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From folk music, to the protest songs of the 1960’s, lyrics have reflected times of political and social turmoil. Most of this music begins as poems, from the songwriter’s head to the page. The poetry is a representation of an individual’s view and life experiences. A form of poetry that concentrates on social issues is rap. According to the Handbook of Poetic Terms, by Ron Padgett, “Raps are usually stories about life in the inner city-street life, hard times, drugs, or personal relationships-and often take an instructional tone, peppered with ultra-contemporary slang” (Padgett 146) Tupac Shakur is an artist that incorporated some of these aspects into his music. His song “Changes” reflects some aspects of traditional poetry, yet its modern voice cries out for societal change. The song covers issues of history, inner-city violence, racism, drugs, and poverty. Shakur uses poetic devices such as alliteration, assonance, allusion, onomatopoeia, and repetition to show problems in black America. While drawing on the poetic elements of rhythm, rhyme and wordplay; his song “Changes” draw on his personal experiences and sets the dual theme for change and resistance to change, in an underclass society of people who are affected by social injustice and hopelessness.
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In order to understand the music of Tupac Shakur, it is important to examine some background about the artist himself. Tupac Amaru Shakur was born in New York, 1971 to Afeni Shakur. During her pregnancy, she was imprisoned because of her association with the Black Panther Party. In Tayannah McQuillar and Fred Johnson’s Tupac Shakur, Shakur talks about growing up with Afeni stating, “The term ‘black power’ was “like a lullaby when I was a kid” (39). After a short time in New York, Shakur’s family moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1984. According to Tupac: Resurrection, “Baltimore has the highest rate of teen pregnancy, the highest rate of AIDS within the black community, the highest rate of teen suicide, and the highest rate of blacks killing blacks â€¦..and this is where we chose to live” (34). During this time, Afeni sent Tupac to the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he excelled in classes and established a foundation for his creativity (45). Even though Tupac loved school, he hated being poor. On that he states, “Growing up in America -I loved my childhood but I hated growing up poor, and it made me very bitter. We live in hell. We live in the gutter, a war zone” (54). After spending four years in Baltimore, the family moved again, this time to Oakland, California in 1988. In Oakland, Tupac began hanging around with drug dealers, pimps and criminals because he felt closer to them than he felt to his own father. His own mother became addicted to crack cocaine, and he tried for a little while to sell drugs to make money. Ironically, the same drug dealers that he was hanging out with convinced him that the drug game wasn’t for him; and they encouraged him to follow his dreams of becoming a writer and rapper. He states:
That’s what I’m going to do as an artist, as a rapper. I’m gonna show the most graphic details of what I see in my community and hopefully they’ll stop it quick. I’ve seenâ€¦the crack babies, what we had to go through, losing everything, being poor, and getting beat downâ€¦being the person I am, I said no no no no no. I’m changing this. (70).
Tupac followed his dreams and joined a group called “The Digital Underground.” The group had some run-ins with the police, and Tupac was sent to jail where he was beaten by the officers. He claimed that he had no prior police record before making a record, and he called the scars he obtained in jail “â€¦scars I will go to my grave with. All this is learn-to-be-a-nigga scars” (80). Despite this incident, Tupac was successful enough to move to Hollywood in 1992. Here, he became an actor in movies like Juice, Poetic Justice, and Above the Rim. It was also during this time that Tupac created a code to live by called “Thug Life” Thug life is a representation of the underdog in society, but “â€¦doesn’t have anything to do with the dictionary definition of a thug” (122). “Thug Life” caused a lot of political controversy. As a result, police blamed Tupac for leading a street revolution which caused violence in the rap world. Tupac went through many trails and tribulation due to his fame. He was accused of rape, shot five times, and finally landed in prison in 1995. It was in prison where Tupac learned that people are a product of their environment; he states, “My inspiration was gone because I was a caged animal.” (156). In prison, he wrote poetry, letters, and even a screen play that in production and will be released in 2011.However, he only wrote one song in jail. After prison, he signed with Death Row Records. In 1996, Tupac Shakur was shot and killed in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, no one has ever found his killer. In comparison to Elvis Presley, some people believe that Tupac Shakur is still alive. Although some of his music called for change, a lot of his music played a part in establishing rivals in the east and west coast rap game. Many believe that the music of east and west coast rappers caused the deaths of Tupac Shakur and rival rapper Notorious B.I.G. Despite what some people say about Tupac and the mysteries surrounding his death, it is easy to see his life and struggles within his poetic rap lyrics.
