There’s a reason hip hop has made such a meteoric rise in American society. A large part of its success is founded in the pictures contemporary groups and artists like Biggie or Eminem created with their words. They painted vibrant, visceral descriptions of the lives they lived. Their verses were cold, and their flow was fire. Unsurprising given their background and upbringing, some of the images these MC’s conjured with their rhymes were brutal and terrifying. It was anger, it was defiance. It was coming from a population that had been silenced for so long, forcing contemporary America to come face to face with the generation of angry and expressive young men it had helped to create. The street had come to your home and was ready to leave scars on your mind in its quest to be heard. But what can be missed is the connections of a common theme: oppression and alienation. But if we a little closer we can see some of the struggles one man had in expressing his and his people’s struggle in the face of a society that condemned people to an early death from their birth.
Many people forget Tupac was heavily influenced by the revolutionary beliefs of his mother who was a member of the Black Panther Party. Its not a coincidence that the images he described was a representation of the same ills the Panthers attempted to eradicate. However, the commodification of Tupac’s image, just like the sanitizing of Martin Luther King, caused his music to lose his revolutionary edge over the years. His name and image became a vague, weak call to hip-hip’s “glory days” instead of an being recognized as that of an artist who attempted to expose the mental prison sentences young men in poverty are handed at birth. There isn’t an artist like him since who could so masterfully illustrate the injustices of capitalism than a son of a former Black Panther like Pac.
His song “Only God Can Judge Me” is a picture of a man living in fear of a world that seems to be hostile to him at every turn. What it eventually becomes is a call for help from an unfortunate victim who never asked to be placed in the position he was put in, and a search for reprieve from the man he was forced to become and the choices he was forced to make.
Perhaps I was blind to the facts, stabbed in the back,
I couldn’t trust my own homies just a bunch a dirty rats…
Everybody’s dyin tell me what’s the use of tryin,
I’ve been Trapped since birth, cautious, cause I’m cursed,
And fantasies of my family, in a hearse,
And they say it’s the white man I should fear,
But, it’s my own kind doin all the killin here.
Crabs in a barrel never escape, because as soon as one gets to the top another pulls it back down. When you’re someone living in a place where everybody is competing for scraps, anybody will pull you back under to get their hands on what little you possess. If you decide to risk trust, you’ll find that the same friends you came to depend on in this brutal environment will throw you under the bus real quick in pursuit of a brief reprieve from the same world that hunts you both.
With that crab mentality in mind, a whole lot of what we see in the hood usually ends up in one of two places, in prison or in a grave. When your environment is people wearing shirts with dead friends on it, you begin to wonder whether its actually possible to escape that kind of fate. People start to think they’re trapped, and seem to have no other options than put their rivals into the ground before they are put there themselves. But what Pac points out here is that these people that seem to be rivals are actually his family. They are same people that grew up with him experiencing a problem common to all of their lives: poverty and competition over scraps. But again, he’s trapped and can’t come to peace with himself over his desire to put them in the back of a hearse to make sure he stays alive himself. He ends the verse by saying that its difficult to identify with those who blame the white man when men who look like him end up being the most dangerous.
Again, we see alienation in action. Young men who should see each other as family are pitted against each other in a battle to the death to make sure they aren’t the next one laid up in a coffin. However, with every effect there is a root cause. Its a system of exchange that sucks communities so dry that situations like Pac’s arise every minute. Poverty is a destructive force created by capitalism that will consume human beings no matter their color or creed and turn their lives into a deformed existence where people live like animals in fear of each other. When you force people into competition to merely survive against the odds, its not hard to imagine that people will kill each other to live one more day.
And all my memories, of seein brothers bleed,
And everybody grieves, but still nobody sees,
Recollect your thoughts don’t get caught up in the mix,
Cause the media is full of dirty tricks,
Only God can judge me.
The last line of this verse sums up the feelings of anyone who grows up being portrayed on the news as “thugs and killers”. The words tattooed on Pac’s stomach (Thug Life) meant to many people in mainstream media a glorification of a life of wanton murder and flaunted crime. However, it represented something much deeper that they intentionally miss in order to mislead from the real problem: the life of someone caught up in the poverty capitalism creates. It was never meant to convey an image of how cool it was to be a gangster, it was a defiant statement that no one could judge him or his life without acknowledging what creates gangsters in the first place. Amidst a life full of memories of blood and loss in this cruel world, everyone cries and expresses their sorrow. However, no one ever sees the foundation of reasons for all of this senseless violence. Its the same problem Pac warns against, a media that doesn’t attempt to understand his image and instead demonizes him and causes the black people to internalize their woes and blame themselves instead of looking out and identifying what really hurts them. The only thing left to do is collect your thoughts and remember not to get caught up in this campaign of misdirection. He reminds us that the only person who can judge you is someone who can see everything in your life that has happened to you up to this point, and caused you to be the person they see.
