We are having what could be considered one of the Blackest years on record. Larry Wilmore dropping the n-word at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner is peak Blackness no matter what side of the "appropriate" aisle you sit on. In fact, in any other year it’s the runaway winner, except moments prior to that moment, President Obama did an actual, true-to-form mic drop while conjuring Kobe Bryant. The n-word puts Larry over the top for sheer lack of fucks, but the leader of the free world doing a mic drop is spectacular and will be memed to infinity and beyond.
Add in Beyoncé’s Black ass Blackness, Harriet Tubman (and MLK) landing on currency and I’m almost of the belief that we should quite while we’re ahead.
While it’s been a great year to Black, it’s also ALREADY been a year marred by significant tragedy. Signficant Black pop culture deaths that have happened through the first four months of the year include: Vanity, Maurice White from elements known as Earth, Wind & Fire, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, Vanity, and Prince.
We can now add Afeni Shakur, Black Panther, activist, and revolutionary, and mother to the hip-hop legend, Tupac Shakur. She passed away on Monday night at the age of 69 at her home in Sausalito, California.
While this news didn’t hit me as hard as the news of Prince passing away – at first – I felt a significant weight come over me. And I think it’s this idea of somebody’s mama passing away. While lots of people pass away that have children, the entire reason that most of us Afeni Shakur is because Tupac made her the most famous mother of hip-hop with his seminal, classic song, “Dear Mama”.
In fact, “Dear Mama” is so classic that it will forever be played on hip-hop stations every Mother’s Day until Earth either ceases to exist or we’re listening to white noise and calling it music, a day that I think could actually come. “Dear Mama” might be the most heartfelt and well-executed tribute to a mother in the entire hip-hop canon, no matter how hard Kanye tries. That song gave me insight into the life of and the love and respect ‘Pac had for his mother. It didn’t let her off the hook for any wrongs, but it also made it clear that those wrongs didn’t matter: mama is mama, always. And mama is always where the heart lies.
I heard this song on the radio and it made me a little misty. And it’s because of the video. The video opens up with Afeni talking about nearly having Tupac in jail – she was part of the Panther 21, look them up – and how she managed to get out of jail right before birthing Tupac. The video takes you through their ups and downs, life and times, made even more amazing because Tupac was in jail at the time the song was released. It STILL managed to resonate soundly despite him not even being in the video to express his love for her. She’s featured throughout, looking at pictures and doing that thing that mothers do when they’re proud of you.
There’s a scene at 1:27 where she’s watching the “I Get Around” video and she kind of cocks her head to the side with a smile in one of those, “look at this boy with his shirt off, but that’s my boy” looks. Because she was so prominently featured, and because to know Tupac was to know that his mother was Afeni and to know what he came from, placed her front and center in hip-hop. After the death of Biggie, we all came to know Voletta Wallace, but something about the legacy of Tupac loomed larger. She, as the gatekeeper of what felt like an endless supply of music and footage, managed to try to do as much as humanly possible to keep her son’s legacy alive and respected, even going so far as to open the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Afeni was Tupac’s mother, but she kind of held this interesting slot as a “hip-hop” mother even if her role was very far into the background, or a far back as you can be being the mother of one of the greatest icons of hip-hop.
And because she was so prominent in that role, it saddened me greatly to hear that she passed. Watching “Dear Mama” and realizing, now, that this is a song from a young man who would die a year after it’s release, to his now deceased mother, two people whose presence was felt by the entire community, even though he passed away 20 years ago. Afeni made sure that her son would never die in vain, and now that she’s gone, one can only hope that the estate does as good a job at preserving his legacy as she’s done.
Rest in power, Afeni Shakur. In the words that I will always associate with you, “you are appreciated.”