If you asked 10 people about Tupac Shakur, you would likely get 10 different responses. Some may talk about his captivating role as Bishop in the ’90s movie “Juice,” others may bring up how he consistently dropped new albums years after he passed away, and you might even get a story about the time he shot at a racist police officer, was arrested and beat the case during a time where it was very rare for a Black man to take on white cops and win.
Tupac was many things to many people – an activist, a revolutionary, a Shakespearean, a hip-hop artist, a gangster, an overall fascinating individual. True fans know that Tupac was so special because he was raised by Afeni Shakur, one of the most fascinating women in American history —which you can learn all about in FX’s “Dear Mama,” a five-part collection of stories detailing the lives of Tupac, Afeni and their relationship.
Afeni Shakur was part of the Panther 21, a collection of members of the Black Panther Party charged with conspiracy to blow up two police stations and an education office in New York City in 1969. Afeni spent about two years in prison devising a plan in which she represented herself and was acquitted of all charges. It was Afeni who initially taught Tupac the power of knowledge, revolution, Black power, equal rights, fighting oppressive systems and the many themes that made up the heart of Tupac’s music and the characters he portrayed on the silver screen.
Director Allen Hughes, half of the Hughes brothers, dropped everything he was doing to direct “Dear Mama.” Hughes himself has constructed a body of work that helped raised a generation of young Black people not used to seeing themselves in film, including classics like “Menace To Society,” “The Book of Eli” and “Dead Presidents.”
On “Salon Talks,” Hughes told me he “had no interest in doing documentaries,” but needed to take on “Dear Mama” because Tupac’s story was too important to pass up. “The thing that’s unique about him, he’s going to make you feel him,” Hughes said about Tupac and his music. “You’re going to feel him because it’s raw. He didn’t go back and polish up the verse. You hear the Hennessy, you hear the weed, you hear the passion, the anger, the angst, the love, the joy, the pain.”
Watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Hughes here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about the real Tupac, the real Afeni and the Snoop Dogg biopic that Hughes is making next.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did “Dear Mama” come together?
The estate and the family wanted to meet with me about it. I was surprised. I took the meeting, but wasn’t sure if I wanted to come on and direct and produce it for personal reasons outside of me and Tupac’s personal relationship. I just didn’t know if I wanted to do another documentary, which is exhausting.
I thought about it and I thought to myself, “I’d like to understand him better. There’s a lot of things I don’t understand.” And that was what made me decide to do it. I was like, I can gain some understanding and make sense of his journey because the last year of his life, when he was on death row, was seemingly so disconnected from the first four years of his career and 24 years before that. I just wanted to find out what happened.
Tell us some of the things that you discovered about Tupac that you thought you would never know.
“I was raised by a single activist mother, and that’s how I found my way in.”
I think the poverty thing was a big one. One thing being poor, I’ve been poor, a lot of us have been poor, but Tupac, some of his childhood long stretches of time, not knowing where his next meal was going to come from, his mother not knowing. They’re eating hot sauce sandwiches some nights. I’ve never been that poor. There’s that level of his mother’s suffering, post-traumatic stress from all the Panther stuff she went through and what the government did to decimate her and her comrades. And she’s living in the wake of feeling like they lost that war for civil rights and being disbanded by the FBI. The effect it had on Tupac as a child, his mother’s disillusionment with life and the struggle for human rights and feeling that they had lost. And then the poverty was a revelation to me.
We met Afeni through multiple lenses throughout the course of Tupac’s career. We know she was a Black Panther. We know she beat the Feds. We know about some of the struggles that she had with addiction. I always felt like when we had these conversations and talk about Black movements and Black liberation, that Afeni’s name doesn’t really come up enough.
That’s right. That’s right. That’s what I wanted to correct too. The bottom line is, my take was, this has got to be a dual narrative about Tupac and his mother as much her narrative as it is his narrative and learning about him through her journey because I was raised by a single activist mother, and that’s how I found my way in. I think hopefully if all goes well and people get to embrace the film, she will become one of those civil rights icons that she deserves to be.
I’m constantly thinking about masculinity and its role in mother and son relationships, and then how that translates into the way we as men interact with women in general. Maybe you can talk about how Afeni prepared Tupac for those challenges.
