Poetry, Power and Pistols. In part one of our new article series, Heart Of An Outlaw, we explore the poetry of the young Tupac Shakur
In 1988, Tupac Shakur aged seventeen, moved from Baltimore, where he had been studying at the Baltimore School of Arts, to Marin City California. It was here a year later that he met Leila Steinberg., who would become his first manager. Leila at the time ran a weekly poetry workshop at her house, in which the young Tupac would attend.
At the workshop, which later became known as The Microphone Sessions, members would write, read and discuss all things poetry. When he attended her class, Leila actively encouraged Tupac to pursue his vision and voice. She would give a topic each week for the class to talk about and base their poems on that subject. His passion for books and knowledge inspired others around him. He attended local schools with Leila, where he would rap and teach poetry.
At this point in Tupac’s life, he had already experienced poverty and homelessness first hand. For example when the family was living in Baltimore, Tupac came home from school one day angry and embarrassed as his school peers were teasing him because of his second hand clothes, calling him names because he didn’t have the latest sneakers (As a side note, when Afeni found out, she took three shiny pennies from her purse and a crumpled up, old looking hundred-dollar bill and put them on the table in front of her son and asked him to choose between the bill or the shiny pennies, Tupac chose the bill.
His mother explained to him that the decision to take the bill was because he saw its true value and he wasn’t fooled by the shine. It was from this very lesson that inspired Tupac to get an old pair of jeans and denim jacket, cut them up and add graffiti art and an MC New York logo)
His family were targeted by the US government for involvement with the Black Panthers, constantly being harassed by the Police. On top of that he saw his Queen, his mum Afeni,, struggle with drug addiction. Going through all of this, the young Tupac felt anger towards the system, He constantly kept a notebook with him, writing his feelings and thoughts down. Some of that emotion and hurt can be found in the poetry that he wrote at this time. Below you can see a few of these poems, handwritten by Tupac.
In 1999, three years after Tupac was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, a book was put out to the world that would show a side of Tupac that only those close to him knew. This book was called ‘The Rose That Grew from Concrete’. The title is taken from one of the first poems that Tupac ever wrote. The book contains over 100 poems written by Tupac and has a poem for almost every situation and emotion.
The book would be inspiration to an album of the same name released a year after the poems surfaced. The album features a host of artists and people who knew Tupac personally reading and performing his poetry, some of which include Dead Prez, Q-Tip, Jasmine Guy, Mos Def and The Outlawz.
Lets take a closer look at the poem ‘The Rose That Grew from Concrete’ you can see it above, taken from Tupac’s notebook and below
Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack
in the concrete
Proving nature’s laws wrong it learned 2 walk
without having feet
Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams
it learned 2 breathe fresh air
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else even cared!
The rose symbolizes somebody who has experienced struggle, but has conquered all obstacles. The concrete is the struggle, poverty and hurt. When he says ‘Proving nature’s laws wrong’ how many times are you going to come across a rose in a vast space of concrete? Nature does not allow that to happen. What Pac’ was saying was that he made it out of the poverty, homelessness and dark days, a kid from the ghetto who had to wear second hand clothes because of the extreme poverty, a kid who read Shakespeare under the streetlight as they had no electric.
This kid sprang out from nowhere in the middle of the dirty concrete, screaming that he has made it and through all the dark times, he kept his dreams alive by believing in himself. This poem has been an inspiration to millions of people worldwide and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Leila Steinberg summed up Tupac’s collection of poems “I wanted to get the book published while he was still alive,” says Steinberg. “I’d been reading those poems in classroom workshops for years. I’d open an assembly to 2,000 kids by reading the Tupac poem “Lady Liberty Needs Glasses” and have kids talk about what he meant by that. There are now classes at every Ivy League school on Tupac! Two hundred years from now when people want to understand what was happening in race, politics and music, they will study Tupac.”