The hip hop star’s mother has joined him in the afterlife – we take a comprehensive look back at her life by examining the lyrics of Tupac’s song ‘Dear Mama’
Afeni Shakur, the mother of hip hop legend Tupac Shakur, died at the age of 69 on May 2. Long before Kanye West’s mother-loving track “Hey Mamma”, Tupac proclaimed his love for his own mother by dedicating ‘Dear Mama’ to her in 1995. It became a favourite amongst his fans and won him critical acclaim.
Having fought for the civil rights and defeated her own personal demons, it’s no wonder that Shakur was such inspiration to her son – her entrepreneurial endeavours, philanthropy and fierce defending of Tupac’s legacy after his death are well documented. She set up the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center which provide arts programs for the young, teamed up with Biggie’s mother to squash the East coast/West coast beef, and also executively produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection. However, Shakur overcame many personal battles throughout her life before she solidified herself as a role model for impoverished black mothers in America.
Nothing is more autobiographical than the lyrics in ‘Dear Mama’, a testament to her determination but also a documentation of her struggle to raise her children. It’s up there as one of the most tear-jerking hip hop tracks committed to record and by reading back through some of the interviews she did over the years, we’ve managed to unpack all the best references to Shakur’s life in the 1995 song to show just how much she overcame:
“When I was young me and my mama had beef. 17 years old kicked out on the street”
During Tupac’s teenage years, Shakur faced many personal struggles that drove the two of them apart for years. Tupac subsequently moved in with friends and began writing poetry and rap lyrics which would eventually lead him to superstardom. Meanwhile, Shakur’s personal troubles continued to get the better of her and she remained in poverty.
“I finally understand, for a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man. You always was committed. A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how you did it”
She had raised Tupac all by herself as his father was absent. Her difficulty securing a job landed her on welfare, making it almost impossible to properly provide for her family. It is thought that her involvement with the Black Panther Party made it more difficult to seek employment. Billy Garland, his father, had also been a member.
The two of them were well respected in the Black Panther Party and Shakur would frequently raise bail money for other Panthers to continue the cause. In 1969, she and 20 others were put in jail, suspected of being connected to a New York bombing. Despite being pregnant with Tupac at the time she managed to represent herself in court, acting as her own defence lawyer in an eight-month trial. Eventually, she was released and gave birth to her son a month later.
“But now the road got rough, you’re alone, you’re trying to raise two bad kids on your own”
Afeni told People magazine in 1997 that she rarely saw Tupac’s father after her son was conceived and referred to him as garbage. She then had his half-sister Sekyiwa two years later.
“And even as a crack fiend, mama, You always was a black queen, mama”
After the Black Panther Party disbanded and she found it difficult to get a job, she became addicted to crack, speaking about this many times after her recovery. Tupac struggled to live with his mother’s condition and moved to Oakland, where he began to get noticed.
In her interview with People magazine she admitted that at the time she didn’t even know what was happening in his life. Speaking to XXL in 2003, Shakur said she thought that it was important for her to acknowledge her crack addiction because she wanted people that saw her to know that, despite all the great things she did after her son’s death, she had overcome a very troubled past.
“I ain’t guilty cause even though I sell rocks, it feels good putting money in your mailbox”
Nine months into her recovery program, Tupac sent her $5,000 even though the two still barely contacted each other. Prior to that, he had not sent her any money since she was still using. Speaking to People magazine Shakur said: “That was huge. He sent me five thousand dollars. And I kept the receipt for every dime [I spent], because that was the first time that I could have a receipt for every dime in a long time.”
“And there’s no way I can pay you back, but my plan is to show you that I understand. You are appreciated”
This is the bit that gets most of us teary-eyed, and Afeni Shakur confessed that she couldn’t listen to the song without crying because of the heartfelt lyrics.
In 2010 the song was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress . In a statement, Afeni said that she was incredibly touched. She added: “ It could have been any song, but I’m honoured they chose ‘Dear Mama’ in particular. It is a song that spoke not just to me, but every mother that has been in that situation, and there have been millions of us. Tupac recognized our struggle, and he is still our hero.”