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“You take a lemon and you make lemonade,” said Afeni Shakur Davis, speaking in Weston, Florida, at the Trayvon Martin Foundation’s first ever Circle of Mothers Retreat in May 2014—not quite two years before her death, at 69, of an apparent heart attack on May 2, 2016. “I’m excited to be around a group of women who have had to smile even though their hearts were fractured forevermore.”
Before she took the podium to a hearty round of applause, Shakur and her audience listened to an a cappella version of “Dear Mama,” a brutally honest, bittersweet song of love and devotion made famous by her son, Tupac Amaru Shakur.
And even as a crack fiend, mama
You always was a black queen, mama
I finally understand
For a woman it ain't easy trying to raise a man
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how ya did it
There's no way I can pay you back
But the plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated.
One of Pac’s best loved records, the chart-topping, certified platinum single from his 1995 album, Me Against the World, became a consensus hip-hop classic that was inducted into the Library of Congress in 2010—14 years after Tupac was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip at the age of 25.
“Dear Mama” would also serve as most people’s introduction to a woman who will be forever remembered as a famous rapper’s mother, although she was much more. In a Shakur family statement, she was described as an “outspoken and eloquent advocate for today’s youth” who was “committed to building a more peaceful world.” This may seem a strange epitaph for a former member of the Black Panther 21, a group of radical activists who were arrested in 1969 and charged with no fewer than 156 charges—including bombing, arson, and attempted murder. Then again, she was acquitted of all charges against her.
“I don’t want you to think that your heart is gonna heal,” Shakur told the audience of grieving mothers at the Circle of Mothers Retreat, all of whom had lost a child to violence. “If someone told you that, they told you an untruth. Your heart will not heal. But we ain’t healed from slavery either. Right? We don’t heal from these unspeakable pains. Don’t tell me with this scab on my soul that I can be healed. You’re a liar. I cannot be healed. But what can happen, is the devil—you, bad, evil—you don’t get a victory over me!”
Born Alice Faye Williams on January 10, 1947, in Lumberton, North Carolina, she moved to New York with her family as a teenager. “Please remember that my great grandmother was a slave,” she said in a 1997 TV interview taped shortly after her son’s murder. “My grandmother was a sharecropper. My mother was a factory worker.”
Alice Faye changed her name to Afeni after joining the Black Panther Party. Her occupation was listed as “writer.” There are no pictures of Afeni Shakur in the 1960s brandishing rifles. “As the section leader of the Harlem branch, Afeni was the one who personally welcomed many of us into the party,” an official statement from the Panthers explained. “As the communications secretary, she was one of the highest ranking members on the East Coast and her leadership was the reason many young women joined. Afeni had a deep and profound love for the community and a passion for the people that made her a dynamic organizer and dedicated activist. She embodied the spirit of what it meant to be a Black Panther, waking up at 5 a.m. to cook for the free breakfast program, coordinating the day-to-day office duties and personally being in the field.” One black-and-white photo shows her with smooth skin and wide-open eyes, holding a 35mm camera with silver film canisters attached to the strap.
At age 22 she was arrested by heavily armed NYPD officers and charged as part of the Panther 21, indicted on April Fool’s Day 1969 of “conspiring to murder New York City policemen and dynamite five midtown department stores, a police precinct, six railroad rights-of-way, and the New York Botanical Gardens.” Mind you, none of these attacks ever took place, although dynamite sticks were found in at least three locations—some of it phony dynamite, and some of it tampered with by undercover police. Suspicions of a COINTELPRO set-up were not “just conspiracy theories.” Since the Black Panther Party’s founding in October 1966, their platform of free breakfast and community defense programs combined with a socialist/nationalist/paramilitary pro-black agenda had thoroughly freaked out mainstream America. Months after Shakur’s arrest, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared the organization “the greatest threat to internal security of the country.”
