur’s vulnerability was protest, as well. In a cultural society that was relentless in painting Tupac to be a “thug,” a criminal, and harmful to the Black community, Tupac’s willingness to be vulnerable as a Black man in a world that paints him as a monster, was a protest and exception to the boundaries that were placed upon him and so many other Black men. Tupac famously said, “I’m very sensitive. But, that’s why I’m so harsh, because I’m so sensitive,” (Lazin 2004). This is evident in his poem entitled “Sometimes I Cry” in which he confesses, “Sometimes when I’m alone / I cry because I’m on my own / The tears I cry R bitter and warm / they flow with life but take no form,” (Shakur 7). Not only is the poem moving, but it is relatable to a wider audience. It shows that he is but a human with feelings, emotions, and that he too bears the brunt of reality.
Similarly, in his music, Tupac protested the treatment of women, particularly Black women, in his song “Keep Ya Head Up” which also displays his vulnerable side. Tupac amplifies his love for Black women, rapping: “I give a holla to my sisters on welfare / 2Pac cares if don’t nobody else care / And I know they like to beat you down a lot / When you come around the block, brothers clown a lot / But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up / Forgive, but don’t forget, girl, keep ya head up,” (2Pac 1993). In a time where hip hop music was flooded with “bitches and hoes,” often times even used by Shakur, he dedicated an entire track to women, that even today has turned into somewhat of a feminist anthem, with some protestors painting the song’s lyrics on poster boards held by women at marches protesting women’s rights.
Shakur’s poem “U R Ripping Us Apart!!!” combines both vulnerability and protest as he refers to his mother’s aforementioned crack addiction. The poem’s tone is that of anguish and disappointment as he speaks directly to the drug that infiltrated his family, or as he calls it in the poem, “the triangle” of him, his sister, and their mother. As a result of this infiltration, Shakur writes of helplessness and loneliness, saying his hero has been “defeated” by the drug. Verbiage such as “defeated,” “destroyed,” and phrases like “finally through” and “tearing us apart” speak to the intensity and the damage of his mother’s crack addiction. As Walter Edwards writes in his article, “From Poetry to Rap: The Lyrics of Tupac Shakur,” there is a reoccurring theme in a lot of his literary poetry of “the heart as Tupac’s emotional center.” Edwards also notes that there are “numerous references to pain of the heart” and heartbreak and that “this sentimental persona contrasts starkly with the thug roles Tupac embraced artistically, and in reality, later in his raps,” (Edwards 2002). Yet, it seems the culmination of the two personas was what makes his protest that much more amplifiable and effective.
As Nikki Giovanni mentions in her foreword of Tupac’s book of poetry, The Rose That Grew from Concrete, Tupac was, “a sensitive soul.” She clarifies, “Just as people want to make Malcolm X an integrationist, thereby changing the nature of his daring and his truth, people want us to overlook the sensitivity and love Tupac Shakur shows because, after all, if he loves, if he cries, if he cares, if he, in other words, is not a monster, then what have we done? What a great crime has been committed…” (Shakur xvi). Indeed, Tupac was a sensitive soul, and most importantly, most notably, he was a human soul just like everyone else in the world; This was the living, breathing component to his protest.
Shakur once said, “I’ve not brought violence to you; I’ve not brought Thug Life to America. I didn’t create Thug Life, I diagnosed it,” (Lazin 2004). Speaking directly to American society, and presumably the oppressor, Shakur made it known that he was not the creator of the madness or the ugliness that America refused, and continues to refuse, to look at and treat. He and the ghettos he and so many others hail from are but byproducts of the oppressive systems inflicted on minorities like Tupac. Tupac’s legacy of protest is still so sound and steadfast today because it was authentic, it fought back, it was loud, unapologetic and unyielding in its efforts to expose America for what it still is and always has been. Because of this, both his musical and literary poetry set the bar, will stand the test of time, and be used as tools of protest for generations to come.
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