One way that Shakur lives on is through his music, poetry and movies. “Changes” is a great example of this, since it was released after Shakur died. The first verse sets the dual theme for the entire song, change and resistance to change. “Changes” was released in 1996 and is a rap remake of Bruce Hornsby’s song “That’s Just the Way it is” which was written in 1986. Hornsby’s song is about problems with the welfare system and civil rights issues. Although Tupac changes the lyrics, he keeps the phrase “that’s just the way it is” within the chorus. Both songs question the separation of the lower class from the rest of society. Both offer many reasons, but Shakur blames this separation on the government and the structure of the class system as a whole. He shows the dire state of poor black America, sometimes deemed the lower or underclass by the class system and the media. This separation or “underclass” of society developed because slavery and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. Urban youth realize that there are still black areas of town, black clubs and black schools. The problem is that most of this “underclass” consists of minorities, not white people. In addition, television, movies and even some music all portrays “young thugs” that are ignorant, ruthless and uncaring. Tupac wanted to make people aware that if they unite, they can make a change together. However, he also realized that this dream is pretty unrealistic at the same time. Even though things are changing, we must ask if things are changing for the better. Ultimately, the social, economic and educational barriers between the underclass and mainstream society need to be broken before a better understanding is achieved.
This “underclass” society is affected a world of poverty, racism, unbalanced prisons, drugs, and learned helplessness. When kids grow up thinking they are part of the “underclass,” hopelessness results. Images of guns, gang-banging, and immorality cause children to grow up thinking that they have limited options. The first stanza comments on this hopeless feeling and asks a powerful question: I see no changes wake up in the morning and I ask myself/Is life worth living should I blast myself?” The verse continues with “I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black/My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch” which is a comment on poverty and hunger in our inner cities. Shakur is letting his readers know that the underclass is suffering so bad from hunger and poverty, that sometimes resorting to crime is the only way to survive. He even questions if life is truly worth living in the ghetto. He goes on to comment on how cops treat the underclass stating:
Cops give a damn about a Negro
Pull the trigger kill a nigga he’s a hero
Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares
One less hungry mouth on the welfare
First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal the brothers
Give ’em guns step back watch ’em kill each other
Shakur is implying that cops are corrupt and even ship in drugs to the streets for people to deal. As a result of drugs and money, people end up killing each other. Sort of an urban revolutionary figure, Tupac suggested another type of life. He had a code that he lived by called “Thug Life,” which was like a street constitution. Shakur was known for his conspiracy theories against the government and his opinions about law enforcement were probably heavily influenced by his mother. As a result, Tupac grew up learning and witnessing the economic oppression of black people by the government. He wanted to stand up and fight for a new way of living, and a way to fight back against the oppressor. This is presented throughout the next line of the song: “It’s time to fight back that’s what Huey said/two shots in the dark now Huey’s dead.” Huey Newton was the founder of the American Black Panther Party. He is an example of a black man that tried to take a stand for what he believed in, but ended up getting shot doing it. This establishes irony in the poem because it is very possible that Tupac died because of his own revolutionary way of thinking.
In the second verse, Tupac reminds us that even though he wanted the world to change, it won’t. Using assonance to describe racism, Tupac continues: “I see no changes all I see is racist faces/Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races” Although the song is about change, Shakur realizes that no change will ever be made unless people unite and stop hating each other. However, this is only a pipe dream, since racism and hatred will always exist. The reason why it will always exist is the unbalanced social class system. Aspects of the unjust social system permeate state prisons. Shakur touches on this using alliteration to get his point across: “It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact/The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.” It is problematic that there are more black people in prison than there are whites. Lois Tyson states in Critical Theory Today:
the misconception held by many white Americans that a disproportionate number of African Americans are criminals, in other words, that criminality is an African American traitâ€¦It takes only five grams of crack cocaine (used predominately by black Americans) to trigger a five-year mandatory prison sentence. However, it takes five hundred grams of powder cocaine (used predominately by white Americans) to trigger that same five-year mandatory prison sentence. Discriminatory laws like these draw attention to the use of drugs in poor black neighborhoods, a situation that has resulted in increased police surveillance in these areas, while drug use in white neighborhoods is largely ignored. In fact, in the United States the majority of drug users (of all kinds) are white. Yet, the majority of prisoners are black (368).
