Holler If Ya Hear Me: A Look At Tupac’s Most Revolutionary Calls For Change
“Everything I do I do to represent my people. ” – Tupac Shakur, 1994
In his music, Tupac Shakur brilliantly blended the revolutionary messages of Public Enemy with the shock and awe approach of N.W.A. Shakur’s catalog was built on a foundation of hard truths and upsetting the status quo. For five fiery years (as portrayed in his biopic All Eyez On Me, in theaters now) he used his mouth and his pen to confront racist cops, government censorship, ghetto profiteers, and under-reported socioeconomic epidemics. Pac saw his community as over-policed and under-protected, and he refused to go quietly.
Tupac’s fiery commentary was present in his earliest solo recordings. On “Panther Power,” he kicked concentrated poetry on the nightmarish conditions of the country: “The American Dream wasn’t meant for me / ‘Cause Lady Liberty is a hypocrite, she lied to me / Promised me freedom, education, equality / Never gave me nothing but slavery.” In the same early demo, he spit, “My Mother never let me forget my history / Hoping I was set free, chains never put on me / Wanted to be more than just free.” On his debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, he continued speaking his truth. “Trapped” confronted police brutality head-on. A month before it hit shelves, Pac was beaten by Oakland Police Department officers after jaywalking. Police officers punching and kicking victims was not something he just read in the newspaper.
Pac presented his realities in an effort to show the world that these issues were not isolated. “Seeing how the police really did beat me down, I figured I could talk about that. I could at least talk about how brothers need to start fighting,” he said in a February 1993 interview with The Rhythm. “That’s why my [next] album is called Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z...we just talkin’ about fightin’ back. Instead of talkin’ about what we gon’ do if they don’t stop kickin’ our ass, I’m talkin’ about what we gon’ do, this year, if they don’t watch their back. We had the [riots] in Los Angeles; we wanted to make that a catch-fire type thing, and reach all over the country. Brothers just stopped takin’ sh*t from these punk motherf*ckers, and we started striking back. Hopefully my album can start that in a way.”
Things would get started before Tupac’s next album was even released. In 1992, Ronald Ray Howard was charged with killing state trooper Bill Davidson. When police discovered a copy of 2Pacalypse Now in the trunk of Howard’s car, Pac found himself facing a shooting gallery of opposition that included then Vice President Dan Quayle. The song “Souljah’s Story” on the album featured lyrics that read “Cops on my tail, so I bail ’til I dodge ’em/They finally pull me over and I laugh/”Remember Rodney King?” and I blast on his punk ass/Now I got a murder case…” Both Quayle and Davidson’s widow sought to hold Tupac and Interscope Records, his label, directly liable for the killing of the state trooper, and Quayle went on the attack. “Once again we’re faced with an irresponsible corporate act,” he said. “There is absolutely no reason for a record like this to be published by a responsible corporation. Today I am suggesting that the Time Warner subsidiary Interscope Records withdraw this record. It has no place in our society.”
Instead of tucking his tail, Tupac raged against the machine on Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., just like he said he would. The 1993 album’s first single and song demanded a response not from opposition, but from allies. “Holla If Ya Hear Me” rallied the troops: “Pump ya fists like this / Holla if ya hear me / Pump, pump if you’re pissed / To the sell-outs, livin’ it up / One way or another, you’ll be givin’ it up / 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 swingin’ like a one man clan.” Tupac seethed at rappers wasting their platform. Fredrick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Pac embraced the struggle. Rather than cowering under Quayle’s offensive, he doubled down with a sequel, and raised questions of his own. “My attitude is sh*tty / My message to the censorship committee / Who’s the biggest gang of ni**as in the city? / The critics or the cops? / The courts or the crooks? / Don’t look so confused, take a closer look: / Ni**as get they neck broke daily / Tryin’ to stay jail-free / What the f*ck does Quayle know what young Black males need? / Please tell me,” he rapped on “Souljah’s Revenge.”
It was not for sport that Tupac was targeting racist cops or narrow-minded government officials. He wanted change. “When I say ‘Thug Life,’ I mean that sh*t! ‘Cause these white folks see us as thugs! I don’t care what y’all think; I don’t care if you think you’re a lawyer, a man, an Afri-can-American, whoever the f*ck you think you are, you’re ‘thugs’ and ‘ni**as’ to these muthaf*ckas! Until we own some sh*t, I’ma call it like it is! How you gonna be a man if you starvin’? [How are you gonna be a man] if you walk by five different houses and there ain’t a man [in any]? …We’re thugs and we’re ni**as until we set this sh*t right! Trust me when I tell you that sh*t!,” Tupac bellowed from the stage at the 1993 Indiana Black Expo. He wanted people, in his terms, “actin’ right.” The man who first met his father when he was recovering from five shots in his twenties demanded paternal presence in the community. The son who watched a mom battle addiction wanted crack off the blocks. He was pro-gun, pro-gang, and pro-marijuana. Until the people of color and lesser means were treated right, he encouraged self-protection for self-preservation. “I swear to God, nothing I ever say is meant for innocent people to get hurt, nothing,” he told BET’s Ed Gordon in 1994. “Nothing I ever say is meant to be an end-all, ‘let’s go do it right now’ [call to action]. Nothing. Anything I ever say as it pertains to my peers as far as being strapped is only about self-defense.”