Like all members of the Panther 21, Shakur was held on $100,000 bail, which none of them were able to post. D.A. Frank Hogan presented a flimsy case, much of which was based on the testimony of pathological liar who also happened to be a paranoid schizophrenic. The jurors took just 90 minutes to deliberate, and another 20 minutes or so to ready the words “not guilty” 156 times—bombing (“Not guilty!”), arson (“Not guilty!”), attempted murder (“Not guilty!”)—as Afeni Shakur and Joan Bird, the other female defendant sobbed before marching out of the Manhattan Criminal Court Building on May 12, 1971. The pregnant defendant with the big black floppy hat apparently made quite an impression during the trial with her personal style. New York Magazine reported that one juror, Jim Butters, who was married to a model, remarked that Afeni dressed “better than my wife.”
Shortly after her release Shakur gave birth to a son, born Lesane Parish Crooks. He would later be renamed after Túpac Amaru II, a leader in the Peruvian struggle for independence against the Spanish. Before he became the most iconic rapper in history, Shakur's son would sometimes accompany his mother to fancy lunches on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This was the early 1970s, the era of “Radical Chic”—as Tom Wolfe dubbed the tendency of Manhattan socialites to throw cocktail parties in honor of Black Panthers and other political revolutionaries (or sometimes just plain gangsters) as proof of how hip and progressive they were.
Shakur did her best to ride the wave of post-trial notoriety for some time, making friends with some of the former jurors on her case, like book editor Ed Kennebeck, who considered publishing some of her children’s stories and verses—many of which were inspired by her son Parish, “who drooled beguilingly through the lunch,” according to New York Magazine.
Twenty years later young Parish would have the words “T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E.” tattooed across his torso, an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” Somewhere along the way the book plans fell through, the uptown luncheons stopped, and fragile hopes for a brighter future slipped away. Drifting away from the Panthers, she worked as a paralegal and tenant organizer, saving families from eviction and criminal charges. Somehow this small-town Southern girl with a combative spirit and a gift for writing and photography, ended up a homeless and drug dependent mother of two, enduring failed relationships and domestic violence—as detailed in the book, Evolution of a Revolutionary, which she co-wrote with her son’s friend Jasmine Guy. “I was running around with militants, trying to be badder than I was, trying to stay up later than I should,” she said in 2005.
Just as Tupac turned 13, Shakur enrolled him in Harlem’s 127th Street Ensemble Theater, calling it “the best thing I could’ve done in my insanity.” Cast as Travis Younger in the play A Raisin in the Sun, he performed at the Apollo. Years later, Shakur said of the ensemble: “Those people, I believe, saved his life.”
Her ex-husband Mutulu Shakur—the father of her daughter Sekyiwa—spent the mid 1980s on the FBI's list of 10 Most Wanted Fugitives. Pac’s biological father, Billy Garland, a member of the Jersey City Black Panthers, met Shakur at a strategy session and they had a brief affair. He remained out of the picture until much later. Tupac’s godfather, Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, had been convicted of murdering a school teacher during a 1968 robbery, although his attorney Johnny Cochran argued that he was 350 miles away on the night of the murder. After spending 27 years in prison Pratt’s sentence was overturned.
Every time they revived [Tupac], he just went back. And I asked them to leave him alone and to let him go.
In 1986, Shakur and her children relocated to Maryland, where Tupac attended the Baltimore School for the Arts, excelling in acting, poetry, jazz, and ballet. From reciting Shakespearean dialogue to dancing in The Nutcracker—as the dreaded Mouse King—Pac’s creative spirit was unleashed. When he wasn’t in art school he was known as “MC New York,” winning local rap competitions until 1988, when his family moved way out west to California’s Bay Area. It was there, while attending poetry classes and performing with the group Strictly Dope that Pac met Atron Gregory, who helped him land a gig as a roadie and backup dancer for Digital Underground.
