The Feminism of Tupac

September 17, 2011

Tupac Shakur

It’s always interesting for me to be both a hip hop enthusiast and a feminist. For obvious reasons, the two may seem totally incompatible, as much of hip hop carries some of the most noticeable expressions of sexism in music. However, there is no reason why one cannot appreciate a particular form of art while also lending it a critical eye. Hip hop, like all forms of art, is a product of its cultural and historical backdrop and is far from the only artistic genre that carries with it — often very explicitly  — the sexism that is still a pervasive problem in society today.  If you were to reject hip hop altogether solely on the grounds of its sexism, you might as well reject the majority of other forms of music, and some of the best known works of literature and philosophy, and most movies and TV shows, and…and — you get the point.

As the highly celebrated rapper Tupac Shakur (usually referred to as simply Tupac) was recently brought up on the blog, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on Tupac’s brief and anomalous expression of feminist values. Though the rapper generally perpetuated the sexism that is pervasive in hip hop, two Tupac songs had strong feminist messages — an interesting and unique aspect of a rapper from Tupac’s background and genre.

Like many rappers of the “gangsta rap” branch of hip hop, Tupac grew up surrounded by all of the difficulties of America’s severe inequity: a strong lack of the provision of welfare, social services, street safety, and education.  In such an environment, as many domestic violence educators well know, the dire economic conditions are often fertile ground for sexism’s most brutal manifestations: domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape.  With high numbers of fathers incarcerated, many boys grow up without stable home lives and turn to dangerous and problematic sources of leadership, feelings of belonging, and kinship. For many boys in urban slums, this support comes from gangs, the drug trade, and violence.

In his song “Dear Mama,” Tupac describes such a situation:

Now ain’t nobody tell us it was fair
No love from my daddy cause the coward wasn’t there
He passed away and I didn’t cry, cause my anger
wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger
They say I’m wrong and I’m heartless, but all along
I was lookin for a father he was gone
I hung around with the Thugs, and even though they sold drugs
They showed a young brother love
I moved out and started really hangin’
I needed money of my own so I started slangin’.

I’m not familiar with the particulars of Tupac’s home life, but these lyrics are evidence that he did grow up in a community suffering from the problems I described above. It’s not surprising, then, that most of his music reflects and celebrates the conventional attitudes and values of gang life, including all of the violence and sexism that comes with it. Tupac’s music is peppered with sexist slurs, violence-driven male dominance, and the objectification of women. Tupac was an incredibly influential and original figure for his unique voice and skill as a rapper, but the general sexism in his music is undeniable.

However, on his first platinum album, the 1993 release “Strictly 4 my N.I.G.G.A.Z.,” Tupac uncharacteristically used his mainstream success to voice a feminist message. After a few lines in “Keep ya head up,” Tupac’s verse goes like this:

I give a holler to my sisters on welfare
Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care
And 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 your 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 your head up.

Similarly, in his third album, Tupac paid tribute to the tireless efforts of his mother to raise him. Among the lyrics of “Dear Mama,” are these:

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.

What’s amazing to me about the verse in “Keep ya head up” is not only its unique presence in a gangsta rap song, but also how unrestrained his critique of sexism is. The lines above are from the first verse of a song that wasn’t obscurely buried in Tupac’s album, but was one of his hit singles. “Dear Mama” was also chosen to be a single. Tupac doesn’t mince words, apologize on behalf of men, or justify sexism. He simply says that if women are dealing with an unappreciative or sexist man, they should leave him. “Sista you don’t need him,” he says, rejecting the sexist belief that women are male-dependent.  Tupac also declares that men have no right to decide “when and where” a woman should give birth.

It’s charming to idealistically picture Tupac, were he alive today, marching on the front lines of pro-choice rallies, shouting the same line to the men who fight in congress against women’s right to choose. Of course, I wouldn’t realistically expect to see him there; but, knowing the lyrics of “Keep ya head up,” it’s interesting to think about why not. The famous gansta rapper unambiguously voiced a message of women’s rights and empowerment in two of his hit songs. So why, while apparently believing in feminist values, did Tupac otherwise  support the sexism that dominates gangsta rap?

It’s fair to say that Tupac’s identity and self conception was strongly influenced by the sexist values of his neighborhood — not to mention of the country. Being a “tough guy” or “real man” often means fighting to prove your “hardness” and dominance, a conception of manhood that leads to exactly the kind of tragic violence that ended Tupac’s life. On the other hand, men who speak out against sexism or conventional masculinity — against sexist slurs, hurtful jokes, or fighting, for example — can be perceived as “weak” or “sissy” — leaving out even more sexually charged expletives — or they’re just left out of the group altogether.

In his appearance and demeanor, Tupac always upheld a tough-guy image, and as feminists well know, implicit in that image is a presumed dominance over women. In other words, embedded in his very persona were the very values that he so strongly opposed in “Keep ya head up.” But given the lyrics of both “Keep ya head up” and “Dear Mama,” it’s clear that Tupac recognized and opposed the widespread oppression of women, at least ideologically. Even surrounded by the world of gangsta rap, its values, and its fatal violence, Tupac saw the sexism that was around him — that he in many ways supported — and knew that it was simply wrong.

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— Jonathan T, Periodicals

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