In the face of racist cops and tone-deaf politicians, Tupac called for racial unity in his lyrics. On the highest profile collaboration of his career (with Ice Cube and Ice-T) in 1993, Tupac did not preach, but rather encouraged listeners that power in numbers was Conservative America’s worst fear:
“What ni**as need to do is start locc’in up / United we stand divided we fall / They can shoot one ni**a, but they can’t take us all / Let’s get along with the Mexicans / And we can all have peace on the sets again / Imagine that if it took place (ha ha ha) / Keeping the smile off they white face / I ain’t racist, but let’s trade places / Trace the hate and face it / One ni**a teach two ni**as / Three teach four ni**as / And them ni**as teach more ni**as / And when we blast / That’ll be the biggest blast you’ve heard / And them is my last words,” he rapped on “Last Wordz. Using the information and indoctrination he received in his upbringing from Afeni Shakur, he was still disseminating “Panther Power.”
By the time he released Me Against The World, Pac had adopted a more introspective and less radical tone. He was not in a positive place, personally. On his way to prison, he detailed the causes and effects of so much street violence. On the title song, he appeared to doubt himself and others trying to educate. “Can’t reach the children, ’cause they’re illin’ / Addicted to killin’ and the appeal from the cap peelin’ / Without feelin’, but will they last or be blasted? / Hard-headed bastard, maybe he’ll listen in his casket / The aftermath: more bodies bein’ buried / I’m losin’ my homies in a hurry, they’re relocatin’ to the cemetery.” Released a year and a half from his own death to gun violence, Pac was clearly disturbed by the trends.
In his post-prison life, Shakur churned out songs until the day he died. However, in the surge of recordings (which continue to surface), the revolutionary qualities never waned. “White Man’z World” demanded payback for the suffering of Black folks. At the same time, Pac recanted some of his past instances in which he was the one inflicting injury, particularly toward women. “Inside this cage where they capture all my rage and violence / In time I learned a few lessons, never fall for riches / Apologizes to my true sisters, far from b*tches / Help me raise my Black nation, reparations are due / It’s true, caught up in this world I took advantage of you / So tell the babies how I love them, precious boys and girls / Born Black in this white man’s world.” This was a real moment, putting his demands, on behalf of his people, next to his apologies to some of the same.
Pac showed similar awareness of how his own vices might not be aligned with the greater cause, on 1999’s “Letter To The President.” He rapped: “Dear Lord, look how sick this ghetto made us / Sincerely yours, I’m a thug, the product of a broken home / Everybody’s doped up, ‘ni**a, what you smokin’ on?’ / Figure if we high they can train us / But then America f*cked up and blamed us / I guess it’s cause we black that we targets / My only fear is God, I spit that hard sh*t! / In case you don’t know I let my pump go / Let it ride for Mutulu like I ride for Geronimo / Down to die for everything I represent / Meant every word in my letter to the President.” Sadly, Pac did die ahead of this Outlawz song’s release. The MC who was an advocate for marijuana use, and handed Snoop Dogg his first blunt, was not above spotting the bigger picture. In the poor communities, dope was a distraction for the powers that be to do their worst.
In 1994, Tupac said “I’m not saying I’m gonna rule the world, or I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.” He left us with what those “changes” should look like. Two years after his death, Big D The Impossible, with Afeni Shakur, brushed up some 1992 recordings. One of those songs, “Changes,” showed the timeless quality to Pac’s message. Over a well-known Bruce Hornsby sample, Pac rapped “I’m tired of bein’ poor and, even worse, I’m Black / My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch / Cops give a damn about a negro / Pull the trigger, kill a ni**a, he’s a hero / ‘Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares? / One less hungry mouth on the welfare! / First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers / Give ’em guns, step back, watch ’em kill each other’ / ‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said / Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead / I got love for my brother / But we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other / We gotta start makin’ changes / Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers / And that’s how it’s supposed to be / How can the Devil take a brother if he’s close to me?”
More than 20 years after he laid those vocals, Tupac’s unifying words resonate. Although it was not a #1 song, “Changes” has become a generation’s Tupac anthem. More than “California Love,” “Hit ‘Em Up” or “Hail Mary,” one could argue that it’s a much more appropriate calling card for the bigger message in Pac’s music.
Today, so much of what Tupac rallied against remains the same. There are still cops killing unarmed Black men and women, instances of wrongful police escalation leading to brute force, and politicians weighing in on the merits of Hip-Hop. In many ways, the changes have not come. However, at a time when Shakur disciples like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Chance The Rapper are making the music of protest, resistance, and revolution—did Pac not spark them? An entire generation has now heard his revolutionary messages, and they are continuing to holler.