I think it was interesting because Afeni obviously was in the forefront of the civil rights movement. My mother was a woman’s rights activist and a radical feminist, so I’m wired as a feminist. When we talk about these modern terms, toxic masculinity and all that, and then you talk about young Black boys that don’t have fathers, I didn’t have my father in my life, you need to look at that.
One thing that struck me about Tupac and Afeni’s relationship, women tend to be more in touch with their emotions than men, we know that, and that’s what men need to learn more of. Women aren’t as guarded with their mouths as men have learned to be. I think Tupac came up in a house not only with a woman that was intelligent, but a woman that spoke her mind like my mother did. My mother didn’t hold her tongue. That’s a whole nother type of woman and is sharp, will eviscerate you.
“I don’t care what cops say. I don’t care what journalists have to say. I care about what the people that were there when it happened.”
Unfortunately, for the young boys that are raised by women like that, you might need a father to go, “Hey, yo, listen, maybe you shouldn’t say all that.” That’s kind of where the father comes in, a traditional father comes in. I think when you look at Tupac and the way he would pop off, that’s Afeni. That’s what she taught him too. That’s what she taught him. She taught him, don’t bite your tongue for no one.
He ain’t bite it at all.
I think he reinvented it. He reinvented it.
When I played my nephew and then some of the old Pac stuff and they hear the, “Jay-Z die, too,” and, “F**k you, LL. I’ll rock your motherf**king bells.” They like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I’m like, “Nah, Pac, he was different.”
He was different and he talked s**t well.
Larry Holmes was probably in his home with his earphones like, “What the f**k I do?”
That’s exactly right. But also a young buck just disrespecting the OGs that had been unheard of. Look, I don’t think it’s hot, but he did it so well, you felt it.
I know you said you didn’t really want to do another documentary, but this one just felt like something you had to do. Could you talk about that research process?
There was a lot about that I didn’t know. But the research, it’s just sitting down with the family and the friends, finding people that hadn’t gone on camera. We have a handful of people that have never been on camera that were very close to both of them sitting and talking with Panther veterans OGs that are in their 70s and 80s that were right there.
“His image is everywhere. It’s eclipsed Che Guevara. It’s eclipsed Bob Marley. He’s a global symbol for rebellion.”
That’s the process. It’s just trying to tell the story and discover things about the journey that we don’t know and making it about seeing the whole thing through the prism of their relationship only, even if it had to do with the Quad [Studio] shootings or anything famous incidents even when it came to me. How does this relate to his mother and how does his mother relate to this in their journey? That’s how I decided to tell the story.
We’re not going back and relitigating all his so-called crimes and legal dramas and firestorms and shootouts. I don’t care what cops say. I don’t care what journalists have to say. I care about what the people that were there when it happened and gaining an understanding of how it affected him. What was he thinking? Where was he at psychologically and emotionally and what was his mother dealing with at the time?
My city is such a weird place because I remember I got an older cousin named Terrell that used to live up 41st Street. He used to be with Mouse and Tupac.
He used to always tell us, “It’s this kid from New York down here. He’s going to be a rapper.” But Baltimore didn’t really have anybody that was popular as a rapper. We only looked up to street guys. If you were rapping, we thought you were a joke. That was something in New York that was a whole other universe away.
That makes sense.
When it all came together and we’re watching more the Digital Underground video, he’s like, “Yo, that’s the dude I told you about that was rapping.” And we like, “Man, you don’t know him, man. He never lived here before.”
He’s called MC New York.
I’ve been teaching a hip-hop class at the University of Baltimore for the past six years, and it is wild how many young undergraduate students come in and they don’t really know a lot about Tupac. His influences are all over the game and I got to convince them to listen to it, and then they hear the music and connect. Why do you think it takes so much to get them into it?
It’s funny. That’s the first I’m hearing of that. I always hear the opposite. I’ve traveled the world and you look at his mural and where it’s at. It’s in Africa, it’s in South America, it’s in Asia, it’s in Europe, it’s in Australia. His image is everywhere. It’s eclipsed Che Guevara. It’s eclipsed Bob Marley. He’s a global symbol for rebellion. The children’s soldiers in Africa, as Mike Tyson says in the film, go into battle, listening to Tupac. I got a picture in Part 5 and you’ll see him, all these 10- and 12-year-olds with machine guns, with Tupac shirts on. So I’ve heard quite the opposite.
