“Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun“ or: I can’t stand y’all dancing to Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up“

Foul Language, Racism, Violence

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was founded 1966 in Oakland, California by then 30 and 24-year old Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. The Marxist-Leninist Black Power political organization started community programs such as the Free Breakfast for Children Programm, opened and supported community health clinics and educational programs and advocated class struggle. They saw sexism as counter-revolutionary and – after the Stonewall riots – advocated the Gay Liberation Movement to side with them in a united struggle against oppression and police brutality.

Since their beginnings they started challenging police brutality by open carrying weapons and patrolling not their neighborhoods, but the cops using their neighborhoods as playgrounds for police brutality. They were Americas worst nightmare – young, black, armed and educated.

Their stance regarding fire arms was inspired by Malcom X. After Black people were “liberated“ from their chains following the end of slavery, they were still denied equal rights. What kept them from demanding said rights was the ”ruling classes’ private army” – the police – and their guns. Malcolm advocated for the Black people to use the gun to “recapture their dreams and bring them into reality“. 

The picture the media painted of the Panthers solely focussed on that aspect. They were portrayed as thugs wielding guns and threatening law and order, which lead to the government’s “right” to put a bullseye to the back of the Panthers.

Some of the brightest minds of their generation like the aforementioned founders Newton and Seale, Geronimo Pratt, Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Eldridge Cleaver, Mutulu Shakur or Kathleen Cleaver  became Panthers and supported the struggle. Some of them were later killed or incarcerated.

In 1968 a 21-year old woman decided to join the fight after hearing Bobby Seale speak at an event in New York. Her name was Alice Faye Williams. Later know as Afeni Shakur – the mother of Tupac Shakur.

My first contact with Tupac was his 1998 released Greatest Hits album, which is not the best, but actually the most boring way to get into new music. The first CDs last song is one of his most well-know songs – Hit ‘Em Up, the 1996diss track released by Tupac featuring his crew The Outlawz. It’s one of his most-played songs on streaming platforms and as the CD title suggests one of his ”Greatest Hits”. And I can’t stand it.

Everybody who throughout his life ever visited a Hiphop party has heard the lyrics and the crowd rapping the lines following lines:

First off, fuck your bitch and the click you claim
Westside when we ride come equipped with game
You claim to be a player but I fucked your wife
We bust on Bad Boy niggaz fucked for life

Plus Puffy tryin’ ta see me weak hearts I rip
Biggie Smalls and Junior M.A.F.I.A. Some mark-ass bitches
We keep on comin’ while we runnin’ for yo’ jewels
Steady gunnin, keep on bustin at them fools, you know the rules
Lil’ Cease, go ask ya homie how I leave ya
Cut your young ass up, leave you in pieces, now be deceased
Lil’ Kim, don’t fuck around with real G’s
Quick to snatch yo’ ugly ass off the streets, so fuck peace

Bad Boy murdered on wax and killed
Fuck wit’ me and get yo’ caps peeled, you know, see
Grab ya glocks, when you see Tupac
Call the cops, when you see Tupac, uh
Who shot me, but ya punks didn’t finish
Now ya bout to feel the wrath of a menace

Peep how we do it, keep it real, it’s penitentiary steel
This ain’t no freestyle battle
All you niggaz gettin killed with ya mouths open

Biggie, remember when I used to let you sleep on the couch
And beg a bitch to let you sleep in the house
Now it’s all about Versace, you copied my style
Five shots couldn’t drop me, I took it and smiled
Now I’m bout to set the record straight

Hit ’em up is one of the most vile songs ever put on wax spiked with personal insults and threats of violence against every Bad Boy records artist, Mobb Deep, Chino XL and especially Notorious B.I.G., who Tupac suspected to be behind a shooting in 1994, which left Tupac shot five times. The first lines refer to an alleged affair between Tupac and Faith Evans, who at that time was married to Notorious B.I.G. The most disgusting way to come at somebody.

Tupac died at the age of 25 after being shot multiple times by an assailant, with whom he got into a confrontation earlier that night. His death has been the topic of debate ever since. Who was really behind it? Was it related to the infamous “Westcoast vs East Coast“ beef Tupac and his record label Death Row were having with NY-based Bad Boy Records and its best-selling artist Notorious B.I.G., who was killed the following year, while visiting L.A.? We might never know.

But there is one thing I know. I can’t dance to Hit ‘em up. Why? Because I love him and because I actually listen to his records. For me it’s not about Tupac the “Bad Boy Killa“. I care about the self-described “Son of a Panther“.

When Tupac died he left a legacy consisting of multiple albums (his post-humous releases seem uncountable), movies, unreleased songs and poems. Sky seemed to be the limit and even up to today people wonder how everything would have played out if he never died. 

Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara was once asked what the greatest quality a revolutionary  to possess is. He answered “Love. The love for humanity, for freedom and justice.“ 

It’s the love you hear in Tupacs works throughout his career. 

