Tupac Shakur’s Early Poems Showed The Sensitive Side Of Thug Life (Video)

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Hi. We recently created AFH TV, Ambrosia For Heads’ streaming video service, because we believe real Hip-Hop deserves its own dedicated TV home. But, there are doubters, so, we need your help. If you have enjoyed anything on AFH over the last 7 years, we are asking you to subscribe to AFH TV. It is only $1.99/month or $12/year, and already features some amazing content, but the best is yet to come. Thank you for all of your support.

Celebrated the world over for his prophetic words on the mic, Tupac Shakur was not only a gifted lyricist but also an accomplished poet. Bridging “thug life” with “fine art,” the controversial MC brought up amidst the worlds of political activism, theater, and dance was killed before reaching his full potential as one of his generation’s most enlightened thinkers. Luckily, his seemingly endless appetite for creative outlets has left us with a vast body of work, including posthumously released collections of his poetry, the most well known of which is 1999’s The Rose That Grew from Concrete. As the June 16 arrival of the Tupac biopic, All Eyez On Me, nears, much will be discussed as it pertains to Tupac the Rapper. However, the film also reportedly showcases a portrait of the artist he evolved from: Tupac the Poet.

Tupac Shakur’s Formative Years: The Young Man Before The Myth (Video)

As part of his education at the Baltimore School of the Arts, a young Tupac Shakur was immersed in the worlds of William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and other poets who made a significant impact on the way aesthetics and rhythm are used in language. It is no surprise that Pac’s most enduring legacy involves his own prowess with words, and there is little doubt his entryway to rapping was his early introduction to poems. However, according to those who knew him best, his love for language developed well before his high-school years. In the preface for her son’s book of poetry, the late Afeni Shakur wrote the following:

“I thank God and all my ancestors for the Artistic Tupac, for the Poetic Tupac. There was never a day when Tupac did not appreciate language. The sound and the rhythm of words did not intimidate him. He sought to interpret his world using all the visual and linguistic tools available to him…These poems represent the process of a young artist’s journey to understand and accept a world of unthinkable contradictions.”

In his own words, taped during a 1995 deposition involving a lawsuit against Shakur, who was accused of inciting police violence (and the killing of a state trooper) with his lyrics, Pac explained the relationship between Rap music and poetry:

I started off with poetry. With writing poetry, in junior high and high school. And poets, I saw, were looked on as wimps. So I started turning [my] poetry into songs, and that got more attention…It is my opinion that I started to rap when I was writing poetry…Rap is poetry, to me. Storytelling, poetry…even iambic pentameter is Rap. It’s the way you write it, the structure.”

Nikki Giovanni, arguably one of America’s most revered living poets (and an NCAAP Image Award winner), wrote the foreword to Rose, and described the quality in Pac’s artistry that made him so unique, not just as a poet but as a human being:

“Tupac stayed fresh and strong and committed to himself and his people. Yet, as this collection shows, he was a sensitive soul. The poems for the lovers in this life, for his mother, for his child in heaven show a boy who touches our souls. This, too, is Tupac. Just as people want to make Malcolm X an integrationist, thereby changing the nature of his daring and his truth, people want us to overlook the sensitivity and love Tupac Shakur shows because, after all, if he loves, if he cries, if he cares, if he, in other words, is not a monster, then what have we done?…He deserves to be taken seriously and we must therefore mourn.”

Lastly, in her introduction to the poetry collection, Pac’s longtime manager and mentor Leila Steinberg explains what makes the book’s title poem so enduring, 20 years since his death: “‘The Rose That Grew from Concrete’ tells you a great deal about him in just a few lines…his life shows that a young man/boy could rise, shine, grow, and bloom beyond overbearing conditions to become one of America’s most beloved men.” She continues by explaining the body of work in the collection:

“The following poems show a side of Tupac Amaru Shakur that popular culture has yet to realize existed – pensive, introspective, loving, and concerned about world affairs…I hope these poems…will encourage people to take the first steps necessary to see his literary importance, as well as have us acknowledge the life struggles of young Black men. Written when Tupac was 19, this poetry is free from the restraints of the music industry and all monetary pressures. It is free of the anger that came from getting shot, betrayed, and thrown in jail for a crime I believe he never committed. It is Tupac before his fame.”

the-rose-that-grew-from-concrete

Much of Tupac’s poetry stands in stark contrast to his bravado, machismo, and violent image, both self-imposed and socially constructed. As mentioned by his mother, Giovanni, and Steinberg, Pac the Poet could be a lonely, wounded, and delicate soul.

