In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the eponymous hero has a complicated and sometimes destructive relationship with his legacy. In the turning point of the narrative, “Hurricane”, he “protect[s] his legacy” by relying on his words to acquit him of an extramarital affair, with disastrous results, costing him the presidency and nearly ending his marriage. But after Hamilton’s tragic duel with Aaron Burr, his wife, Eliza, championed Alexander’s unfinished work by sorting through thousands of pages of his words. She raised funds to honor President George Washington with a memorial, spoke out against slavery and opened an orphanage in the spirit of Hamilton’s work.
Last week, the music world lost Afeni Shakur, mother of one the greatest and most influential rappers of all time, at the age of 69. Like Hamilton, Tupac also met a terrible end when he was shot on September 13th, 1996 in Las Vegas. And like Eliza did with Alexander, she fiercely protected her son’s legacy. Tupac left his mom with 152 unreleased songs and five studio albums, many of them revealing her outsized influence on his life. Since his death, Afeni treasured her son’s prophetic words allowing them to teach her in the same way she taught her son.
Afeni’s influence on Tupac
1. Tupac sought to admit his wrongs.
In an interview with 2pac.com, Afeni said that she instilled in her son capacity to admit when he was wrong: “I taught him it was OK to be wrong, and it was better yet to say I am wrong. I did something that was wrong. I did this. You don’t have to wait for someone else to identify it. You can identify it for yourself.”
Tupac had the unique ability to express vulnerability while never dropping the steely-eyed attitude that made him an icon. In “Dear Mama,” the song most closely associated with Afeni, he confesses, “When things went wrong, we’d blame mama/ I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell.” Tupac’s vulnerability allowed rappers to express emotions most concealed during the height of the gangsta rap era. Without him, we wouldn’t have the sensitive croons of Drake or the confessionals of Kendrick Lamar, who on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”, in a similar vein to Tupac, can admit, “I am a sinner, and I’m probably gonna sin again.”
More than admitting wrongs in his raps, Tupac willfully accepted punishment for his mistakes. In a 1994 interview with MTV, on the eve of his sentencing for assaulting director Allen Hughes, Tupac said, “I go down paths that haven’t been traveled before, and I usually mess up, but I learn. You know what I’m sayin’? I come back stronger.” As Afeni recounted in a 2003 interview with XXL magazine regarding her son’s run-ins with the law, “That boy knew he done did something. Whether he disagreed with the law or not, the law says what is says.” While Tupac resigned to receive his punishment for his crimes, he still believed the American justice system did not give him a fair shot, leading us to another example of his mother’s impact.
2. Tupac understood oppression and the need for protest.
Afeni joined the local Black Panther chapter in the late 1960s and was arrested on April 2, 1969 (with 21 others), charged with conspiracy to bomb various buildings around New York City. She was acquitted of all charges one month before Tupac was born. Afeni’s involvement with the Panthers’ radicalized politics played a considerable role in Tupac’s approach to white oppression, systemic racism, and hood politics. Tupac’s moral compass, frustration with authority, and example from his mother converge in “Letter 2 My Unborn”:
“My momma was a Panther loud, single parent but she proud/ When she witnessed baby boy rip a crowd/ To school, but I dropped out, and left the house/ Cause my mama say I’m good for nothin’, so I’m out/ Since I only got one life to live, God forgive me for my sins.”
3. Tupac relied on a rooted faith.
Afeni was a woman of deep religious conviction. She maintained a very personal, powerful faith in divine providence. In a 1998 interview with MTV News she said, “I have a great and deep faith and belief in the divine Creator. I really do believe the best way is God’s way.” Describing her drug addiction and eventual release from it to XXL:
It was there that I resided until, by the grace of God, I was plucked up with a pair of tweezers [laughs], very gingerly removed from the garbage disposal. So I try to live my life, first in gratitude that God cared enough about me pluck me from the garbage can, and then to try to be a better person everyday. To do the very best that I can do, and that’s since May 12th 1991.
Tupac’s approach to faith might be considered controversial and unorthodox, but it was real and beloved by fans. According to Daniel White Hodge, he rapped about “a Christ who smoked weed, drank liquor and had compassion for the ‘hood; a human link to deity… But Tupac was being an irreverent natural theologian to give voice to a suffering community.” With his mother’s imparted faith, Tupac asked if heaven has a ghetto, face his own death, seek redemption and be the voice in the wilderness of the ghetto for those who were unable to find solace in the black church.
Tupac’s Influence on Afeni
1. Afeni worked to end the rap feud between East and West Coast hip-hop.
Questlove in his autobiography, Mo Meta’ Blues describes the moment of hip-hop’s funeral, the 1995 Source Awards, where the tension between West Coast and East Coast rappers reached a fever pitch. He described it as “bad blood” that “spread and thickened” all over the room that night as the “powder keg” on the feud was lit. The feud climaxed with Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac’s murders the next year. While this temporarily paused the bi-coastal battles, it took MTV bringing together Afeni and Biggie Smalls’ mom, Voletta Wallace, to symbolically end the war.
Co-presenting the “Best Rap Video” for the 1999 Video Music Awards, Afeni and Voletta did what their sons and the rest of the hip-hop community was unable to do at that point: reconcile. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote for Time on the 10th anniversary of Bigge and Tupac’s deaths (“A Tale of Two Mothers”), “Just as children resolve not to make the mistakes of their parents, the paths the two women have chosen reverse the approaches taken by their offspring.”
2. Afeni sought to advocate for youth.
Afeni chose to use Tupac’s legacy for good by creating an arts center, the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation. She created it to “cleanse the stain,” as she puts it, from his legacy. Every summer a throng of kids come to the center, located in Stone Mountain, Ga., to learn dance, creative writing, and music.
As an artist concerned for his younger black brothers and sisters struggling in the hood, the legacy Tupac left behind was eventually secured by his mother. It’s a legacy they now share.