Tupac Shakur’s Battle Cry to America Ron Shelden 20th Century African-American History Tupac Shakur’s Battle Cry to America Tupac Amaru was an eighteenth century Peruvian rebel leader who, although unsuccessful in profoundly altering society during his lifetime, became a symbol for independence and human rights for his people. Two-hundred years later a second great Tupac Amaru is destined for the same fate. Tupac Amaru Shakur was a revolutionary American rapper who used his art to speak and reveal the truth to the public as well as to corporate, government and judicial powers.
Tupac’s rags-to-riches story and his constant attention to and actions to improve the ills of the ghettos and black communities represents themes such as agency in the midst of oppression, African-American culture influencing mainstream culture, as well as sankofa. He was a controversial public figure who, although his heart was in the right place, often did not go about dealing with the societal issues which most concerned him in the best way. At age ten, when asked by a minister what he would like to be when he grows up, he responds, “A revolutionary” (McQuillar and Johnson, 39).
He truly was. At age twenty, he says during an interview that his lyrics are his battle cry to America (Tupac: Resurrection). They truly were. Tupac Shakur was born into a life of poverty and hardship to a very involved Black Panther mother and no solid father figure. He spent his childhood living in the ghettos of East Harlem and even when Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, became less involved with the movement it was still very difficult for the high-school dropout and ex-panther with a criminal record to find work to support herself and children.
Afeni often did not have an apartment of her own and was forced to take her small family to the homes of relatives and friends, or occasionally to shelters to sleep at night (McQuillar and Johnson, 38-39 and 44). Although Afeni had constant trouble providing economically for her family, she taught Tupac and his younger sister to be community oriented and to analyze society (Tupac: Resurrection). She often brought young Tupac with her when she spoke for black rights at colleges, universities, and rallies.
Tupac said the term “black power” was “like a lullaby” to him as a child (McQuillar and Johnson, 39), and he grew up with an ever present, first-hand knowledge of the inequality of his people. Young Tupac was a quiet and withdrawn kid who loved reading and writing poetry and, in Harlem, was never able to relate to the “hardness” that his peers embodied. When the Shakurs moved to Baltimore, Maryland, Tupac began attending Baltimore School for the Arts where Tupac’s natural curiosity and love of the written word allowed him to connect with the many like-minded students at the school.
Baltimore School for the Arts was attended by mostly whites and upper-class minorities, and Tupac found that it was much easier to relate across the races once “you take away the power structure element of white culture and get down to the grassroots level of [it]” (McQuillar and Johnson, 45). Here, Tupac studied the arts of theatre, voice, and ballet, and made life-long friends out of fellow students Jada Pinkett and John Cole. The Shakur’s next move was in 1988 to Marin City, California.
Tupac begins to see trends of poverty in black communities and realizes it is something black people all across America share in common. Drawing inspiration from the social injustice surrounding him and from his own childhood pain, Tupac continues to vent his anger and frustration into his poems and raps. His dream is to use them to reach other people in his situation, to let them know they are not alone and that they need not be ashamed, and also to open a window for the middle and upper classes into a life that does not otherwise get reported on.
He wanted to show the most graphic details of the community in hopes that they might stop. And for better or for worse, Tupac always called it like he saw it. In his song “Panther Power”, Tupac acknowledges the great American hypocrisy when he raps that “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 / And now look at how dangerous you made me / Calling me a mad man cause I’m strong and bold / With this dump full of knowledge of the lies you told. ”
Tupac is loved by many but his controversial lyrics, videos, and actions attract critics as well. The question arises of whether Pac is a martyr or a menace as critics point to Thug Life and his movie Juice, which both contribute to his ever intensifying and intimidating “bad boy” image. They also criticize his growing ego, big mouth, the degradation of women in his lyrics and music videos, and, most importantly, the image that Tupac portrays to young children who emulate him, saying that Tupac “glorifies violence and is creating a culture of guns and rape” (Tupac: Resurrection).
Tupac admits that at a point his ego got out of control and he had to humble himself again. He explains that the concept of Thug Life is not about “criminals, someone to beat you over the head. [It’s about] the underdog. The person who had nothing and succeeds; he’s a thug ‘cause he overcame all obstacles. It doesn’t have anything to do with the dictionary’s version of ‘thug’. ” Tupac says he does not understand why America cannot comprehend Thug Life, because, he says, “America is Thug Life” (Tupac: Resurrection).
Tupac never disputes the accusation that he has a big mouth; he admits it and has publicly apologized for several things he said. When it comes to women, Tupac says he does not degrade them but he portrays them as they are. For the strong women and mothers like his own, he wrote the songs “Dear Mama” and “Keep Your Head Up. ” But for the everyday women who do not respect themselves and do not demand respect from others, Tupac wrote the song “I Get Around. ” He is real and true, he will throw facts in your face that many people would rather turn a blind-eye to.
He will not sugar-coat anything, and that includes his portrayal of women. But when it comes to the youth, Tupac admits his image is not a good one to emulate. He does, however, feel that the lyrics, although sometimes harsh, are necessary and beneficial for youth to be exposed to so that they do not feel alone in their struggles. Although Tupac prophesied his own young death and seemed in many ways ready to die, many people feel that he would have grown out of his gangster ways if given the time.
Minister Conrad Muhammad compares him to Malcolm X, saying that “in his young years he was [also] a gangbanger, a drug dealer. Tupac would have evolved naturally, but black men are dying before they get their chance to grow” (Vibe, 81). But even in his youthful age, Tupac showed more social awareness and understanding than most people do in a lifetime. In an interview with Vibe Magazine, Tupac says all he really wants is “to get this dark cloud off of us as a race. We need some kind of sunshine, some kind of exceptional being…” (81).