Around this time he crossed paths with journalist, editor, and author Danyel Smith, who evoked Pac’s restless rebelliousness in a VIBE essay titled “Home At Last”: “If you were trying to adjust to the world and the ways it mistreated you, ‘Pac was a hard brother to be around. He was not trying to adjust. He was calling you out, grabbing you by the sleeve, taking you with him—on missions both stupid and shrewd. At least pretend to be real, he seemed to say. Sucka punk bitch, fuck these mothafuckas! I don’t give a fuck, is what he said.”
It was in California where Tupac staged an intervention of sorts, challenging his mother to get clean or else, and warning local dealers not to sell to her. “He asked me if I could handle it, and I said yeah because I'd been dipping and dabbing all my life,” she said after his death. “What pissed him off is that I lied to him.”
“I introduce myself by telling the truth,” Shakur said at that Trayvon Martin Circle of Mothers Retreat. “I am a recovering addict. Very grateful. Used drugs last in 1991. The lord gave me five years clean with my child. What greater gift? I’m grateful. I live in gratitude.”
By the time Tupac rapped about her addiction, she had already been clean for three years. “You have a right to express your feelings,” she replied when Bay Area rap journalist Davey D asked how she felt about “Dear Mama” and other personal lyrics. “I do not have to agree with them. I needed him to say how he felt, specifically about the pain that I had caused him.”
Shakur had her own fair share of pain, particularly in September of 1996, after her son was caught in a hail of bullets while rolling along the Vegas strip right beside his big homie, Death Row Records founder Marion “Suge” Knight. “When this happened I did not use drugs, I used God,” Shakur told the grieving mothers, connecting with the pain all of them shared. “And it worked. I don’t have an ounce of bitterness or hate in my heart—certainly not for the person who did this terrible thing.”
Her son lay in a coma for six days until the 13th of September, when she made a fateful decision. “The doctor came out and said that Tupac had stopped breathing three times, and they had revived him three times,” she recalled less than a year after Tupac’s murder. “Every time they revived him, he just went back. And I asked them to leave him alone and to let him go,” she said, wiping away tears. “I really felt it was important for Tupac, who fought so hard, to have a free spirit. I felt it was important for his spirit to be allowed to be free. And so I rejoiced with him, and with the release of his spirit. I rejoiced then and I rejoice now, when I’m not crying… He fought really gallantly but that was a little body. And that spirit needed to be released.”
Finding strength in her religious faith, Shakur let go of all her anger and turned impossible problems over to a higher power. “I believe that God takes care of all of those things,” she told the Circle of Mothers. “If I put that in His house, and say, ‘Now God that’s Your business. You’re gonna have to handle that.’ All that gettin’ back and takin’ care of… I just can’t do it. We get our satisfaction from the fact that God has lifted up that soul, that spirit.” Still the legendary rapper’s mother had to focus on earthly concerns.
Although her son was selling millions of records at the time of his death, Shakur soon learned that “he had zero—next to nothing.” Neither the home he lived in nor the cars he drove were his. Hundreds of master tapes were unaccounted for. Unable to get an accounting from Death Row Records or Interscope, its distributor, she filed suit, going head-to-head with Suge Knight, one of the most feared men in the rap game, and Jimmy Iovine, one of the music industry’s most powerful execs. Shakur was never one to back down from a battle.
In 1997, just months after her son’s death, she told an ABC reporter her son “absolutely thought that he was quite rich, and that his family would be rich forever,” adding that “the entertainment business is a business of prostitution and thievery, and that was rampant around my son’s talent.”
To set things right, Shakur established Amaru Entertainment, a company that oversaw the posthumous release of her son's music. Pac’s success would prove life-changing, just as he’d intended. “This represents the first time in our life, in our memory—ever—that we have been able to enjoy the American Dream. That’s what Tupac brought to his family.”