A perfect example is Keep Ya Head Up a song dealing with the topic of negligent fathers, single motherhood and the right for abortion:

And when he tells you you ain’t nuttin’ 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 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

‘Cause ain’t nothin’ worse than when your son
Wants to know why his daddy don’t love him no mo’
You can’t complain you was dealt this
Hell of a hand without a man, feelin’ helpless

Because there’s too many things for you to deal with
Dying inside, but outside you’re looking fearless
Another theme that is found throughout Tupac’s songs is the loss of friends and loved ones through violence and the way to cope with it.

Last night my buddy lost his whole family
It’s gonna take the man in me to conquer this insanity (no, no, no, no)
It seems the rain’ll never let up
I try to keep my head up
You know it’s funny, when it rains it pours
They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor
Said it ain’t no hope for the youth and the truth is
It ain’t no hope for the future
And then they wonder why we crazy

We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup
But even though you’re fed up, you got to keep ya head up

We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setupis such a sad and precise definition of life as a Black person in the deeply racist system, we unfortunately have to live in. This despair and hopelessness is brought to perfection ins his 1994 song How Long Will they Mourn Me dedicated to his slain friend Big Kato.

All my homies drinkin’ liquor, tears in everybody’s eyes
Niggas cried to mourn a homie’s homicide
But I can’t cry, instead I’m just a shoulder
Damn, why they take another soldier?

It’s kinda hard to be optimistic 
When your homie’s lyin’ dead on the pavement twisted
Y’all don’t hear me though, I’m tryin’ hard to make amends
But I’m losin’ all my motherfuckin’ friends
Damn! They should’ve shot me when I was born
Now I’m trapped in the motherfuckin’ storm
How long will they mourn me?

His portrayal of the young black man as a ”soldier” in a constant state of war is unbelievably depressing and unbelievably real. His description of him not being able to cry, but to be a ”shoulder” for his friends is painful.

His song Pain comes into my mind while typing this. In that song he raps the words

I’m drinking Hennessy, running from my enemies
Will I live to be 23?

An understandable mindset for somebody living in a country where statistically every third Black man is incarcerated once in his lifetime. 

A fate that his mother Afeni Shakur faced when she was arrested in 1969 for conspiracy to bomb police stations in New York. She represented herself in court. She was acquitted in 1971 after spending two almost two years behind bars, while also being pregnant with Tupac.

Years later he set his mother a monument by releasing the song Dear Mama.

When I was young, me and my mama had beef
Seventeen years old, kicked out on the streets
Though back at the time I never thought I’d see her face
Ain’t a woman alive that could take my mama’s place
Suspended from school, and scared to go home, I was a fool
With the big boys breakin’ all the rules
I shed tears with my baby sister, over the years
We was poorer than the other little kids
And even though we had different daddies, the same drama
When things went wrong we’d blame Mama
I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell
Huggin’ on my mama from a jail cell

Tupac knew of the importance and value of love – the love for his community. And he knew of the value of family and the enormous pain and troubles of single-motherhood.

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 am not going to change the world, but I guarantee you I will spark the brain that will change the world“ is famous quote by Tupac. 

“The revolution was infused in his DNA by years of struggle and a fight for freedom. His way to start a revolution was his music. He was preaching. Making people aware of their surroundings and – most importantly – making them aware of the power of their voice.

Here we go, turn it up, let’s start
From block to block we snatching hearts and jacking marks
And the punk police can’t fade me, and maybe
We can have peace someday, G

Oh no, I won’t turn the other cheek
In case ya can’t see us while we burn the other week
Now we got a nigga smash, blast
How long will it last ’til the po’ getting mo’ cash
Until then, raise up!
Tell my young black males, blaze up!
Life’s a mess don’t stress, test
I’m giving but be thankful that you’re living, blessed
Much love to my brothers in the pen
See ya when they free ya if not when they shove me in

I guess cause I’m black born
I’m supposed to say peace, sing songs, and get capped on
But it’s time for a new plan, BAM!
I’ll be swinging like a one man, clan
Here we go, turn it up, don’t stop
To my homies on the block getting dropped by cops

And now I’m like a major threat
Cause I remind you of the things you were made to forget

So we live like caged beasts
Waiting for the day to let the rage free
Still me, till they kill me
I love it when they fear me –

…“Cause I remind you of the things you were made to forget”. Wow.

That’s what he did. That’s why he was feared.

It is out of question that Tupac Shakur is one of the most influental music artists of all time. But he is so much more. He is an icon, a patron saint, a brother. Like he said in Keep Ya Head Up, “Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care“. 

What led to his Death is tragic and I wonder what would have happened if he never hung out with the wrong crowd. It’s so striking to think about how would life would be, if he was still with us… I know how important his words would be.

Let’s not minimize his legacy to curse words and party anthems, because he deserves so much more. 

“Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun“ is written on the famous mural that was painted after his death (Please, scroll up and have a look at this article’s header. Yep, that’s it.) and that is the fate of most revolutionaries. Rap beef was not worth dying for, neither was gang-related brawls. ”Sparking the brain that will change the world” was. And that is something that Tupac Amaru Shakur sure did. 

We will mourn you forever.