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Creative expression can come in many forms, one of the most common being music. Music has a way of relating to a larger audience about a feeling or experience through melody as well as an expression of culture. Music scholar Craig Werner notes that gospel is a genre that helps one to understand black culture through three characteristics: The first being to acknowledge a burden, then to bear a witness to the burden and describe it, and lastly, to find redemption from that burden. These three traits parallel lyrics in Tupac’s 1993 song “Keep Ya Head Up.” Though Tupac’s music originated years after the start of gospel music in America, he still manages to demonstrate the three characteristics of gospel music in his hip hop rap.
Tupac begins the song with discussing the burden of being a black American in the ghetto through noting “I give a holler to my sister on welfare/ Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care” (Shakur). Tupac notes, through the use of the word “nobody,” the lack of care that black Americans receive from not just the government, who assumes welfare is enough, but from other Americans as well. Tupac continues to reinforce the burden of being in an impoverished area through “they got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor” (Shakur). The word “they” references the lack of care from the government for black Americans. This parallels how, originally, the blues’ and gospel music developed during a “time of broken promises” to black people (Sanchez 8). The government also obscured the importance of black Americans struggles “outside the South,” so Tupac’s nationally recognized song helped to share the struggles that the government was not highlighting (Ezra xiii). Despite the government having welfare and other programs to benefit the poor, these programs did not help the situation as a whole, they only provided temporary “relief.” The government also did not do much to change the attitudes of other Americans, which led to “nobody” else caring.
Tupac tries to relate his own situation to those in his community, in particular “ladies havin’ babies on they own” in order to bear a first-hand witness experience (Shakur). He relates with thanking “the lord for my kids, even if nobody else want ‘em” which helps to make him more relatable to those people going through the same experience as him—raising children on their own since the other parent figure is not involved (Shakur). This relatability was also a goal during slavery as a “song could work to create community and offer an artistic expression in some of the worst conditions” (Sanchez 7). Tupac is rapping to represent the community, since “the black freedom struggle was a national social movement,” by relating to the others while adding on the artistic expression of hip hop music (Ezra xiv).
While finding redemption seems like a challenge, Tupac sums it up within the title of the song “keep your head up.” Continually throughout the rap he says this phrase implying that the struggles accompanying being a black American will get better. His ending line is the best example of finding redemption because he says “and it’s crazy, it seems it’ll never let up, but/ please you got to keep your head up” (Shakur). Tupac is saying he understands that the life of a black American is full of unfair struggles. However, he is reminding them it will get better, which is what redemption is all about. Redemption embodies a tone of hope, which is the message Tupac is aiming to convey through ending on a positive note, similar to how the main focus of the “black power movement was black self-determination” (Ezra xiv). It also proves the point that James Baldwin makes of how “blacks…found ways to reach a passionate detachment, one that allows a person to…[find] joy in surviving, in triumphing out of your own resources” (Sanchez 8, 9). Black Americans had to find ways to use their own resources, since “nobody cares” about their struggles, and Tupac is trying to use his rap to convey that there is “joy in surviving” to an eventual better, more equal, life.
Despite Tupac’s music being in a time where the government was already working on improving black lives, his raps still parallel the characteristics Craig Werner describes. The three characteristics being to realize a burden, find witnesses to that burden, and to find redemption from that burden. While a 1993 rap does not seem as though it would parallel traits of Gospel music, Tupac’s song successfully embodies them.
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