His mother used part of the proceeds to establish the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation and the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts in Stone Mountain, Georgia. “Arts can save children, no matter what's going on in their homes,” Afeni told the Associated Press in 2005. “I wasn’t available to do the right things for my son. If not for the arts, my child would've been lost.” Investing most of the $4 million budget for the first phase of construction, she saw the center host poetry and theater camps for Atlanta youth. “I learned that I can't save the world,” she said, “but I can help a child at a time.”
Before long Shakur found herself in another court battle—this time with her son’s flesh and blood. Two years after Tupac’s murder, his biological father Billy Garland sued Shakur for half of the estate. Though he first saw his son while watching the movie Juice and then visited him in a New York hospital after his 1994 shooting at Quad Studios, Garland argued that Shakur had wrongly stated on the boy’s birth certificate that his father was deceased. Garland lost the case, but a DNA test proved he was Tupac’s father. Although he had minimal contact with his son, he had the nerve to imply that people closer to Tupac were exploiting him. “I might be the only one who’s never taken a dime from my son,” he told XXL in 2012.
Amaru would go on to oversee a cottage industry of Tupac music, books, licensing deals, and visual productions. In 2002 Forbes ranked him at No. 10 on their list of Top-Earning Dead Celebrities with an estimated $7 million, just above Marilyn Monroe but below Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix. “In fact,” Forbes noted, “Shakur has put out more albums dead than alive.”
Afeni Shakur continued to pursue the long-lost master tapes of Tupac’s unreleased sessions from the Death Row era. In 2013 her court battles continued when she filed suit a Canadian company that purchased the long-since-bankrupt Death Row Records for $1.1 million in unpaid royalties and demanded the company turn over any audio or visual recordings in its possession. It’s not clear what the estate was able to collect, but in 2014 the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center closed its doors.
That setback, combined with the questionable Tupac hologram at Coachella and the short-lived Broadway musical The Rose That Grew From Concrete, led to some second-guessing about Shakur's oversight of the estate. Then in March of 2015 came news that she had made a deal with Interscope Records exec Tom Whalley and Jeff Jambo of Jam Inc to “reset” Tupac’s catalog. A Powerade commercial featuring Pac’s voice and the Pac interview included on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly were two of the results of this deal, which was supposed to pave the way for a flood of remixes, demos, writings, scripts, and poems that were previously unavailable.
The buzz is strong around the upcoming biopic, All Eyez on Me, which wrapped production last month in Los Angeles. Afeni Shakur will be portrayed by the elegant Tony-Award-winning playwright and actress Danai Gurira, who plays Michonne on AMC’s The Walking Dead. Director Benny Boom has called the film, due for release later this year, the “highlight of his career.”
The excitement of good news was slightly dampened when TMZ reported that Shakur's estranged husband, a preacher named Gust Davis, was suing for half of the income from Tupac’s estate, which—according to divorce papers—was bringing in roughly $900,000 a year and paid for a 40-acre ranch in North Carolina. Although she was co-executor of her son’s estate, Shakur did not insist on a prenup when she married in 2004. She was preparing to do battle yet again, this time in a North Carolina divorce court, when she complained of chest pain at her houseboat in Sausalito and a family friend called 911.
“Dear Mama don’t cry, your baby boy’s doing good,” 2Pac rapped in one of the partially completed songs recorded before his death. “Tell the homies I’m in heaven and they ain’t got hoods.” New York rap legend Nasir “Nas” Jones later added his own bars to the song, releasing the duet as “Thugz Mansion” on his 2002 album God’s Son: “I'm just 20-some odd years I done lost my mother,” Nas raps over a mournful acoustic guitar loop. “And I cry tears of joy, I know she smiles on her boy/I dream of you more. My love goes to Afeni Shakur/'Cause like Anne Jones, she raised a ghetto king in a war/And just for that alone, she shouldn't feel no pain no more.”