How did it come to this? I wish they didn’t miss,
Somebody help me, tell me where to go from here,
Cause even Thugs cry, but do the Lord care?
Try to remember, but it hurts,
I’m walkin through the cemetery talkin to the, dirt.
Pac paints a picture of what its like to be lost like a child, especially in a world that is told to hate you for what you are. To be so desperate that you wish your would be killers would have been just a little more true with their aim is the state of desperation he is pushed into. He reminds us that even thugs like him who the media portrays as bloody killers can shed tears in sadness, but there isn’t any guarantee that the even the highest authority will recognize their penance for the things they have done. These are the things Pac thinks about while walking through the graveyard filled with bodies of people he once knew and now mourns for.
For instance say a playa hatin’ mark is out to kill ya,
Would you be wrong, for buckin’ a nigga to the pavement?
It be them same motherfuckers that’ll rush up in yo place to get your safe,
Knowing you on that paper chase.
Tupac’s partner in this piece is rapper 4-Tay, who in light of Pac’s point asks whether if it is acceptable to kill a man in a preemptive action to prevent him from killing you. 4-Tay describes the situation as tangling with the same people who, sensing any weakness at all wouldn’t hesitate to break down your door and find your funds. These are the types of decisions that people struggle with in this very real world. Should I kill, or should I prepare to be killed? That same death sentence Pac carries on his head is the same one 4-Tay describes with these words, since the choice of prison or death is bleak either way and presents no real solution to escape this tight situation.
No more hesitation each and every black male’s trapped,
And they wonder why we suicidal runnin round strapped,
Mista, Po-lice, please try to see that it’s
a million motherfuckers stressin just like me,
Only God can judge me.
Police hate you. Your rivals might as well hate you. Society demonizes you. There is no rest from these facts when you live it. Even a cornered animal will lash out in fear, and human beings are not so highly evolved that we are disconnected from this reflex. Pac asks the police to stop for a minute and empathize with these concerns. He tries to point out that he’s just one of millions of other brothers out there ready to lay it all on the line to escape this cursed place. Instead of punishment as a means of change, he implies that getting to the root of this fatal stress causing him to lash out is the key to ending this senseless violence he sees in the community of young men who are so caged in that they respond to every problem with a gun. After all, why hesitate when you have nothing to lose anymore, when life isn’t worth living in the first place? Again, he knows only God can faithfully judge him since no one but he and the Lord can understand the material conditions that created him and those who follow in this lifestyle. Abolishing these conditions of existence is the key to saving the next generation from this trap that has already swallowed him alive.
Man becomes ever poorer… [His] need for money becomes greater if he wants to overpower hostile being…
Karl Marx “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts”
These are the words of Karl Marx in 1844. He explains that capitalism drives human beings into becoming poorer, and poorer. Marx would understand why both Pac and 4-Tay both are on a chase for money, and why it seems that their need only gets bigger as the hostile forces in their environment conspire to take them to the grave or to prison. After all, what else can people in poverty hope to cure their condition with if not money? This is one of the inherent problems in capitalism. We all recognize that money is the root of all evil, and yet at the same time money is the same tool capitalism tells us will cure our problems. Get more money, acquire more materials and you too can escape your situation no matter who you are. Right?
Wrong. Within this simple suggestion to get more money is the dilemma Tupac and the young men he speaks for faces every hour of every day. The jobs available to them can barely feed them and their families, not to mention that these jobs present absolutely no hope for any kind of realization of the typical “American Dream”. Their schools are sub par and they fall through the cracks in a society that is all too happy to turn the other way because their lives happen to be sufficient. What is a person to do? Where do you turn? There are only so many options in a situation like that, and a life of crime slinging drugs always looks enticing to young people who see their older siblings and cousins with cash in hand and a chain around their neck due to money made off of the misery of their peers. And if they can’t succeed in dealing, there is always robbery and theft. Society asks them to simply acquire more money, and they faithfully follow this mantra the only way they know how. Yet, they are punished and killed for it rather than rewarded.
When you strip people to the very core of their being, you take away any option of hope they have for the future. The rhymes Tupac writes paints a good picture for the rest of us who have never been stripped so bare of their humanity or alienated so thoroughly by the world they see around them. At the same time he condemns a society that would judge him and his peers before asking how they can help. Lastly, he recommends we step back and take a better look at the monstrous “thugs” we are so quick to write off after being complicit in their creation.