By Davey D Cook
Ed. note: Afeni Shakur, a onetime Black Panther, lifelong political activist, and the mother of famed rapper Tupac Shakur, died May 2 at her home in Sausalito. KQED Pop reached out to DJ, hip-hop historian and SFSU professor Davey D, who met with Shakur soon after Tupac died, for a personal remembrance.
“You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution! All power to all the people.”
These were words uttered by Chairman Fred Hampton Sr., who in the late ’60s headed up the largest chapter of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in Chicago, Illinois. They were profound words that resonated with party members, and which sadly took on greater and graver meaning when Hampton and his comrade Mark Clark were tragically gunned down on Dec. 4, 1969.
It’s important to keep in mind the mindset of those who joined the Black Panther Party. BPP members knew that many among them would be locked up. They knew many would lose their lives. They also knew that the tenacious, heartfelt commitments they made when joining the Black Panthers were to bring about a better world for their children and their children’s children. If they were to fall short or be compromised in any way, their children, Panther Cubs born and unborn, would take the seeds that had been planted and carry on.
You can’t talk about the late Afeni Shakur, nor her son, the late Tupac Shakur — who was one of the most prolific, impactful and admired artists to ever bless the mic — without referencing the Black Panthers who shaped their lives. I met Afeni almost a year to the day her son was taken from us. It was in Marin City, where she had raised Tupac. She wasn’t doing interviews, but had agreed to talk with us because we had known her son just as he was starting his career. We were there at the beginning, when Oakland’s Digital Underground was starting, and knew Tupac when he first linked up with the group. He was doing the Humpty Dance in their videos and basically being a roadie for them while he honed his emcee skills and built upon his writing — which was already on point.
While the world knew an in-your-face, bold, outspoken Tupac, we knew a Tupac who was well-read and had intellectual depth. We knew a Tupac who was well-versed in Panther history and at the end of the day, in spite of all his brashness, was about the community and seeing it uplifted. Pac often said he was trying to give voice to the young Black male, who he felt was systemically being demonized and made into a scapegoat for society’s deep-seated problems. Pac had his contradictions, but for those of us who knew him, the one thing you could say unequivocally was he was honest. Brutally honest. Honest when it was inconvenient, honest when it ruffled feathers.
The Tupac many of us came to know was also one who always referenced his mom. He always uplifted her — long before he released the song that immortalized her, “Dear Mama.” In the Digital Underground camp, we came to know of Afeni via the running barbs that Tupac and group member Money B would privately and publicly exchange with one another. Tupac might be on stage at a concert and, as the crowd gave him a standing ovation, he would sign off by clowning Money B’s mom — e.g. “Can we give it up for Money B’s mom, who will be outside the concert beatboxing for quarters?” The crowd would roar with laughter.
Days later, Money B might be doing a radio interview in New York and, before leaving, he would get back at Tupac: “I wanna thank Tupac’s mom Afeni for not stealing the dice at the dice game I just left.”
Her name was mentioned often — frequently in jest, but the jokes were never explicitly offensive. Even if we had not met her personally, we knew Afeni was a former Black Panther, and she had our reverence and respect. We knew she was part of the Panther 21, who were brought up on conspiracy charges in 1971. We knew that Afeni had represented herself during the trial while pregnant with Tupac. We knew that she and the other Panther members beat the case and were acquitted.
So when doing that interview with Afeni a year after Tupac’s passing, it was with a mixture of sadness and awe: This was the woman we had heard so much about. It became clear that day where Tupac got his strength. It was clear that day why Pac was so well-read, why he was so brutally honest. During our conversation, Afeni noted that she and her children lived in truth. There were no secrets, she said, and Tupac was truthful in the face of anything.
When asked to clear up any misconceptions about her son, Afeni noted that while most people saw him just as a rapper, he was in fact so much more than that. “Tupac was and remains in my mind a child of the Black Panther Party,” she said. “I always felt that Tupac was living witness to who we are and who we were. I think that his life spoke to every part of our development and the development of the Party, and the development in this country that I don’t think will die.”
During our conversation, Afeni talked at length about her own upbringing. She talked about joining the Black Panthers in 1968 and how, unlike many who came onboard via college, she came to the party out of a gang in the South Bronx called the Disciples Deads.
