Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur Davis, died Monday at the age of 69.
Davis had a long history as an activist and was a member of the Black Panthers, but unless you were particularly up on the history of Black Power Revolution movements in America, you were probably introduced to Afeni via Tupac‘s 1995 hit “Dear Mama.”
“Dear Mama” is the perfect example of what Rolling Stone described as Tupac’s “stark contradictions,” in particular his habit of “setting misogyny against praise of strong women.” It was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2010, marking it as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” recording.
Thanks to lyric-annotating site Genius, we can take a closer look at how Tupac’s song described their lives together and dig deeper into the autobiographical details it provides.
“When I was young, me and my mama had beef / 17 years old, kicked out on the streets”
Davis moved Tupac and his half-sister Sekyiwa around frequently during his childhood, from the Bronx and Harlem to Baltimore, Maryland. Eventually, they settled with a family friend in Marin County, California. That was when Tupac “just started soaking up gang,” a Marin City man named Freaky Freddie explained to The New York Times when Shakur died in 1996, “hanging around a certain element.” Tupac never graduated from Tamalpais High School in Marin, leaving Davis, who was battling an addiction to crack cocaine, to pursue music full-time in the late 1980s.
“I shed tears with my baby sister, over the years / We was poorer than the other little kids”
Sekyiwa and Tupac were close growing up. “We were our mother’s only children, and we grew up in poverty,” she told AllHipHop.com. “Needless to say, it was a family connection, it was us two and mommy; we needed to survive out here.”
“And even as a crack fiend, mama / You always was a black queen, mama”
Davis first snorted cocaine at 15. By 1984, when Tupac was 13, she developed an addiction to crack, which continued until she moved back to New York City and enrolled in Narcotics Anonymous, eventually getting clean towards the end of 1991. Her addiction precipitated her fallout with Tupac, but the pair reconciled after she got clean.
“No love from my daddy cause the coward wasn’t there / He passed away and I didn’t cry, ’cause my anger wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger”
Shakur’s father, Billy Garland, didn’t appear in his son’s life until Tupac was shot in 1994. Prior to that, he’d assumed he was dead. “After I got shot, I looked up there was this n—- that looked just like me,” Shakur said in Vibe magazine’s biography of Tupac. “And he was my father; that’s when I found out.”
“I ain’t guilty cause even though I sell rocks / It feels good putting money in your mailbox”
In 2012, Davis recalled to XXL that, nine months into her recovery program, Shakur sent her a check for $5,000. “He had not been giving me any money, ’cause he knew I was using,” she explained. “So that was huge.”
“But now the road got rough, you’re alone / You’re trying to raise 2 bad kids on your own”
Davis told PEOPLE in 1997 that she rarely saw Garland after Tupac was conceived; she referred to him variously as “garbage,” a “gold digger” and the “designated sperm donor.” As Tupac turned to crime in high school, his half-sister Sekyiwa was having troubles of her own: Six months after she won a beauty pageant in high school (“something like the Black Nubian Queen”) at 16 or 17, she got pregnant. “I was a fat baby mama, living the life of a fat baby mama,” she elaborated.
“You never kept a secret, always stayed real”
“I live with truth. I have no secrets,” Davis told hip-hop journalist Davey D in 1997. “Neither did Tupac, neither does my daughter. We don’t live behind secrets, we don’t live lies, we are who we are, and we are pretty happy to be who we are.”
“Dear Mama” never lost its emotional punch with Tupac’s fans, nor with its subject. “Can I listen to it without crying?” Davis asked PEOPLE in 1997. “No. It gets worse every time. It gets harder, it really does. That song gets deeper and deeper.”