Whether he knew it or not, in many ways Tupac was the sunshine that he himself spoke of. Tupac did not merely rap about the social injustices experienced by blacks (especially poor blacks), but he used large portions of his salary to give back to the communities. By spreading knowledge about the conditions of the ghettos and raising money to help improve them, Tupac embodies the thematic “agency in the midst of oppression. ” But he does not stop there; he also promotes it. His new black power movement which he called Thug Life, in its very essence, works to promote agency in the midst of oppression.
Thug Life called the underdog to battle, to overcome all obstacles and to succeed despite any given dispositions. Tupac felt that blacks would remain “thugs” and “niggers” until “we set this shit right” (Tupac: Resurrection). He put Thug Life in everyone’s face, made it everyone’s problem in hopes that it would be set right. Throughout history African-Americans have influenced mainstream culture in many ways, and as a huge American icon, Tupac Shakur also left his mark. Tupac came out with six albums from 1991 to 1996 and had many more marketed posthumously by his estate.
He has sold over sixty seven million albums worldwide, making him the best-selling hip-hop artist ever. Popular music authorities such as Vibe Magazine, MTV, and Rolling Stone have all unanimously declared him the best rapper of all time. Although Tupac had millions of fans during his lifetime, both white and black fans, most of the media attention he received focused on his criminal record because the government feared him as a threat to American integrity. But there was a transformation of Tupac’s legacy beginning in the years following his death.
One of the clearest manifestations of Tupac’s changing image is the evolution of the rapper’s portrayal in popular media. Today we remember Tupac Shakur as a sometimes brash, intimidating figure, but mostly he is revered as a reflective, intellectual poet and philosopher. Tupac has worked his way into the official world of academia. The University of California Berkeley offered a course titled “The Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur. ” University of Washington offers “The Textual Appeal of Tupac” and Harvard University went as far as to include Tupac in the same breadth as Thomas Paine in a class on protest literature (Menon, 5).
In addition, a good deal of scholarly work in the field of African-American studies has been dedicated to analyzing Tupac’s Legacy. Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur, remarks that Tupac evoked “Black gods-of pain, truth, and poetry with a beauty and power that are straight into a mythic, spiritual, and saintly stratum. ” Dyson has also gone as far as to compare the rapper to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. (Menon, 5).
Popular contemporary rappers such as 50 Cent, The Game, and Eminem have explicitly paid homage to Tupac in their songs; within the Hip Hop industry, a community almost completely built on denigrating rival musicians, there is nothing but reverence for Tupac. In the last several years, a slew of documentaries have emerged chronicling Tupac’s life. Nick Broomfield, the same documentary film maker who covered such prominent subjects as Heidi Fleiss, Kurt Cobain, and Courtney Love felt that Tupac’s rivalry with rapper Biggie Smalls was important enough to be the subject of most recent work.
In addition, Tupac Resurrection, a best-selling documentary released in 2003, also provided an extremely sympathetic portrait of Tupac’s life. The introduction to the documentary implies that Tupac is an angel narrating his life story from beyond the grave. The incorporation of aerial shots of Las Vegas makes it appear as if the rapper has risen from the grave to convey a message to those still on earth. The very existence of media like Tupac Resurrection, as well is the artist’s incorporation into African-American studies and university classrooms represents his impact on mainstream American culture.
Such efforts portray Tupac as more than simply a musician and explicitly highlight his social activism. Tupac also embodies the African sankofa; the idea that it is not taboo to go back and retrieve what you have forgotten. Sankofa is symbolized by a swan with her neck reaching back behind her to retrieve her egg, her youth. Tupac’s black power movement, Thug Life, is an acronym which stands for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone. ” When Pac explains his usage of the word thug, he says it is the underdog who triumphs through adversity.
Thug Life explicitly incorporates the youth into his movement; this is where sankofa becomes relevant. Tupac advocates for America as a whole to go back and retrieve what it has forgotten: its youth. More particularly, its poor, black youth to which the nation gives nothing but hate. Tupac also advocates for America to go back and retrieve something larger: its black communities as a whole. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty was quickly forgotten with America’s entry into the Vietnam War. Although the government forgot about the war on poverty, the growling stomachs of the poor did not.
In his song “Changes”, Tupac raps, “I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black / my stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch. ” Later in the song he says, “I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do. ” Tupac’s lyrics describe a life of daily struggle of which many Americans are ignorant exists. He said that he will be “fighting for his freedom with his last breath” (Panther Power); he made it his life’s mission to make these struggles known and although he did not think that he himself could change the world, he believed he could ignite the spark that would.
Tupac Shakur was a warrior for black people, for poor people, for his people. His battle cry to America was heard far and wide and continues to ring in our ears today; calling us to take action, to make a difference, to join the battle and make a change. “We gotta make a change… It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes. Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live and let’s change the way we treat each other. You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do hat we gotta do, to survive. ” -Tupac
Works Cited Danyel Smith. “Home at Last. ” Vibe Nov. 1996: 82. Roger. Web. 28 July 2010. McQuillar, Tayannah Lee, and Freddie Lee Johnson. Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010. Print. Menon, Mrinal. “Monster to Martyr: The Life and Death of Tupac Shakur. ” 7 March 2006. Tupac: Resurrection. Dir. Lauren Lazin. Interscope Records, 2003. DVD. “Tupac Shakur: Ready to Die. ” Vibe Nov. 1996: 78-81. Roger. Web. 28 July 2010.