“What the Panther Party did for me? I used to always say it gave me home training,” she said. “The Party taught me things that were principles to living … principles I think most Panthers have tried to pass on to their children and to anybody else that would listen to them.
“…One of those principles was like, don’t steal a penny, needle or a simple piece of thread from the people. It’s just general basic things about how we as individuals treat a race of people, and how we treat each other as a people! And those are the things I think the people recognize in Tupac.”
During our interview, we were interrupted when former Black Panther and recently released political prisoner Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt came in to greet Afeni. I recall her smiling broadly and the two embracing. As we ended the interview, Afeni teared up a bit when she urged us to study Tupac’s music and read books like The Art of War by Son Zu, and The Prince by Machavelli, so that we “would have a better way of looking at things.”
As for her son’s killers, she noted: “Not only will they have to live with it, but so will their children and their children’s children. I would not want to stand before God and say that I’m the one who took Tupac’s life. So what I have to say is more power to them.”
Afeni’s words were in sharp contrast to those who, at that time, were insisting that Tupac had faked his death and was still alive. It was clear that she knew the grave truth and was facing it while so many had not.
Years later, I got to see Afeni for a second time. I was with Chuck D of Public Enemy and then-Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. We went to the [now defunct] Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts, which Afeni had founded just outside Atlanta. She spoke to us about the work of the education and performing arts foundation and the peace garden she had set up. The center’s purpose was not only to preserve Tupac’s legacy but to carry out Pac’s vision of reaching the youth.
That center was the realization of a dream Tupac held for a long time. In 1991, he filed a $10 million civil suit against the Oakland Police Department, alleging they beat him after he was stopped for jaywalking. He vowed that the money he got would go to build a youth center, and continue the afterschool program work he was doing in Marin with his friend and former manager Leila Steinberg.
Pac never got $10 million from the OPD. In an out-of-court settlement, he barely got enough to pay for his lawyer, but in his death his mother had carried out much of that vision with the center. She talked earnestly about the peace garden and her hopes for many to heal. Whereas the Black Panthers’ plan was for their children (Panther Cubs) to carry out the vision of the Panthers, here we saw Afeni the Black Panther carrying out the vision of her child.
Afeni also went to great lengths to educate herself and get her son’s music affairs in order. She gained control of his unreleased music. She set up a record label, Amuru Records, and accomplished the Herculean task of getting the his assets under one roof, preventing them from exploitation by an often unforgiving and cannibalistic music industry. Afeni Shakur became a sharp businesswoman and, in doing so, prevented the silencing of her son’s voice and nefarious distortions of his legacy.
The last time I saw Afeni was in Memphis in 2008, during the Dream Reborn conference, a civil rights gathering organized by former White House adviser and longtime organizer Van Jones. Afeni gave a keynote address for the ages: she talked about the importance of folks being spiritually grounded, owning land and being self-sufficient.
On the surface, it may have appeared Afeni was headed in a different direction and no longer saw herself as a revolutionary or militant. The truth of the matter was that Afeni was talking about setting up survival programs. She was talking about making sure we as a people would be able to take care of one another, and would not have to be dependent upon a system that did not fully care for far too many of us. That message was an extension of what the Panthers were about, and in many ways, what was core to their existence. People hear “Black Panthers” and think guns and berets, but many people will tell you that what J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI feared most were the party’s survival programs. Afeni was speaking to the party’s legacy, a message she had committed herself to back in 1968.
In September of 2015, Afeni Shakur came to Oakland and paid a surprise visit to a new school called Roses In Concrete, an elementary school with a social justice emphasis, named in honor of her son’s poem and book of the same title. Afeni visited the kindergarten class that my wife teaches, and was touched to discover, on the wall of the classroom, a picture of her son and a copy of his poem.
She was impressed, and promised to support the school however she could. The kids were excited, as well as the staff. She had lifted up their spirits. After learning of her death this week, they held a drumming circle and tears were shed.
Afeni Shakur joins her son and is now amongst the ancestors. She was a force to be reckoned with, and a person who honored that commitment made in 1968 to plant seeds and make a difference. She touched many, and through her son she touched even more. Left to carry the torch is her daughter Sekyiwa. Our heartfelt condolences to her. May we remember Afeni Shakur and honor her memory by keeping the revolutionary spirit and values that she embodied alive.