Not only is Hip Hop a voice of the people but it emerged from previous genres that were similarly vocal about the issues of their time. It is made up of individuals whose lyrics are a testament to many of our childhood’s and whose desperately outraged call to action resonates with the revolutionary in all of us. True hip hop has always lit a fire inside of me like nothing and no one else could. It is a poetic, rhythmically intelligent depiction of the unpopular opinion according to popular media. It says f*ck it to being politically correct and showcases the battle scars acquired by simply being to the rest of the world.
There has been a lot of back and forth as of late about whether or not “hip hop is dead” and to those who claim that it is, I ask simply that they open their eyes and listen a little further than top 40 music that is pushed as hip hop through those avenues. The soulful, conscious, intelligent, rebel heart of hip hop is alive and well. There are more MC’s speaking out about the atrocities around the world and having their voice heard through both their platform as an artist than ever before. These are people who can also dead any of these hip pop clowns lyrically without breaking a sweat, but that is a conversation for another day.
When we look back at truly revolutionary hip hop artists, Tupac Amaru Shakur is at the top of this list. Last month was the 20th anniversary of his death. He died at only 26. Considering everything that is happening in America right now, I could not help but see the obvious parallels to his rise to fame, the issues he brought to the forefront, and the current state of things in America. It seems as though everything has come full circle, nothing has changed, 20 years later. In fact, it’s gotten worse.
Before I go into exactly what I mean, I want to recount some of Tupac’s history to give a better understanding of the man he became. Tupac was born on the east coast (believe it or not), in East Harlem New York, NY. He was the son of Black Panther activists. In fact Tupac’s mother was in jail while pregnant on several counts of conspiracy to bomb police stations, department stores, and other public places in New York City. Growing up, his father was absent and his mother no longer stayed an active member of the Black Panthers, although his upbringing revolved around the Black Panther philosophies. He was no stranger to strength, free thinkers and unpopular opinions.
Late in life his mother moved them to Baltimore. Sophomore year, Tupac was accepted to the Baltimore School of the Arts. Through this outlet, he was exposed to different artists, writers and ways of artistic expression he would not have been otherwise. During this time his mother was affected by the disease of addiction, and was having trouble finding work due to her drug abuse and Panther past. His mother later moved him and his sister to Marin City, California, where his west coast life began as well as his career in Hip Hop and acting. This is where he utilized the benefits of the music education he received at the end of high school, and the knowledge that his Panther upbringing gave him. Tupac was a man of conviction and talent very early on.
In 1991 Tupac’s solo career as 2Pac began, and 2Pacalypse Now was released. His first large single “Brenda’s Got a Baby” depicts the story of a 12 year old girl who lives in the ghetto, is molested by a family member, and gets pregnant. As a the story/song goes on, Brenda can’t take care of the child on her own, leaves the baby in a dumpster and turns to prostitution to survive. The video for this song starts with the words “Based on a true story.”
“He left her and she had the baby solo, she had it on the
And didn’t know so, she didn’t know, what to throw away and
what to keep
She wrapped the baby up and threw him in the trash heap
I guess she thought she’d get away
Wouldn’t hear the cries
She didn’t realize
How much the little baby had her eyes
Now the baby’s in the trash heap balling
Momma can’t help her, but it hurts to hear her calling”
This is only the beginning of the visceral depictions of life the way he had seen it in the hood, and stories that aren’t stories to the people who lived them, or knew someone who lived them. It got people’s attention, and created conversation around the issues of the forgotten parts of America. The neighborhoods that were still fighting to live day-to-day, still fighting to eat.
Later, in an interview with MTV in 1994, he further explains the necessary intensity of his music with an analogy that still rings true today. He was asked about Grandmaster Flash’s song, “The Message,” that came out 10 years prior, which also addresses the problems of the time with lyrics like:
“My son said, Daddy, I don’t wanna go to school
‘Cause the teacher’s a jerk, he must think I’m a fool
And all the kids smoke reefer, I think it’d be cheaper
If I just got a job, learned to be a street sweeper
Or dance to the beat, shuffle my feet
Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps
‘Cause it’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey”
The interviewer states how the problems are still there and the “intensity of the music has built.” She continues by asking, “How did we get from Grandmaster Flash’s, “The Message” to where we are now?” and Tupac’s response:
“If I know that in this hotel room they have food every day, and I’m knocking on the door every day to eat, and they open the door, let me see the party, let me see them throwing salami all over, I mean, just throwing food around, but they’re telling me there’s no food. Every day, I’m standing outside trying to sing my way in: “We are hungry, please let us in. We are hungry, please let us in.” After about a week that song is gonna change to: “We hungry, we need some food.” After two, three weeks, it’s like: “Give me the food or I’m breaking down the door.” After a year you’re just like: “I’m picking the lock, coming through the door blasting.” It’s like, you hungry, you reached your level. We asked ten years ago. We was asking with the Panthers. We was asking with them, the Civil Rights Movement. We was asking. Those people that asked are dead and in jail. So now what do you think we’re gonna do? Ask?”