Combining two of the greatest rappers of all time on one track, the heartfelt song is a fitting tribute to the bond between mothers and sons. But as powerful as “Thugz Mansion” might be, with its visions of sipping heavenly champagne in a gangster’s paradise, when Afeni Shakur was looking for a song to ease her grandson’s pain over the senseless murder of yet another black youth, she chose something by the Eagles.
“My daughter has two children—a daughter and a son,” she told the mothers assembled at the Trayvon Martin Foundation retreat. “My grandson teaches me that today, young people are tired of crying.” Still, when he came to her, upset, saying, “Grandma I want to talk,” she knew it was because “another Trayvon had happened across the Bay.”
We must efface anger into a mutual concern and compassion for each other.
“So I just sat him down and I just talked to him about love,” she recalled. “Love. I love you. You love me. We must love each other. I played a song, and the name of the song is ‘Love Will Keep Us Alive.’”
The Eagles first performed the song during their “Hell Freezes Over” tour in 1994, the same year Pac starred in Above The Rim and dropped the album Thug Life Vol. 1. In a slightly goofy high-pitched voice, Eagles bassist Timothy B. Schmit sings the words that touched Afeni Shakur: “I was standing/All alone against the world outside/You were searching/For a place to hide/Lost and lonely/Now you've given me the will to survive.”
“So I played that gentle, sweet song to my grandson,” Shakur recalled. “Because in his anger, I want him to turn to love. He knows that his grandma is no punk. He knows I’m willing to fight. But I want him to be willing to go for another emotion when he feels that hurt in his gut. It’s a gut hurt when these things happen to our babies. We get over it cause we talk to ourselves. But our young people, it’s harder for them. And they’re suffering the trauma.”
February 26th, 2017 will mark the five-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder—an outrageous tragedy followed by a trial that galvanized a movement that still manages to stir up controversy in America by making the seemingly modest assertion that “Black Lives Matter.” Shakur's appearance at the Circle of Mothers retreat followed her publication of an open letter to Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. “It was so heartfelt and meaningful that I said if I ever did anything to try to help other mothers I would make sure to reach out to her,” Fulton said of that letter. “We reached out to her and she was just so gracious to come be our keynote speaker.”
In the letter Afeni warned against the temptation of succumbing to anger: “In the wake of this tragedy we have to be careful not to let anger take root, grow and guide our decisions,” she wrote. “All over the country people are angry and demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. We must recognize that anger only agitates and incites. It cannot squelch or satisfy the hunger for justice.” And then, despite the fact that her son’s murder remained unsolved, his killer or killers unknown and perhaps still alive and well, Shakur spoke of compassion.
“We must efface anger into a mutual concern and compassion for each other,” she wrote. “I’m talking about a human concern and a human compassion for one another that transcends race, class, gender and age. We cannot go anywhere with anger that we haven’t already been. Anger is an all-consuming fire that will burn you and everyone else around you. Where is the justice in that? As enraging and deplorable as this tragedy is, we must think of ways of making a difference without being mad and brain sick.”
Moving beyond the basic truth that “Black Lives Matter,” Shakur's chosen mission statement at the Circle of Mothers Retreat was: “Keep our babies alive.” And by this she didn’t mean just trying to prevent them from being murdered. No, that wasn't enough—she wanted to keep them truly alive.
“Encourage all of these children,” she told their mothers. “They have to live. We don’t want them to be mad. I tell them all the time, “You don’t have to be angry. I was angry enough in the ’60s and the ’70s for everybody. No reason for you to now be angry. I did angry for you.”
For those who had suffered the unspeakable pain of losing a child, she offered her own testimony: “My only son was murdered and out of respect for him and what he accomplished in his short 25 years on this earth, I could not allow myself to be angry.”
It’s a hard thing to try to talk a young person with a gun in his hand out of that gun.
Without the luxury of anger or the numbness of drugs, what did she do with all that grief?
