Despite his untimely death almost two decades ago, Tupac Amaru Shakur remains a universally beloved pop icon. Indeed, to consider him only a popular culture phenomenon is to grossly understate his career’s influence. To put it simply, to a large portion of the world’s population—spanning from this nation’s inner cities, to Latin American slums, to West-African shantytowns, to Parisian ghettos, and beyond—Shakur is not just a rapper, he is a legend, a folk hero. To these masses of people, Shakur represents an unabashed revolutionary spirit, which ultimately culminated in martyrdom.
Primarily, Shakur made this mark by recording music meant to compassionately and passionately shine light upon the social and economic injustices that plague impoverished communities. However, his music did not function only as an exposé. Perhaps more importantly, it served a cathartic purpose. His zealous compositions provided millions of listeners with a vicarious release. Shakur, by poetically and colloquially articulating his socially conscious anger and melancholy, gave listeners a larger-than-life companion and comrade.
Throughout his career as a politically conscious rapper, Shakur broached the often-overlooked matter of gender inequality in indigent communities of color. His impassioned and unprecedented advocacy on behalf of single mothers and abused women popularly established Shakur as a hip-hop emblem of the perennial struggle for social justice.
His most famous song concerning women’s rights has to be “Keep Ya Head Up.” It is one of his earlier songs, and one of his most famous. In what follows, I would like to critique the song’s lyrics. Time and space will not allow me to write a line-by-line critique, although that is tempting.
“Keep Ya Head Up” has often been called the hip-hop feminist anthem. Throughout the record, Shakur touches upon colorism, basic economic inequality, catcalling, paternal abandonment, and more. In the first verse, Shakur clarifies his stance on various issues pertaining to gender inequality in impoverished communities. The second verse is dedicated to struggles inextricable from poverty in general. The third verse is an extremely moving depiction of impoverished single motherhood.
The chorus is an interpolation of the Five Stairsteps’ soul classic, “Ooh Child.” It goes: “Ooh, child, things are gonna get easier. Ooh, child, things are gonna get brighter.” In between these lines, the phrase, “keep your head up” is sung in harmony. The uplifting qualities of the song are easily apparent in this segment of the tune. Uplift is worthy, but if it is not paired alongside some sort of plan of action aimed at transforming miserable material conditions, then it may ultimately only serve to pacify.
However, “keep your head up” is not only meant to be an uplifting phrase. It is also Shakur’s way of entreating that marginalized woman, despite the world’s coldness, maintain a sense of pride and love for themselves because, as Shakur would say, they are precious by virtue of being human and because “Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care.”
Shakur starts the song by uttering one of his most famous lines: “Some say, ‘the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.’ I say, ‘the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots.’” Here, Shakur takes to task the pervasive notion that fair skinned women by virtue of their fair skin are more attractive than darker skinned women. In particular, Shakur attacks the view that lighter skinned black women are more attractive that darker skinned black women, a view widely held in the black community and the hip-hop community writ large.
Shakur continues by rapping: “You know what makes me unhappy? When brothers make babies and leave a young mother to be a pappy.” On its face, the sentiment is admirable, but I am disappointed that it is not coupled with a remark that explains paternal flight, in this context, as a direct product of crippling and atomizing poverty. Without appropriately fitting paternal abandonment within the overarching narrative of extreme indigence, victims of poverty are erroneously depicted as victimizing free agents.
Later in the first verse, Shakur states that he believes “it’s time we 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 hate the ladies that make the babies.” Again, the sentiment is commendable, but I believe that in employing the possessive “our” Shakur confines his advocacy to a paradigm of patriarchal paternalism. Moreover, by describing ladies as those who “make the babies” Shakur could be seen as reducing women to their reproductive capacities.
But, perhaps I am being too harsh, as Shakur was around 20 when he wrote the song. Considering hip-hop tends to be a hyper-masculine musical genre, the fact that Shakur even thought to record and release this as one of his first singles is really awe-inspiring. And, the fact that this was a hit is unbelievable.
Shakur continues by declaring, “Since a man can’t make one, he has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one.” Shakur makes clear his stance on abortion. Nobody should have the right to force a woman to bear a child. It was his capacity to express weighty matters in such simple, rhyming, and fervent couplets that allowed Shakur to reach such a vast and loyal audience.
In my opinion, the final verse’s imagery, more than anything else, is what makes the song so emotionally stirring. A portion that I think is worth quoting goes:
You can't complain you was dealt this
Hell of a hand without a man, feelin’ helpless
Because there's too many things for you to deal with
Dying inside, but outside you're looking fearless
While tears is rollin’ down your cheeks
You steady hopin’ things don't all fall down this week
Cause if it did, you couldn't take it, and don't blame me
I was given this world I didn't make it
And now my son's getting’ older and older and cold
From havin’ the world on his shoulders
While the rich kids is drivin’ Benz
I'm still tryin’ to hold on to survivin’ friends
And it's crazy, it seems it'll never let up, but
Please... you got to keep your head up
Songs like this are rarely produced in contemporary hip-hop, much less released for radio play. It makes me wonder what has changed since 1993 that prevents hip-hop artists today from touching upon these subjects. I could write much more on this, and may do so in a follow-up post.