His response perfectly explained the built up animosity of people who had had enough and wanted to be seen and heard.
In the same interview he states that he doesn’t want to “be 50 years old at a BET we shall overcome achievement awards.” His point was that he doesn’t care to be polite, he wanted to be real with his listeners and to his community that were still struggling. He wanted everything that came out of his mouth to contribute in some way to who he had seen as his communities and his people. He didn’t want to be fighting the same fight in his 50s.
“Every time I speak I want the truth to come out. Every time I speak I want a shiver… even if I get in trouble. Ain’t that what we’re supposed to do?”
We have come up on what would have been his 45th birthday this year, and things have not changed for the better. An obvious way to highlight this is the current correlations with the Rodney King case. In 1991, Rodney King was brutally beaten, it was caught on camera and the officers were later acquitted which led to the historical L.A. riots. Due to technological advancements, there have been countless brutal killings of black men, women and children by police caught on video. These videos have once again showcased the undeniable institutional racism still prevalent in our society.
In 2012, 17 year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman who was later acquitted. This resulted in protests in over 100 cities across America chanting “No justice! No Peace!” From this unrest, the Black Lives Matter movement was developed, and Hip Hop has not disappointed in its support for the movement since its formation. Through the music, using their platforms to raise awareness, or marching at protests artists from Vic Mensa, to Brother Ali, J Cole, and Chuck D to Q Tip, Nas, Killer Mic and Kendrick Lamar have contributed to a cause that the media won’t cover unless it feeds into a negative narrative.
Tupac once said, “In the media they don’t talk about it, so in my raps I have to talk about it. It just seems foreign because there is no one else talking about it.” Police brutality is nothing new to the communities that are protesting and validating these issues through personal accounts and experiences. These are issues that have always plagued these communities. The rest of America has just been blinded by privilege tinted glasses.
Tupac was a man who knew himself well and acknowledged that he was still finding his way in the world like everyone else, but was doing it with a purpose. Tupac spoke to a crowd of Black Panthers and pointed the finger back at them, explaining that they too were to blame for the troubled youth in the streets. No one was above criticism. He was a man with a message, and he planned on making sure the world heard it, whether it made them uncomfortable or not. Through this lack of concern for bruising egos and breaking boundaries, Tupac seemed to have some foresight about his sudden death early on in life, so he intended to spark the fire of the youth, of the next revolutionary during his lifetime. In the 1994 MTV interview he explains:
“I’m not saying I’m gonna rule the world or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world and that’s our job. To spark somebody else watching us. We might not be the ones… I don’t know how to change it but I know if I keep talkin’ about how dirty it is somebody gon’ clean it up.”
Tupac succeeded in sparking dialogue and empowering generations of youth with the courage to talk about their circumstances at all costs. This truth has created a generation of artists that emulate and imitate Tupac’s message in their own way. The artist that shines brightest in this comparison, though, would have to be Kendrick Lamar. A proud young black man. A man who understands the systemic hurdles and is intelligent, articulate, and innovative in the way he showcases his truth to the rest of the world. People are drawn to his demeanor and his music in very similar ways to Tupac Shakur.
In fact, at the end of Kendrick Lamar’s song Mortal Man off of his 2015 release To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick has a “conversation” with Tupac, made up of snippets of some of Tupac’s most powerful responses during interviews in his lifetime. Once again, this not only showcases the relevance of Tupac’s word and his impact on the Hip Hop culture but on American culture as a whole.
To think that he made such an impact in various ways in such a short time is heartbreaking because the next thought is always, “Imagine the impact he could have made if he was still here with us.” Although it is a tragedy that he left us too soon, Tupac lives on through his fans that were inspired by his message and the artists that were inspired by his bravery.
“I wish I had a chance to actually meet Tupac. His music meant a lot for our people.” – Anon. woman on the news after Tupac’s death.