“There’s no way I can pay you back, but the plan
Is to show you that I understand; you are appreciated”
Anyone who knows these lyrics is a fan of hip hop classics, west coast hip hop, and 2Pac.
The single “Dear Mama” debuted in 1995 to critical acclaim. In 2009, the song was inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, the first hip hop solo song to be selected for the honor. But while people may know 2Pac’s greatest hits, few of us know the story of how he became who he was.
Dear Mama is a 5-part documentary series that takes a deeper look at the relationship between 1970s feminist Black Panther Afeni Shakur and her son, 1990s rap legend Tupac Shakur. The first two episodes chronicle their backgrounds and legacies, and explore their strained connection and shared ideals along the way.
In 1988, 17-year-old Tupac was a senior at Tamalpais High School in Marin City, CA. He’d spent the last two years at Baltimore School for the Arts, where he established himself as a poet, rapper, actor, and dancer before moving across the country with his mother and sister. In his senior class interview, he expressed his disdain for poverty and racism, and how his mother taught him to analyze society and be vocal. Back in 1957, Afeni moved from Lumberton, NC to the South Bronx, NY with her mother and sister, and was upset by the same issues at High School of the Performing Arts in Manhattan that her future son would face. Aiming to become an empowered woman and respected individual, she joined the Black Panthers as a teenager in 1968, where she began working as a paralegal.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was an organization founded in 1966 in Oakland, CA by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. It was commonly believed to be and portrayed as the violent alternative to the nonviolent protest movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. due to its members being armed with guns to protect neighborhoods from police brutality. However, in addition to its members exercising their Second Amendment rights, the organization also upheld a Ten-Point Program to uplift disenfranchised African-Americans, including free children’s breakfast programs and community health clinics. Its deputy chairman Fred Hampton was also one of the founders of the Rainbow Coalition in Chicago, a multicultural movement against racism and classism. After many of their leaders were murdered and imprisoned in 1969, the Black Panther Party declined until it officially dissolved in 1982. (Groups with similar names have started since the Black Panther Party disbanded, but have no affiliation with the original members or their mission.)
The song “Panther Power” was a tribute to the Black Panthers. Tupac’s childhood and affinity for leadership were heavily influenced by Afeni’s legacy as an activist, as well as those of his godfathers Geronimo Pratt and Jamal Joseph.
Afeni served as leader of the political education committee of the Harlem chapter of the Black Panthers. The end of her time with them was notably traumatic, as she was arrested during police raids of Panther homes and named in the Panther 21 trial in New York City. Afeni boldly elected to represent herself in the trial, despite not having attended law school and being pregnant with Tupac at the time. She exposed the police’s unlawful activities, which led to all members in her case being acquitted in 1971. After they disbanded in the 80s, she struggled to cope and began using crack cocaine. Tupac was resentful of this as a teen, and Afeni kicked him out at 17 over their differences. She went to rehab two years later in 1990.
Meanwhile, Tupac danced for hip hop group Digital Underground and worked to establish himself as a rapper. Had his management team, composed of Atron Gregory and his former teacher Leila Steinberg, not secured a record deal, Tupac was poised to become an activist or politician. He felt strongly that people of all backgrounds should come together to see change. Even in his early career, he rapped about the American Dream and the lasting effects of slavery.
In 1991, Tupac, then 20, was arrested for jaywalking and brutalized by police who reportedly told him he “needed to learn his place.” This, coupled with the widely publicized beating of Rodney King, tremendously affected him. He began to speak more publicly about his anger, which coincided with his music being labeled “gangster rap” due to its themes, as groups like N.W.A rose to prominence. When asked if his answer to these issues was violence, he said his answer was music, as it had the power to spark dialogue and influence laws.
“Trapped” and “Changes” explore the police brutality against African-Americans he witnessed growing up in Los Angeles, as well as the cycles of poverty and oppression so many were desperate to escape in his community.
“Brenda’s Got A Baby” and “Keep Ya Head Up” are perhaps his most well-known songs that describe his feminist leanings. His lyrics express his sentiments on violence against women as well as women’s right to reproductive choice. They surprisingly call to respect women’s experiences at the height of gangster rap, an era of hip hop commonly associated with misogyny.
Episodes 3-5 detail how Tupac went on a personal and professional rollercoaster for the next 5 years. His charisma and talent opened the doors to fame and fortune for him, while his temper and dedication to his persona shut them soon thereafter. Music was meant to be an escape from his circumstances, but industry rivalries and corrupt mentors threatened everything positive he worked for and aspired to. Rather than mobilizing his anger into organized political change and activism like his mother did, Tupac was more often the victim or perpetrator of violence. (The University of California at Irvine, University of Michigan, and University of Texas at Austin all published studies in the last 3 years about how anger can motivate people to vote and take up activism.)
The hardships in Afeni and Tupac’s lives were further exacerbated by the lack of mental health resources and the stigma against therapy before the 2000s. Both were adversely affected by depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Outside of the arts, they had no other healthy coping mechanisms for their ongoing stress and complicated emotions for the people around them. Around the time of his 1995 prison sentence, Tupac played “Dear Mama” for Afeni to show her that his love and respect for her superseded any issues between them in the past. The song is one of his greatest expressions of healing.
Tupac was complicated and misguided, trying to carve out his path without all the right tools to do so. In these latter episodes, he claimed to understand how his actions had characterized him to the public and regretted the decisions he’d made. He experienced extreme highs (success as a rapper and actor, buying a family home, traveling across the U.S.) and extreme lows (his mother’s drug addiction, childhood poverty, police brutality, incarceration, gun violence), all before his murder in 1996 at only 25 years old.
The docuseries, which alternates in choppy fashion between timelines, effectively makes the case for many of Afeni and Tupac’s beliefs: knowing our history, arming ourselves with knowledge, fighting for change through art and protest, and working together to alleviate poverty and police brutality. Further, it’s about seeing the humanity in our parents’ struggles and forgiving their pasts in order to create the future we want to see for ourselves and others.
Interested in learning more about the Black Panther Party? Check out these books organized by elementary, middle, and high school civil rights teaching at https://socialjusticebooks.org/booklists/civil-rights-teaching/black-panthers/.