Place No One Above Ya, Sweet Lady

Jose Vilson Jose

Recently, I was watching the movie 2Pac Resurrection, the posthumously narrated biographical film about the rapper Tupac Shakur. In one of the segments, 2Pac discusses his prison stint and the people who sent him letters and visited him during his time behind bars. One of those people, of course, was his mother, Afeni Shakur. Their relationship strained over the years, but his prison sentence forced the two back together. The irony, of course, is that they were once together in jail while Ms. Shakur was pregnant with 2Pac during her time as a Black Panther.

When I first heard the song, I couldn’t fully grasp their situation. I knew as much about 2Pac’s life as MTV would reveal. To the general media, he was a chart-topping, record-selling, reckless, Black thug with way too much money on his hands and too much celebrity. I didn’t know much about Dionne Warwick nor C. Dolores Tucker. I also didn’t know he was literally getting followed by the FBI and every law enforcement official within a 5-mile radius of his entourage.

But if there’s one thing I knew about 2Pac, and it’s the same thing every poor kid knew when they ran the “Dear Mama” tape, it’s that this man knew how to make a song. My friends and I would sit there not saying much while the record played, or the video came on, and tried to hold the emotions in. We’d weep while no one was looking, and tried to act tough in front of each other. Usually. 2Pac’s songs still pull people in because it doesn’t let people off the hook. Either you ride with him or you turn the tape off.

So it was with “Dear Mama.”

For a good portion of my life, the only people that my mom and I had were each other. When my stepfather came into our world, and eventually my younger brother, I still remember how much she struggled just to keep a hot plate on our table. She took odd jobs around town, including the factory job that eventually left her incapable of maintaining a full-time job. When that didn’t work out anymore, she took on parenting heroically, piecing together monies she saved up with income from my stepfather and other sources. We rarely if ever missed meals, and our clothes stayed clean. Out of circumstance, I only saw my father once a year on average, but my mother wouldn’t let me feel any sort of way about that.

The more I found out about my mom and the struggles she went through just to ensure I became the man I am today, the more I knew I had to become that, at whatever cost. I blamed myself often for my own shortcomings, and became frustrated with her. That’s what most sons in that situation, my friends included, felt in my predicament. We didn’t have our fathers there, and we kept trying to run away from our fathers’ images until we became lots like them. It’s our ultimate shortcoming, and often, the only way to reverse the anguish of not living up to a certain image is to reflect without the external influences, without the confusion, without the noise.

That’s what Tupac did for a lot of us, so we didn’t have to.

Last year, this song was added to the National Recording Registry. Wikipedia states that “The Library of Congress has called ‘Dear Mama’ ‘a moving and eloquent homage to both the murdered rapper’s own mother and all mothers struggling to maintain a family in the face of addiction, poverty and societal indifference.'” For those of us who felt like Pac did, we couldn’t agree more.

Jose, whose plan was to show you that I understand …