Sometimes when I’m alone
I cry because I’m on my own
The tears I cry R bitter and warm
They flow with life but take no form
I cry because my heart is torn
and I find it difficult 2 carry on
If I had an ear 2 confide in
I would cry among my treasured friends
But who do u know that stops that long
to help another carry on
The world moves fast and it would rather pass u by
than 2 stop and c what makes u cry
It’s painful and sad and sometimes I cry
and no one cares about why.
                                                            – “Sometimes I Cry”

Love was another prominent theme in Tupac’s poetry. As showcased in “A Love Unspoken”:

What of a love unspoken? Is it weaker without a name?
Does this love deserve 2 exist without a title
because I dare not share its name
Does that make me cruel and cold

2 deny the world of my salvation
because I chose 2 let it grow
People tend 2 choke
that which they do not understand
Why shouldn’t I be weary
and withhold this love from MAN
What of a love unspoken
no one ever knows
But this is a love that lasts
and in secrecy it grows

Within his poetry, Pac explored the spacing and rhythmic placement of words. For example, as can be seen in Pac’s own handwriting below, “Love Is Just Complicated” manipulates space to evoke the frustration and consternation that comes with love:

love-is-just-complicated

Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” a frenetic song featured on the Tupac-inspired album To Pimp a Butterfly, is similar in structure to “Love Is Just Complicated.” In it, Lamar raps “loving you is complicated” and explores much of the same themes found throughout The Rose That Grew from Concrete. This is but one example of Tupac the Poet’s enduring legacy.

Tupac’s Spoken Words: Why His Interviews Are Even More Compelling Than His Music (Video)

As he was in his unbridled lyrics, Tupac was a biting social critic in his poems. Much like he rapped in songs like “Trapped” and “Me Against the World,” Tupac the Poet used poetry to lament the cruel realities of life. In his poetry, he used humor, historical acuity, and imagery in as nuanced and skilled ways as any other, highly respected poet:

excuse me but Lady Liberty needs glasses
And so does Mrs. Justice by her side
Both the broads R blind as bats
Stumbling thru the system
Justice bumped into Mutulu and
Trippin’ on Geronimo Pratt
But stepped right over Oliver
And his crooked partner Ronnie
Justice stubbed her Big Toe on Mandela
And liberty was misquoted by the Indians
slavery was a learning phase
Forgotten without a verdict
while Justice is on a rampage
4 endangered surviving Black males
I mean really if anyone really valued life
and cared about the masses
They’d take ’em both 2 Pen Optical
and get 2 pairs of glasses
– “Liberty Needs Glasses”

In 2000, dead prez, Mos Def, The Pharcyde’s Tre, Q-Tip, Russell Simmons, and others collaborated on an audio version of The Rose That Grew from Concrete, culminating in a 25-track album. The most touching performance on the LP comes from the voice of Tupac’s own mother who, alongside Danny Glover and the Broadway cast of The Lion King, recited “A River That Flows Forever.”

In 2017, when the death of Tupac Shakur comes with 21 years of hindsight, there is no doubt the world lost a visionary. But much like the river he describes in the poem above, Pac continues to flow into the minds, hearts, and pens of millions. His poetry has been committed not only to the printed page, but is a focal point in classrooms around the world, including some at Harvard, Berkeley, and the University of Washington. This month, on what would have been his 46th birthday, Pac’s poetry will live on through the All Eyez On Me biopic, and although we may never again hear new raps or read new couplets from the icon, his words spring eternal:

As long as some suffer
The River Flows Forever
As long as there is pain
The River Flows Forever
As strong as a smile can be
The River Will Flow Forever
And as long as u R with me
we’ll ride the River Together