“Dear Mama,” is a hip-hop song written and performed by Tupac Shakur in his 1995 album, “Me Against the World.” Tupac Shakur was a well-known rapper, poet, actor, and activist during the golden age of hip-hop in the 1990s. Tupac was well-versed in poetic form and social issues. His mother was a former member of the Black Panther Party, a black-power political movement in the 60s and 70s, and he learned about political history from a young age. As a teen, Tupac was part of a special performing arts program in his high school, where he studied poetry, jazz, and music and acted in Shakespearean plays. In addition to his well-known hip-hop albums, he published a collection of haikus and a book of poetry. The influence of his formal training in poetry and his political awareness is visible in the lyrics and form of “Dear Mama.” Tupac uses form, chronological organization, and imagery to construct an ode of recognition and forgiveness to his mother, who struggled as a single parent with drug addiction to raise him and his sibling. In the song, he wants his mother to know that he appreciates her and understands the struggle she went through, despite the challenges it made him face as a child.
Tupac wrote “Dear Mama” in the classic form of an ode, with strophes, anti-strophes, and an epode. A strophe is a storytelling stanza, an anti-strophe is a repeating chorus, and an epode concludes and summarizes the poem. Tupac used the following form:
- Strophe x 4
- Strophe X 4
- Strophe X 2
The strophes generally tell stories of his childhood, while the anti-strophes offer a refrain of recognition of his mother, and the epode focuses on his reflections and forgiveness. By using the form of an ode for his song, Tupac reinforces the idea that his song is a celebration of his mother and a recognition of what she sacrificed for him.
Tupac also organizes his poem in chronological order, starting with memories of his early childhood, and ending with the present moment, to demonstrate his reflective perspective and forgiveness. At the beginning of the song, he reflects on moments when he went through a hard time. For example, he remembered when he ran from the police and his mother punished him:
And runnin’ from the police, that’s right
Mama catch me, put a whoopin’ to my backside
Towards the end of the song, Tupac switches back to the present day, as he’s writing the song, and looks back on his memory with forgiveness, understanding the struggle she went through to raise him:
But the plan is to show you that I understand
You are appreciated
When Tupac moves from his past and present self, he creates a contrast between his childhood understanding of his experiences and his present understanding of his experiences within the larger systems of oppression in poor communities. He demonstrates a critical understanding that the fault of his mother’s behavior was not entirely individual, but due to larger social forces at play.
Finally, Tupac uses a back-and-forth between positive and negative imagery of small childhood moments to illustrate the complex relationship he had with his mother, feeling her love, yet wishing, as a child, for more. For example, there are several negative images early on in the song, such as::
it was hell
Huggin’ on my mama from a jail cell
Later, his mental images turn more positive:
And I could see you comin’ home after work late
You’re in the kitchen, tryin’ to fix us a hot plate
Toward the end of the song, he emphasizes his positive memories:
And all my childhood memories
Are full of all the sweet things you did for me
These switches show a maturing attitude towards his mother, both understanding and appreciating her, through sifting through the childhood memories in his head and ending up focusing on the positive.
Tupac uses his complex knowledge and skillset to construct a song that sends a message through both its form and its imagery. As an ode, listeners are already primed to understand this is a song of recognition. Yet, Tupac makes the song more complex by showing both the good and the bad, perhaps summed up best in his lines:
And even as a crack fiend, Mama
You always was a black queen, Mama
I finally understand
For a woman it ain’t easy tryin’ to raise a man
These contrasts between good and bad heighten the listener’s awareness of Tupac’s internal struggles with forgiveness and love for a Black Queen.