“We built a center for young people, we planted a garden for peace, and we started working with youth on conflict resolution,” she said. “Leadership and safe and creative expression. Think of the least thing you can do that will benefit your community. Start as small as a mustard seed if you have to. I guarantee that the seed you plant in love, no matter how small, will grow into a mighty tree of refuge.”
Just in case any skepticism might be creeping in, Shakur added a timely dose of keeping it real. “I’m not that easily impressed,” she told the Circle of Mothers. “Because what I know is that the problem is ugly. What I see when I walk through the streets is ugly things. It’s not nice. And it’s hard. It’s a hard thing to try to talk a young person with a gun in his hand out of that gun. You got to have a prayer warrior. Don’t tell me it can’t be done.”
At this point the room of mothers came to life. Shouts of affirmation rang out, the kind you might hear in a Baptist church on Sunday. “It can be done! Yes it can! But only if you have faith!” She cried out, her voice louder now. “You have to hold up that blood-stained banner! Gotta hold it up!”
“That’s what we have to do for all our children,” she continued. “That’s the blood-stained banner we’re talking about—mixed with the blood of Christ!”
She then proceeded to share a vision with the Circle of Mothers, eliciting many shouts and tears and Amens. “I want y’all to know that I have a vision in my mind of every one of your children right now. Oh yes! In a mighty circle. In Holy Ghost village.” After pausing briefly to joke that her own son probably had “a lot to say” she brought the tension right back without missing a beat. “I believe that they’re together. I believe that when a new one comes they rush up to the door.” This vision was, in a way, her own version of “Thugz Mansion”—but without the Marvin Gaye and Billy Holiday references. No more famous names were needed than Dontre Hamilton, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Jr., Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray—and the list goes on. “Greet him! Welcome him! Keep him safe! Show up where the throne of God is.”
In composing her open letter to Trayvon Martin’s mother, Shakur—a woman who had been denied justice most of her life—sought to explain what real justice looks like. “Real justice in the streets means changing our behavior and making better choices” she wrote. “We have to do more than commit to a rally or a one-time event. Young people are in danger every single day. Each day and night when they go to school or go to the store, even when they go down the street to a home in their neighborhood, they are in danger.”
Shakur shared her thoughts with the Circle of Mothers, she said, because she knows what has worked for her. And because when anger takes over, there is nowhere to go. “Your next move has to be to hit somebody,” she said. “There has to be a better way.”
Then in a private moment, Shakur let the Circle of Mothers know how she makes sense of her son’s passing, where she lets her mind go to find peace. “I believe from the time my son left that angels took his soul, his spirit, and flew him happily where God sits in court,” Afeni Shakur testified. By this time she held the entire Circle of Mothers in the palm of her hand. “Took him, and gently, GENTLY, laid him before the throne. That’s what I believe. It’s what I see.”
More than a heavenly vision, she found comfort in the fact that Tupac lived way past September 13, 1996—not in some top-secret “Elvis is Alive” nonsense, but in the living legacy of his music, his image, and the revolutionary spirit he inherited from his mother. “I have seen God still using that precious angel,” she said, speaking of a man who repped “Thug Life” to the grave, who stood trial on a rape charge, who was accused of shooting at police officers, who set off a hip-hop civil war with his song “Hit Em Up.” Her implication was clear—redemption is possible for everyone—but Shakur made sure to spell it out.
“He will do that for your child,” she told the ecstatic mothers. “I’m telling you that. I asked the Lord for my child, as his breath was leaving his body…. GOD, thank you for every minute. Thank you Lord. Now God could you let him be a light on the hill? What did God do? Let him be a light on the hill. He did that.”
Although she stood in the Circle of Mothers, Afeni Shakur sounded like she was somewhere between earth and Holy Ghost Village: “Since Trayvon, you don’t even wanna count,” she cried. “How many more? How many more? How many continue to go the same way? This is our challenge: To keep HOPE alive in him. We need the children that are still in our homes, they need to know that all is not lost. We ain’t giving up nothing.”