The Ideas of the Panthers Live on in Hip-Hop (Part One)

Black Panther Party for Self-Defense

Note: this is the abridged version of a larger piece of work by the same name.

By: Kelvin Criss

“Black Power to black people, Brown Power to brown people, Yellow Power to yellow people, all Power to all People”- Huey P. Newton

Critical Literature Review

“How could Reagan live in a White House, which has a lot of rooms, and there be homelessness? And he’s talking about helping. I don’t believe that there is anyone that is going hungry in America simply by reason of denial or lack of ability to feed them. It is by people not knowing where or how to get this help. Why can’t he take people off the street and put them in his White House? Then he’ll have people from the streets to help him with his ideas. Not helpless! Homeless! Not helpless! They haven’t been homeless forever. They’ve done things in society. The White House would be tainted because he doesn’t want to get dirty.” –Tupac Shakur, 1988 Interview

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was created to not only protect the people from police brutality but to also work with the community to overcome social problems. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense organize community services such as the Free Breakfast for Children program, history classes open to the community and Free Health Clinics. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense’s greatest contribution was freeing the people. The Panthers freed the people from fearing the government, from being afraid to speak out against “their” government. Even though the Black Panther Party for Self Defense disbanded, it is clear that their ideas have not been left behind.

The Start of “Black Music” Affecting Politics

Africans have shaped much of today’s music. Rock n’ Roll originated from the music that African slaves made. It progressed to jazz music, which was highly influential to the victory of the allies during World War II. James L. Conyers Jr.’s Engines of the Black Power Movement: Essays on the Influence of Civil Rights Actions, Arts, and Islam contains a chapter entitled “Jazz Musicians in Europe 1919-1945,” which was written by Larry Ross. Ross explains that the German Luftwaffe (German Air Force) planes contained radios. Nazi fighter pilots would often listen to “African-American jazz musicians in their planes on the BBC radio station, and the anti-Nazi propaganda they heard undermined their resolve to fight against the allies.” The Nazi party banned all jazz records due to the musicians being black, however the German people used many techniques to smuggle the records in. Ross explains that, “during World War II to obtain African-American jazz recordings that had been banned by Goebbels, included putting Johann Sebastian Bach labels on Duke Ellington albums and selling them in local record shops.” This was certainly not the last time that “black music” would be used to undermine the “enemy.” However later in the century the enemy would shift from a foreign power to a domestic power.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s Impact on Tupac Shakur

Michael Eric Dyson’s Holler If You Hear Me discusses in great depth not only Tupac’s childhood but also his mother, Afeni Shakur, as both a “black revolutionary” and as an “addicted mother.” Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt said Tupac was, “born into the movement.” He explains the hardships of being deprived of a “stable home in his adolescence,” how it shaped his view of himself as a maturing teen and how his art “reflected the existential agonies he encountered as a result of her troubles.” Being a “second-generation Black Panther, Tupac was constantly approached at school by the FBI seeking the whereabouts of his stepfather Mutulu Shakur.” Afeni Shakur was not the only Black Panther that Tupac met; much of his family were Panthers as well. However, Afeni said that Tupac, “really didn’t have a lot of respect for [the other members of the Panthers]…Because he was a child who was there. He knew what they did and what they didn’t do. I never lied to my kids…for better or for worse.” Tupac resented that, “Many male Panthers chose, or were forced, to leave behind children and women. The government’s repressive techniques destroyed many activist black families.” Essentially, Tupac blamed the Black Panthers themselves for choosing to be activists, which led the FBI and other government agencies to destroy their family.

Dyson went so far to say that, “Tupac’s career was best imagined in strictly political terms: Rapping was race war by other means.” Dyson also goes on to say that, “but even as he [Tupac] exchanged revolutionary self-seriousness for the Thug Life, he never embraced the notion that the Panthers were emblematic of political self-destruction. To be sure, Tupac saw Thug Life extending Panther beliefs in self-defense and class rebellion.” After Tupac moved to California, he quickly got mixed in with gangs and began to, “live the life he rapped” about. Afeni believed that this was because, “in Tupac’s eyes, ‘not only was [the] revolution not paying the bills, but it was causing a great deal of disaster for me’” and this led to Tupac’s capitalistic philosophy. Eventually, “Tupac appeared to forgo the traditional meanings of revolution in favor of the thorny ambivalence of thug culture,” which is why you can see distinctions and similarities between Thug Life and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s ideology. “On the one hand, the thug embraced the same secular teleology that ran through revolutionary rhetoric: Flipping the economic order was the reason for social rebellion. Thugs are a product of unequal social relations” (p.64).

Dyson successfully and fully explains Tupac’s revolutionary roots. He shows the connection between his revolutionary family and his mother’s drug addiction. This addiction is the part of his life that leads him towards Thug Life.

Connections Between Tupac’s Lyrics and the Ideas of the Black Panther Party

Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred L. Johnson III, PhD wrote Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon, which shows how the ideas of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense’s ideas are reflected in Tupac’s music. It is deeper than just the lyrics of his song, but the whole Thug Life “movement.”

McQuillar and Johnson III talk about Tupac’s first solo album Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z., which Source magazine declared to be, “a combination of ‘60s black political thought and ‘90s urban reality.” When asked about the album, Tupac said, “I rap about fighting back.” The song “Holla If Ya Hear Me” excoriated sellouts and told Vice President Dan Quayle that Tupac wouldn’t be silenced, and urged black men to “pump your fists if you’re pissed.” The authors of the book discuss how “Keep Ya Head Up” is in support of welfare mothers that the media named “welfare queens.” Tupac “mostly communicated that women didn’t have to accept abuse or ill treatment just because they were poor.” His next albums would be just as meaningful as this one.

Chapter 25 of McQuillar and Johnson III’s book, entitled “A Shooting In Atlanta,” describes Tupac’s arrest for shooting two off-duty police officers. Tupac saw, “two white men harassing a black motorist at an intersection.” Tupac noted that, “the old southern rules were in full play.” Maurice Harding (Mutulu’s birth son from his original marriage) was in the car behind Tupac’s and said that Tupac asked the officers if there was a problem. In return, they advised him to get back into his vehicle, which he did. The officers then, “smashed the window with one of the guns they had” from the harassed motorist. It was then that Tupac got out of his car and, “dropped to one knee and he shot them both in their butts.” This is a prime example of Panther ideology, protecting the community, and patrolling the police.

Keep up with Bonus Cut and its continual look on the ideas of the Black Panthers in hip-hop every week in this four part installment.

Work Cited

Conyers, James L. Engines of the Black Power Movement: Essays on the Influence of Civil Rights Actions, Arts, and Islam. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 2006. Print.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. New York: Oxford University, 1996. Print.

Dyson, Michael Eric. Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. New York: Basic Civitas, 2001. Print.

McQuillar, Tayannah Lee, and Freddie Lee. Johnson. Tupac Shakur: the Life and times of an American Icon. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2010. Print.

Tupac Shakur. 2Pacalypse Now. Rec. June-September 1991. Atron Gregory, 1991. CD.

Tupac Shakur. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Rec. January-March 1993. Atron Gregory, 1993. CD.

Tupac Shakur. “Changes.” Rec. 1992. Changes. 1998. Song.

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4 thoughts on “The Ideas of the Panthers Live on in Hip-Hop (Part One)

  1. […] Note: this is part two of a four part series. You can read part one here. […]

  2. […] this is part three of a four part series. You can read part one here and part two […]

  3. […] on the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and its relation to hip-hop. You can read part one here, part two here and part three […]

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