“It’s too bad your favorite artist is a glorified gangsta,” said a prima donna two-bit director of a small time play I was once casted in. (Okay, so maybe I’m still a bit sore about this). This is after asking everyone in the cast to go around and share which musical artist inspired you the most.
Notwithstanding the fact that this “director” had thoroughly failed in his attempt to create “trust” by taking us through traditional drama exercises (one of which was to share our favorite artists!), what I’m most angry about is not having a quick snarky come-back. And not defending Pac the way I should have.
What I should have said was, “Apparently you have no idea how the power of Pac’s words inspired this poor soul from a f$#@ed up situation. Maybe you should broaden your sad horizon beyond the ‘Top 10 Dance Songs’ and let a poet educate you.”
Or something clever like that (probably with some immature angry name-calling included). Instead, what I said was, “You don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no Tupac...” or rather mumbled it as I was apt to do in my teens.
All this happened a few decades ago when Tupac was still alive and I was fresh from a whole lot of mess, raising my child as a single parent, and “Brenda’s Got A Baby,” was my “go to” song when things got rough.
Before I had ever heard blockbuster songs like “California Love” (1995), “I Get Around” (1993), and “How Do You Want It” (1996), I had already fallen in love with Tupac’s music. I had his solo debut album, 2Pacalypse Now on repeat... in particular, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” which came out in 1991.
A single mother raising my daughter on my own in a world that denied and ignored me, “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” the 10th track of 2Pacalypse Now, was the first song that ever truly spoke to me. (Yes, in my entire life.)
The song shadowed some of the events in my life and the lives of others like me, and I saw myself vindicated and reflected in a world that, for the most part, shunned me. I was “that teenage mother” ― the one that was shoved to the back corners of rooms where dignity and respect were hard to come by.
Tupac’s lyrics brought Brenda, a 12-year-old mother (”She’s 12 years old and she’s having a baby”) out of these dark places and talked about how Brenda’s life was a symptom of wider systemic problems:
I hear Brenda’s got a baby
But Brenda’s barely got a brain
A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name
That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family
Well let me show you how it affects our whole community...
But it was this line that really hit me:
It’s sad, cause I bet Brenda doesn’t even know
Just cause you’re in the ghetto doesn’t mean you can’t grow...
Oh s$#! Really? I can find a way out of this? How many times had I been told that I was destined for failure? That the child that I had so stubbornly fought to raise and love in a healthy and loving home of my own creation, would somehow turn into a psychologically twisted zombie (rather than the dorky, stunning, highly intelligent being that she is)?
Three years later, in 1994, the ever popular “Dear Mama” came out.
Notwithstanding his mad lyrical skills, which made listening to him pure ecstasy, Tupac’s verses brought respect to my life and the lives of all women that struggle to do right by their children no matter what challenges they faced:
A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how ya did it
There’s no way I can pay you back
But the plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated...
Having struggled through welfare checks that barely paid for the rent and fingering colored money (you know the ol’ school Monopoly money they used to give you) that only made store clerks laugh at you, Pac’s words went right to the heart of my daily grind. Despite all the struggle, I knew that there was nowhere else I’d rather be than right where I was, pushing through every day just so I could get ahead and share whatever precious moments I had with my child. There was no one that meant more to me and no better reason for living than to see my baby girl smile.
And there was no other song, and no other artist that had ever captured this for me ― except Pac.
One more song before we hit the road? I’d kick myself if I didn’t at least put some pen to this song ― my all time favorite Pac song, “It Ain’t Easy” (1995) on the album, Me Against the World. This song masterfully lays out the difficulties of everyday life laid over a simple beat (I’m sorry if its not “simple” ― I’m not a music producer ― it just sounds so elegant) and a tune that I can only describe as something that mimics a whistle.
Set against harsh lyrics, the song in the background is almost wistful and hopeful ― belying the stress in the lyrics. Almost like the calm before a storm. This is a song I would play looped for hours on those days when even the sunshine hurt. You know those days, when getting up was the first thing you had to do ― and the hardest thing.
This song I played as my “theme song” before every job interview. Would they laugh at me, the interviewers, I always asked myself, if they could hear the hardcore lyrics going through my head?
This is a song I still hum to myself before going into trial, before speaking at a legislative hearing, before pushing forward when things seem hopeless. In those moments when I feel the most fear, I hear this song.
The lyrics speak to those things that haunted Tupac, and many others on a daily basis. In each lyric, replacing my words in my head for those dramas that I was struggling through, I heard the difficulties of my life sung back to me, my life transformed into poetry... set against a wish for better times.
Two childhood friends just died, I couldn’t cry
A damn shame, when will we ever change...
You had to push through before you even had a chance to grieve. This is what this song means to me. Is it that much different now then when this song first came out?
The same lack of resources, the same racism and implicit bias dominating the justice system, and the same death and despair on the streets that prompted civil rights activist then ― and now ― prompts the current Black Lives Matter movement... prompts the work that I do on a daily basis to fight for dignity on the job... so that going to work doesn’t have to be a “grave mistake.” Is it a coincidence that more black and brown folks die at work and on the streets proportionately than anyone else?
It ain’t easy, that’s my motto...
And all the drama got me stressin like I’m hopeless, I can’t cope...
It ain’t easy
No it ain’t easy...
Back then... before I had my J.D. and my stable job, when I had nothing but my baby girl, hopes, dreams and determination, Pac’s songs got me up every morning to fight the good fight for yet another day.
Pac’s words didn’t only inspire me, they inspired an entire generation and beyond. A participant of The Microphone Sessions in 1989, Tupac graced Oakland with his poetry long before his music became popular. His poem, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” published in 1988, ends with this stanza:
You see you wouldn’t ask why the rose that grew from the concrete had damaged petals. On the contrary, we would all celebrate its tenacity. We would all love its will to reach the sun. Well, we are the roses – this is the concrete – and these are my damaged petals. Don’t ask me why, thank God n****, ask me how!
So a “glorified gangsta?” Hardly. To me he was a poet, an artist, a revolutionary lyricist (who knew how to entertain, no doubt), flawed as any human being with his share of controversies ― a complex man with often contradictory images but definitely recognized throughout the world as a legendary iconoclastic rapper.
And it was his music that I turned to this year when I nearly doubled over from Orlando, when a new name was added everyday to the list of young black youth who had been killed by law enforcement, whenever I heard yet another story about how a worker died needlessly at work. In these moments, I would put on “It Ain’t Easy,” and take a moment to grieve. Just a moment ― before setting out for yet another day ― to embellish in being and to fight for those roses that manage to find their way through concrete.
Jora Trang is a civil rights attorney and activist. Visit her at joratrang.com.