“How does this relate to his mother and how does his mother relate to this in their journey? That’s how I decided to tell the story.”
I think that to your point though, is when you play a record though, if you play those kids like “Me and my Girlfriend” and tell them, “Just let this wash over you,” I think the thing that’s unique about him, he’s going to make you feel him. You’re going to feel him because it’s raw. He didn’t go back and polish up the verse. You hear the Hennessy, you hear the weed, you hear the passion, the anger, the angst, the love, the joy, the pain.
I think if you play, “Keep Your Head Up,” some of the lighter tracks, or I think if you place my personal favorite, “Shed So Many Tears” and you tell a group of young kids, “Look, this is who this dude is real quick, but listen to this track real quick. Just listen to it.” See how I said real quick? I think TikTok has f**ked everyone.
A lot of times I start off with “Death Around the Corner” because it’s just one of the wildest intros that you’re ever going to hear on this song.
What album is that on?
“Me Against the World.”
See, there’s still ones that dropped on me.
She’s like, “You don’t eat, you don’t sleep, you don’t f**k. You just stand by the window with that godd**n gun all day.” I’m like, “Yo, that’s just a lady yelling at him.” I’m be like, “Yo, this is one of the wildest intros you ever going to hear in a song ever.”
“Death Around the Corner.”
How old are these kids?
They were born in 2002 and 2003. They’re 18 and 19 years old. They’re young. But I don’t know, when I was a young kid, I was raised by OG’s, so I guess it’s a little different.
What year were you born?
“You hear the Hennessy, you hear the weed, you hear the passion, the anger, the angst, the love, the joy, the pain.”
Check it though. When you were raised, it wasn’t a lot out there and there wasn’t a lot of options. And the options, you could see who was dope and who wasn’t dope. It wasn’t what you just said, 20,000 motherf**kers. Also it still was an era where you respected your OG’s. All that’s down the toilet.
It’s different now. Everybody’s the OG. Dude calling himself an OG, he’s like six years old.
Exactly. Exactly. It’s all changed. It’s all changed. And this thing killed everything.
I owe you some money because when I was maybe 13, I had a bootleg “Menace” and we used to watch it every day.
Pay up. Everyone did.
I owe you like 30 bucks, man.
You were the perfect age at the time because I remember, and I still remember, the people who approached me are the most passionate about “Menace” were about 13, 14 when it came out, too young to watch it. But at the age where you knew what it was.
Yeah, it was unattended too. I didn’t have anybody to say, “Look man, you should be listening to rock.”
He was born in ’80. That’s when everything started to change. 1980 is when everything started change.
Great question. I don’t think Tupac would’ve fit into what is happening on both sides very well. He absolutely wouldn’t have done what Kanye did. We know that.
It would be the antithesis of that. Maybe even hardcore the other way. Afeni would be a lot more balanced about things. But Tupac, I don’t have to tell you how passionate he was. I didn’t get to meet Afeni unfortunately. She passed in ’16. But I think when you watch this film, all five parts, you go, “Wow, they did their thing.” Their body of work and including what she did, it’ll be studied for decades now. That’s how much they did. Them being here now, we’re going to be catching up to them for so long. It wouldn’t matter.
What’s next for you?
I’m actually doing Snoop Dogg‘s biopic, a feature film.
Oh word. Did you find somebody to play Snoop?
That is the million-dollar question. Snoop is in all throughout “Dear Mama.” Wait until you get to Part 4 and see that bond and what happened. But Snoop is one of those rare guys in the game, guys that I’ve known for 30 years that I absolutely adore him and his understanding and his spirit and what he survived and his insights into Tupac and into Black men, Black women and the culture.
When he asked me to tell his story, I said, “Absolutely,” because this is the inspiring version of “Menace to Society.” This is if Tupac would’ve lived. By they way, I totally was doing something else and then this came.
“Dear Mama” is now streaming on Hulu.
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