We are having what can be considered one of the blackest years on record. Larry Wilmore dropping the n-word at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is peak blackness no matter which side of the appropriate aisle you sit on. In fact, in any other year it would be the runaway winner, except, moments prior to that moment, President Barack Obama did an actual, true-to-form mic drop while conjuring Kobe Bryant. The n-word puts Wilmore over the top for sheer lack of f—ks, but the leader of the free world doing a mic drop is spectacular and will be memed to infinity and beyond.
Rest in power, Afeni Shakur. In the words that I will always associate with you, “You are appreciated.”
While it’s been a great year to be black, it’s also already been a year marred by significant tragedy. Significant black pop-culture deaths that have happened through the first four months of the year include Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, Vanity and Prince.
We can now add Afeni Shakur—Black Panther, activist, revolutionary and mother of hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur. She passed away Monday night at the age of 69 at her home in Sausalito, Calif.
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 who have children, the entire reason that most of us know who Afeni Shakur was is that 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.
I heard this song on the radio and it made me a little misty. And then there’s the video. It opens up with Afeni talking about nearly having Tupac while she was 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 even though he was not even in the video to express his love for her. She’s featured throughout, looking at pictures and doing that thing 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 who he came from, she, too, was placed 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. Afeni, 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.
Afeni was Tupac’s mother, but she kind of filled this interesting slot as a hip-hop mother even if her role was far in the background, or as far back as you can be as the mother of one of the greatest icons of hip-hop. And because she was, in fact, 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 its 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 did not die in vain, and now that she’s gone, one can only hope that the estate does as good a job of preserving his legacy as she’s done.
Panama Jackson is the co-founder and senior editor of VerySmartBrothas.com. He lives in Washington, D.C., and believes the children are our future.