There’s no way to fully understand Tupac Amaru Shakur, one of the most brilliant and most promising talents of his generation, without understanding his mother, Afeni Shakur, a leader of the Black Panther Party in New York. And the best way to understand her is to acknowledge the oppressive systems that she sometimes prevailed against but that sometimes got the best of her.
There’s no way to fully understand Tupac Amaru Shakur, one of the most brilliant talents of his generation, without understanding his mother, Afeni Shakur, a leader of the Black Panther Party in New York.
Not that she would have necessarily said so: “I find it very difficult … to look at myself and say what did I do to influence someone who, in my view, was and is a great and tremendous and magnificent spirit,” Afeni Shakur said in an interview years after her talented son was killed.
But “Dear Mama: The Saga of Afeni and Tupac Shakur,” a five-part documentary series by director Allen Hughes, which premiered Friday on Hulu, doesn’t find it difficult at all. It’s all about their emotionally complex relationship and how her choices, circumstances and politics had an impact on her son’s art and his tragically short life.
Afeni Shakur was one of 21 Black Panther Party members initially accused of planning attacks on police stations. During her incarceration at the New York Women House of Detention, she was pregnant with the son she’d name after Túpac Amaru, the Incan emperor who fought the Spanish conquistadors. The torture the guards inflicted on her included sexual assault. But by using a gift of language that she would pass on to her son, Afeni Shakur successfully defended herself, and eventually all the Panters who were tried were acquitted.
But as the documentary illustrates, the acquittal didn’t stop the FBI from harassing her. Some have blamed the mother’s well-known addiction to crack cocaine on authorities sending crack dealers her way. Whatever the particulars, her addiction destabilized her household and made virtual nomads of Tupac and his sister, Sekyiwa, who were often in search of safe places to stay.
A focus of Hughes’ documentary is the tremendous psychological impact his mother’s suffering had on her young, sensitive child and his artistry. “I would have went the same route my mother went through,” he once told BET’s Ed Gordon, “had she not … showed me which way it went wrong with her.”
Would we have gotten such a brilliant portrayal of Bishop in 1992’s “Juice” if Tupac, the actor playing the role of the street kid who dives deeper into crime, hadn’t had faced those temptations? Would he have recorded 1991’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby?” He reportedly based that song on a real-life story about a 12-year-old who, after hiding a pregnancy caused by a cousin, dumped the newborn in the trash. There’s no condemnation of the girl in his song, only for the society that created her environment. That’s a compassion that it’s impossible not to connect to his compassion for his mother.
A focus of Hughes’ documentary is the tremendous psychological impact his mother’s suffering had on her young, sensitive child and his artistry.
As for “Dear Mama,” the classic 1995 Tupac track that serves as the title of Hughes’ docuseries, Afeni Shakur once said in an interview, “’Dear Mama’ was written for me, yes. But, like all things with Tupac, it was also written for other mothers. Dear Mama was written for a lot of mamas.” As the song itself was a kind of apology for the grief he’d given his mother, the docuseries itself can be seen as a kind of apology to the late musician and actor from the director.
Hughes (who with his brother Albert directed “Menace II Society,” “Dead Presidents” and “The Book of Eli”) became friends with Tupac when he directed the video for “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” and the brothers, aware of the rapper’s immense talent, cast him in their film “Menace II Society.” But after they fired him for causing disruption on the set, Tupac and his entourage not only attacked the brothers but boasted of doing so in a televised interview, a public admission that was used to convict him of assault. Later, in an interview for Vibe Magazine, Tupac would express regret for attacking the Hugheses, but he and the brothers hadn’t resolved their differences when the 25-year-old star, whose murder has yet to be solved, was fatally shot on the Las Vegas Strip in September 1996.
Given that the series is such a jewel and so respectful of its two main subjects, it comes across as Hughes’ way of posthumously apologizing for whatever role he played in their disagreement.
Afeni was her son’s first, and likely his only, superhero. To him, she could do no wrong, even during those when he knew she wasn’t right. As he famously rapped, “Even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a Black queen, mama.”
Unlike less observant Black children who may not have fully understood the devastating effects of the socioeconomic forces aligned against their mothers and the dire straits those forces put them in, Tupac, understood what his mother was up against. And what he was up against.
“Can U C the Pride in the Panther?,” a poem that appears in the collection of Tupac’s poetry that appears three years after he was murdered, includes these lines:
Can u c the pride in the Panther / as she nurtures her young all alone / The seed must grow regardless / of the fact that it’s planted in stone
Hughes gives us a rare gift: a holistic picture of a Black mother and son engaged in a beautiful struggle to live and love in a world that they know was hellbent on destroying proud Black people. But what a shame that neither his mother’s love nor her teaching him what he was up against staved off that destruction.
Charlie Braxton is a Mississippi based poet, playwright and cultural critic whose essays, features and reviews have appeared in the Source, Vibe, Rap Pages and XXL