Though some seek to debate it, Tupac Shakur is one of the most influential hip hop artists and poets of all time. His politics, shaped by the experience of having a politically active mother, Afeni Shakur (not to be confused with Assata Shakur), and the experience of growing into a masculinity where he on the one hand affirmed many stereotypes of patriarchal masculinity, but on the other hand challenged them (as well as challenged issues embedded in race, gender, class, poverty, the police state and the government) were ones reflected in many of his songs.
While the lazy (and White supremacist way) of thinking about Tupac’s music is to only focus on songs in his latter years that had heavy themes of consumption, violence, misogyny and capitalism, so many of his songs truly reflected his poetic abilities and social consciousness. In fact, for him and many rappers and hip hop poets, those are the songs that rarely get to be singles. Why is that? Well, Jay-Z alluded to why on The Blueprint 2 in “The Bounce” and also on American Gangster in “Ignorant Shit.” Basically, the White consumer (who dominates the market) seeks Black debasement and affirmation of stereotypes as a consumable good. The more critical the song, the less interest in the song. The more consumable the song is, the more money it makes. So the same capitalistic approach that they are critiqued for is the same one enacted by much of the masses who buy the music.
It’s a very difficult sell to tell someone Black in poverty about the corruption of capitalism when those doing the admonishing have everything while those Black people suffer. Further, for many successful artists like Jay-Z, they are literally one generation removed from poverty. Critiques of Black people and capitalism have to actually move beyond critiquing a tiny sliver of wealthy Blacks who consume expensive goods to explaining why this same system denies so many Black people upward mobility or even basic needs for survival. This is why though Black artists’ consumption (and egos) might need critique, especially within a Western context, critique without nuance often reads as White supremacist.
Though Tupac had (some, not all) songs with capitalist consumption and patriarchal bravado, many of his songs really discussed the intricacies of poverty, race, class and gender. One of those songs, one of my favorite songs by Tupac is “Keep Ya Head Up,” which was a hit single in 1993. I adore this song. It meant almost as much to me when it came out (I was just entering my teens) as Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.,” one of the greatest Womanist epistles in pop culture. While some disregard Tupac’s song as just patriarchal masculinity or “ghetto” (and I’ve seen the critiques from some middle class Black men, who like some middle class Black women, think the politics of respectability is womanism or Black feminism; um, nope), for someone like me who grew up very NOT middle class but in fact poor, it meant everything to me to hear a song like this in adolescence. Honestly, the concepts that he discussed in this song rivals many formal anti-racism and Black feminism texts. And because his song (and Queen Latifah’s song) have very accessible Black language and speak to a particular subset of the Black social class that’s usually examined top down versus horizontally, these songs are really critical to me. I think about them as if they are not in fact twenty years old.
The first verse is very powerful:
Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots
I give a holler to my sisters on welfare
Tupac cares if don’t nobody else care
And uh, I know they like to beat ya down a lot
When you come around the block, brothas clown a lot
But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive but don’t forget, girl, keep ya head up
And when he tells you, you ain’t nothin’, don’t believe him
And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him
‘Cause sista, you don’t need him
And I ain’t tryin’ to gas ya up, I just call ‘em how I see ‘em
You know it makes me unhappy, what’s that
When brothas make babies and leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t, we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep ya head up
In the matter of a single verse, he discussed diasporic roots, racism and disregard based on poverty, street harassment, acknowledgment that Black women do feel and cry because of intraracial abuse—not just racism (hi intersectionality!), emotional abuse (because often our abuse is ignored completely, but especially emotional abuse towards Black women since White supremacy, racism and misogynoir teaches people that Black women don’t have feelings), the conditions by which some Black men leave their children, the recognition of how the internalized hatred of their own mothers displaced upon other Black women (where there is no shame for that hatred, as there is towards their mothers) creates a cycle of hatred towards Black women, pro-choice reproductive justice, and a call for men to do what’s right. I feel like he made this call without the politics of respectability as the frame, which is critical.
The “kill/heal/real” lines really speak to me. He specifically addressed the concept of all three being necessary. Now obviously like most, I do not want anyone to be in the position to have to literally kill for me. But since many Black men will barely defend Black women’s name online…online…what expectation do Black women have for someone caring enough to protect? The fact that he said “kill/heal/real” back to back makes me see how he actually stepped out beyond a patriarchal masculinity of violence and noted that there has to be a balance of what is typically feminized (healing) in whatever proactive action Black men take. Being “real” implies honestly, but more than just telling the truth, but being open to fully connecting; fully feeling and engaging. And this is something that patriarchal masculinity doesn’t allow men to do.
I didn’t read these lines as just random patriarchal violence. I read them as Black men having a long history of being unable to protect Black women from violence because of White supremacy and racism, and him wanting to reassert that, but with the addition of “healing/being real,” he is acknowledging that his desire is not solely about “real” men being patriarchal. In essence, these lines read quite revolutionary to me. And growing up in an area with poverty, plenty of street harassment (and already experiencing it by the time the song came out) and misogynoir, the idea of a man from similar circumstances rejecting it and calling it out was powerful to me from the first time I heard the song. “Kill/heal/real” implies protection (that affirms worth, not protection to control), compassion, recognition and love, honesty and full emotional connection. And since White supremacist constructions of Black womanhood includes the denial of all of this to us, this line is really powerful to me.