Drugs are a problem in inner cities because it provides corruptible young people with a way to make easy money. In addition, society cannot solely blame the parents because plenty of kids learn the dope game from their friends even though they were always taught the “stay in school” speech at home. According to Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes, “Hip hop emerged out of urban poverty to become one of the most vital cultural forces of the past centuryâ€¦in defiance of inferior educational opportunities and poor housing standards, a generation of young people-mostly black and brown-conceived innovation in rhythm, rhyme, and wordplayâ€¦” (Bradley xiv). Tupac continues to illustrate this frustration in “Changes” saying:
But some things will never change
Try to show another way but you stayin’ in the dope game
Now tell me what’s a mother to do
Bein’ real don’t appeal to the brother in you
You gotta operate the easy way
“I made a G today” But you made it in a sleazy way
Sellin crack to the kids. “I gotta get paid,”
Well hey, that’s the way it is
Shakur used internal rhyme to place emphasis on his words. The use of “today” and “way” related to the point that some young kids would rather be paid to by a crew than get a 9-5 job. With limited opportunities due to a lack of education, kids feel like selling drugs is an easier way to live life. Furthermore, due to the environment that some of these kids grow up in, some sell drugs because they have no other choice. Stealing, selling drugs or killing to feed yourself or your family becomes a necessity in a “kill or be killed” world. In the refrain just before the last verse, Tupac states:
It’s time for use as a people to start makin some changes,
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
And let’s change the way we treat each other
You said the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
What we gotta do, to survive
The repetition of the phrase “I still see no changes” starts off the last verse of the song. Shakur uses the poetic device of allusion to compare the issues in the street to the crisis in the Middle East in the 1990’s. What is interesting is that both the Middle Eastern conflicts and inner city conflicts have only worsened since then. Shakur mentions war in this verse: “its war on the streets and the war in the Middle East/Instead of war on poverty they got a war on drugs/So the police can bother me.” He continues with the protest theme stating:
And I aint never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts givin it back to you
Don’t let em jack you up, back you up,
Crack you up and pimp smack you up
This is relative to Shakur’s life in dealing with the police. Because he was raised knowing about the inequality from the 1960’s and the civil rights movement, Shakur felt like the war on drugs was a war against poor people. This problem remains today. Robert Lee asserts in his text Multicultural American Literature, “The years since the 1960’s carry the ongoing accusation of city ghetto, drugs, gang culture, and a black prison population as disproportionate as was black frontline soldiery in Vietnam. Black rural poverty, in Mississippi as in the rest of the Deep South remains fact. Rankles persist over discriminationâ€¦” (69). Issues like that are not echoes of the past; they are still rampant in our society. Drugs and violence exists in the black inner-city more nowadays than ever. When urban youth realize that they separated in these social and judicial systems, it creates learned helplessness. Learned helplessness breeds a reoccurring cycle of laziness, reliance on a welfare system, and decreased motivation. Although drugs are a major issue in society, they will never go away. Shakur uses repetition with the words “war,” and “back” throughout his song. The last part of the song remains the most powerful. It also provides the song with an ironic twist of fate:
And as long as I stay black I gotta stay strapped
And I never get to lay back
Cause I always got to worry bout the pay backs
Some punk that I roughed up all these years
Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat that’s the way it is
Rivals gunned down Tupac Shakur several time in his life. However, the last shot killed him. Authorities never found the murderer, and it just may have been someone he fought with long ago. Shakur uses onomatopoeia comparing the “Rat-tat-tat-tat-tat” sound in the last line of the song to a gun. Ironically, producers released this song after Tupac’s death. It seems like a posthumous message for today’s inner city youth. This song calls for change, but realizes that change may never be made. However, it is hard to deny that the song is powerful and it resembles protest songs with an urban twist, except instead of Vietnam, the war and change that Shakur speaks of is right here on the inner city streets of American society. The white man controls most of the majority and learned helplessness is a product of that. Segregation still exists in our media, our prisons, and our social environments
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Strand and Boland indicate in The Making of a Poem that open forms “â€¦give a temporary, poignant shelter to both past and future: that both strain at the bonds of the customs and conventions of historic form and yet, paradoxically, renew them by engaging them so thoroughly” (260). Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” is a song that reflects the social problems of the past and of today; it echoes traditional poetic forms in some conventions- but gives a contemporary voice. Bradley asserts in Book of Rhymes that:
Rather than resembling the dominant contemporary form of free verse-or even the freeform structure of its hip-hop cousin, spoken word, or slam poetry, rap bears a stronger affinity to some of poetry’s oldest forms, such as the strong stress meter of Beowulf and the ballad stanzas of the bardic past. As in metrical verse, the lengths of rap’s lines are governed by established rhythms-in rap’s case, the rhythm and the beat itself” (xv).
The tone that begs for change in his lyrics is one of duality. On one hand, some people know that they need to unite to prevent problems associated with drugs and violence in their community. On the other hand, some people choose a life of drug dealing and easy money and abuse the welfare system because they have no other inspiration in a society that doesn’t provide them with motivation to change. Shakur uses a number of poetic devices such as assonance, alliteration, allusion, onomatopoeia, and repetition to reveal his various themes. His use of couplets and rhyme scheme (aabbccddeeffgghi) play a parallel part in keeping to the rhythm of his song. Although the meter varies throughout the song, the way he enunciates his words and his pitch balances out his rhythm. This is easier to hear than read, what can be emphasized in a song is sometimes hard to emphasize on paper. Another aspect of the song that cannot be read, and can only be heard is the melodic voices that resemble a church choir in the refrain. His tone of voice throughout the song is pleading, yet leaves a feeling a hopelessness that things will never change. The theme of change, the history of social injustice, drugs and violence in the inner cities are all subjects that reflect Shakur’s personal experiences. Tupac Shakur is a human “open form” because even posthumously, people are realizing that both his rap and poetry “â€¦.is a continuum, and not a finished product” (260). Using rap as a form of poetry was a way for Tupac Shakur to implore to the people in troubled urban communities to wake up and see the tragic reality surrounding them.
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