No parent should have to bury their child. But on September 13th, 1996, Afeni Shakur had to do just that.
Her son Tupac Amaru was at the height of his career. That year he’d released All Eyez on Me, a Diamond status double album phenomenon that spawned easily a dozen influential hip hop classics. An astonishingly bright future in music, acting, and social activism stretched before Afeni’s endlessly talented son. It was snuffed out in a senseless drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. If the grief of Tupac’s legions of fans was enormous, just imagine the grief of his mother. That kind of grief has the weight to crush a weak soul. But Afeni Shakur has always been beyond strong, and that strength has withstood her through incredibly rough seas.
She grew up in North Carolina as Alice Faye Williams, named after the 30’s and 40’s actress Alice Faye. But her identity as a revolutionary was formed in New York City, when she moved there and joined the Black Panther Party. Website The Talking Drum tells the story of her history with the Panthers, and the beginnings of her attraction to the Nation of Islam. In that time she interacted with and was inspired by the likes of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and Bobby Seale. She was given the name Afeni, which means “dear one,” or “lover of the people.”
Afeni was incarcerated for witholding information about The Panther 21, the eastern regional leaders of the party. In 1969, the Panther 21 were arrested and charged with conspiracy to blow up high traffic sites around the city, including the New York Botanical Gardens. The previously linked Hartford-HWP article recounts how it ended: “On May 13, 1971, after the longest political trial in New York’s history, all 21 New York Panthers are acquitted of all charges in just 45 minutes of jury deliberation.” According to Wikipedia, Afeni “…defended herself in court during a bomb conspiracy trial and was acquitted of 156 counts against her and other members of the Black Panther Party.”
The details of Afeni’s incarceration are known well by her son’s fans. She tells the story in her own words in his video for Dear Mama, a song that demonstrated how powerful and beautiful and important hip hop music can be. The video begins with her speaking. “When I was pregnant and in jail, I thought I was gonna have a baby and the baby would never be with me. But I was acquitted a month and three days before Tupac was born. I was real happy. Because I had a son,” she recalls. And she named that son after an Inca revolutionary, who led an indigenous uprising against Spain. The lyrics for that song are a love letter to strong parenting in the face of poverty, struggle, and strong odds.
Having a son like Tupac, who wore his heart on his sleeve and shared his truth with the world, meant that Afeni’s life became an open book to all who listened. We know that she raised her son alone, that she succumbed to the demons of crack cocaine, and that the family’s formative years were spent poor and sometimes homeless. Still, Afeni did the best she could. In this interview with Bean Soup Times, she thanks God for her trials and tribulations: “I am forever grateful to God that I was on that crack, because it made me completely broken so that I could examine my life.” Instead of destroying her world, that adversity made Afeni and her family stronger. Tupac grew up seeing his relatives charged with a battery of crimes, from murder to prison escape. His mother helped to steer him along the right path, encouraging his budding creativity by keeping him involved in acting and the arts. His experiences at the Baltimore School of the Arts proved to be life-altering. In 1988, the family moved to the Bay Area in California, where the seeds of Tupac’s rap career would finally begin to sprout. He was hired as a back-up dancer for Digital Underground in 1990, the same year Sex Packets and The Humpty Dance hit. He dropped 2Pacalypse Now in 1991, and Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z in ’93.
Afeni must have also been hitting her boy with a daily dose of “act right.” Handsome, intelligent, and with a growing celebrity status, Tupac made songs that revealed the whirlwind of fun and fame his life was becoming, but tempered that typical rapper machisimo with hard-hitting storytelling, like the haunting hood fable Brenda’s Got a Baby, followed by intelligent, timeless homages to female strength like Keep Ya Head Up (which is bar none, my favorite of all Tupac’s songs). Although Tupac spat sometimes venomous lyrics about his rivals, revealing bitter experiences with women and friendships gone awry, the core of his upbringing, the strength of his maternal bond, always prevented him from slipping completely into a mindless misogynist mentality as so many of his peers did, and as so many of his followers have done.
Afeni stuck by Tupac’s side during all of the controversies he helped to fuel. She stood by him through the charges that were brought against him, and in a full-circle moment, she supported her son through the prison sentence he served at Clinton Correctional Facility. She stuck by his side through the Death Row days, the increasingly thugged out reputation he was gaining, and the East/West coast rivalry which brought her son so much righteous criticism. She addresses the aftermath and puts the sad realities of that rivalry into context in this interview with Davey D: “…What I have known from the beginning is that I am not alone. And I am not alone does not mean that the only two people that got killed were Biggie and Tupac. I am so sorry, but every child’s death is painful. To me, it’s painful, because it’s this process that we have to stop. We are right back to the same thing which is about ration and reason..and about winning. And as I said, Tupac had 25 years and he did 25 years worth of wonderful work. What the next person needs to know in whatever years they are alloted to them, is what have they done? And I’m sure that Biggie’s mother must feel the same about her son. It’s no use in people trying to swage their own guilt for their own deficiency by debating or spending that much time on Tupac and Biggie.”
Tupac died at age 25, with so many more dreams left unfulfilled. Afeni Shakur has dedicated her life to making sure her son’s legacy remains as fully dimensional as he would have wanted it to be. She’s been the one overseeing his unreleased material and working alongside some of hip hop’s finest rappers and producers on posthumous albums that have been incredibly successful. In 2003 she oversaw the production of the incredible Academy Award nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection, which allowed the eloquent rapper to tell his life story in his own words. In concordance with her son’s ambition to establish “thug heavens” in several cities throughout America, she’s created and runs the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation, which provides lessons in creative writing, vocal technique, acting, stage set design, dance, poetry, and the business of entertainment to kids who are thirsty for education and inspiration. The foundation sponsors essay contests, charity fundraisers, runs a performing arts day camp for teenagers and offers undergraduate scholarships. And her work continues, eleven years after her son’s death.
Afeni is loved worldwide as Tupac’s mother and the keeper of his flame. At age 60, she makes herself accessible to her son’s fans through her official MySpace page. Her own noteworthy life and remarkable strength has been celebrated in Jasmine Guy’s book, Evolution of a Revolutionary, and now HollyHood Films has acquired the rights to the film Dear Mama: The Life Story of Afeni Shakur. I for one can’t wait to see this woman’s story brought to life. Peace and respect to Afeni Shakur for being a strong woman who continues to do great works in the name of her son. Afeni, your son said it best. You are appreciated.