In the next two verses of the song, Tupac spoke about the plagues of racism and poverty and how it creates violence, despair and pain, and how imperialist violence and war impact domestic racism and poverty. He does make some gender-specific commentary again, speaking to the emotional pain that Black women face because of racism, poverty and child-rearing alone. This is yet another time that he spoke of and to Black women as emotional beings; not cold unfeeling objects to project pain on based on compliments of us being “strong,” a word often used as permission to dehumanize Black women. He specifically critiqued the stereotype of Strong Black Woman with “dying inside but outside you’re looking fearless.” Tupac was acutely aware of the complexities of race, class and gender and was able to articulate them in a way that makes “Keep Ya Head Up” more than one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time, but truly a Black man’s womanist epistle. And again, as a young Black teen girl in poverty, it was an empowering song for me; the male companion to “U.N.I.T.Y.”
Thinking about his later years in his life (especially serving time for sexual assault via unlawful touching, though he adamantly denied these acts, and the other charges he was found innocent of) before his assassination is difficult for me because I see the memes and GIFs on Tumblr of his younger years and his acute and fiery hot political consciousness. And it is not that he abandoned such views entirely, but that the struggle between patriarchal masculinity (male privilege) and racism (oppression) created a space where again, he both affirmed and challenged oppressive ideologies and institutions.
I always have complicated feelings about hip hop because as a Black woman, I don’t have the luxury of viewing Black men or Black culture without nuance. While I openly critique hip hop and reject the idea that all critiques lack nuance, I do know that many critiques are solely about re-inscribing ideas about Black culture and Black masculinity meant to justify our oppression. And when those critiques cannot include what perhaps a song like “Keep Ya Head Up” might have meant to a young adolescent Black girl (like I was) who already faced street harassment by the time the song came out, already saw and lived poverty, had friends without fathers (though I had both parents myself), had family members incarcerated, and felt my experience affirmed by that song, then such critique is truly obscuring the nuance of experiences of Black people, and how art is used to affirm them. I will always cherish this song as a coming of age work that helped develop my consciousness as a womanist.
Tags:womanismracegenderintersectionalitytupac shakurmusiccultureracismsexismmisogynoirstreet harassmentrapeabuseafeni shakurcelebritymale privilegepatriarchal masculinitypovertypatriarchyjay zqueen latifahessaysecant
One can learn quite a bit about societal perceptions of gender roles through listening to music. What happens when you switch “he” and “she” pronouns in a song (this is called the Willis test)? Does it still send the same message? Usually it doesn’t due to gender differences that result from sexism and misogyny. For example, if we were to take David Guetta’s “Sexy Chick” (at least that’s the name of the edited version). After changing the gender pronouns, the song seems humorous and unrealistic.
I was drawn towards choosing a rap song for this week’s ethical analysis. Rap music provides many critiques of our world, especially as they relate to race, money, gender, and forms of criminal activity. I chose Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up” because delivers a positive message to one of the most oppressed groups in the US: poor, black women. The song is dedicated to Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old woman shot and killed by a shop owner in LA. Her death is cited as one of the causes of the LA riots in 1992.
In the first verse, Tupac raps:
“You know it makes me unhappy (what’s that)
When brothers make babies, and leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?”
In this verse, Tupac addresses the contradictory perceptions of women in culture. After presenting this contradiction, he specifically calls on men of color to treat their women and children with respect. He also asks women and children to “keep ya head up” though our society makes it difficult to survive in a one parent family.
Part of the second verse:
“You know it’s funny when it rains it pours
They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor
Say there ain’t no hope for the youth and the truth is
it ain’t no hope for the future
And then they wonder why we crazy”
In this verse, Tupac addresses the government’s role in perpetuating poverty among people of color. He makes a connection between negative perceptions of the youth and the larger societal forces that create inequality.
Part of the third verse:
“To all the ladies having babies on they own
I know it’s kinda rough and you’re feelin all alone
Daddy’s long gone and he left you by ya lonesome
Thank the Lord for my kids, even if nobody else want em
Cause I think we can make it, in fact, I’m sure
And if you fall, stand tall and comeback for more
Cause ain’t nothing worse than when your son
wants to know why his daddy don’t love him no more
You can’t complain you was dealt this
hell of a hand without a man, feeling helpless
Because there’s too many things for you to deal with
Dying inside, but outside you’re looking fearless”
Here, Tupac promotes a two parent family. In the absence of one, he calls on mothers to stay strong, even when they are struggling, because eventually things will change. He also mentions the harm to children that can occur without strong male role models.
Other songs about ethics of gender:
“I’m just a girl”- No Doubt: Limits placed on women by our cultural norms in the US.
“Run the World”- Beyonce: A feminist song about women’s ability to influence a misogynist world.