“Perhaps I was addicted to the dark side; somewhere inside my childhood witnessed my heart die.” -2Pac
There are few individuals in the entertainment industry I’ve identified with as much as I have with Tupac Shakur. For those who don’t know, which I can’t imagine, Tupac was a rap artist/actor/activist/poet in the early and mid 90s, whose claim to fame was his rawness, which shined a bright light on the struggles of impoverished black people who lived in areas similar to war zones. He resonated with me on a level which transcended race, as his lyrics spoke to a broken and damaged core-self that believed itself to be beyond repair. Even with all of Tupac’s widely-known flaws, to me, he was a lost boy in search of a father-figure and some semblance of inner peace, just like I was.
Tupac was raised by a single-mother who struggled to care for him and his sister during the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic, of which she fell victim to. To listen to Pac’s lyrics is to understand his story and, in some way, hear yours; Pac was most of us, especially those of us who were/are members of the poor and working classes. His intention was to become a voice for those who didn’t have one, to bring their suffering to a public platform, in essence, to speak truth to power. In his song, Letter to the President, Pac angrily addressed Bill Clinton’s administration, criticizing the democratic party for failing to try to mitigate the prominent difficulties facing black communities at that time, including severe poverty. Pac was never afraid of speaking truth to power; it seemed as though he believed it was his mission to do so.
Pac sparked my interest in politics and philosophy; he made it cool to be smart, which in my neighborhood was equivalent to being cowardly. If not for Pac, I’m not sure I would have ever picked up even one piece of serious literature. Stories were told about his home containing “a sea of books,” and I wanted mine to look identical. For a kid entrenched in a segregated culture, Pac afforded to me the perspectives of African-American communities, and it was through him that I learned of our inextricable solidarity with one another; for, all of us were members of a downtrodden working class. The significance of Pac’s lyrics lie in their ability to unite, as Pac was so much more than a talented lyricist; he was an activist who sought to change the world through music, or as he would have said, “to spark the brain that would change the world.”
Pac’s life, like his music, was filled with meaning. No lyric, no word, no vocal inflection was insignificant; everything he did appeared to have a purpose. He wanted his music to be genuine and raw, so he left in the mistakes that he made while recording his tracks; in some, you can hear him stutter and misspeak, which made them even more poignant. Pac knew that life entailed suffering, and he wanted us to know that we weren’t alone in our sorrows. He once stated, “I’m doing this for the kid who truly leads a ‘thug life’ and thinks it’s HOPELESS.” Pac understood the power of identification and empathy, and he used it to help us cope with a tumultuous world that often seemed to not give a fuck about us.
For a kid without a biological father, the song Papaz Song resonated with me in a profound way. In it, Pac tells the story of a kid with an absentee father who’s raised by a mother having a difficult time providing for him and his sister. The song is full of anger, and resentment, toward a man who didn’t want to be responsible for the son he helped create. In the song Pac sang, “You think I’m blind but this time I see you comin’, Jack! You grabbed your coat, left us broke, now ain’t no runnin’ back, Ask about my moms like you loved her from the start, Left her in the dark, she fell apart from a broken heart, So don’t even start with that “Want to be your father” shit, Don’t even bother with your dollars I don’t need it, I’ll bury moms like you left me: all alone, G, Now that I finally found you, stay the fuck away from me!” In it, Pac lamented his self-perception of a “man-child” with no heroes or role-models, and, similarly, I struggled to find role-models in an environment which offered few exemplary figures. Without them, I thought I’d be stuck in a state of perpetual childhood, deeply fearing the unknowns, and hardships, of adulthood for the rest of my life. Knowing that Pac felt the same way helped alleviate my anxiety; I knew that I wasn’t alone, that someone out there shared, and understood, my experience.
Pac felt his feelings as deeply as anyone could, and his love for his listeners was unmistakable, especially women. Pac made songs for, and about, them when no other rappers were doing so. Brenda’s Got A Baby, Keep Ya Head Up, and Baby Don’t Cry were songs meant to empower women in communities in which they were made to feel inferior to their male peers. In Baby Don’t Cry, Pac sings about a girl whose life was nearly shattered by a sexual assault; he recites, “Now here’s a story ’bout a woman with dreams, So picture perfect at thirteen, an ebony queen, Beneath the surface it was more than just a crooked smile, Nobody knew about her secret so it took a while, I could see a tear fall slow down her black cheek, Sheddin’ quiet tears in the back seat, So when she asked me: “What would you do if it was you?”, Couldn’t answer such a horrible pain to live through.”
I’m not sure who I would’ve been had I not picked up ‘Until the End of Time’ when I was 13 years old, captivated by the harshness, despair and shocking hopefulness of that album’s most notable song (eponymously named). In my darkest moments, Pac sparked a flame that guided me to better days. And if he truly wrote his music for the kid living a thug life, I always believed that kid was me. Tupac’s music was intended for those of us looking for hope and guidance, and thus his voice lingers as the whisper in our souls.
Pac’s empathy and his purpose of lifting up entire groups contributed to my decision to become a psychotherapist and a socialist. From his songs, I learned about the strength of words and, most importantly, the power of ideas. His lyrics were medicinal, and through them, my own mission presented itself with evident clarity. These days, his poems continue to inspire me, and remind me of my path when I feel desolate and hopeless; they remind that I don’t need a biological father in my life to be a man; and, that I could continue to love profoundly despite the immense pain which often envelopes me. Tupac was special, and a part of him was the best part of ourselves. I hope that through his songs, we’ll continue to foster the strength needed to bring about necessary Changes.