If you ask your favorite rapper, “Who’s the greatest rapper of all time?”, chances are that Tupac Shakur is the top choice. Though his rap and acting career only spanned a little over half a decade, his influence left an indelible imprint on the face of popular music. Sometimes, his lyrics were rooted in the West Coast gangsta rap sound of California, but one can't neglect the conscious and staunchly pro-Black agenda embedded in his discography and poetry.
I can remember living my life in the 90s and listening to his posthumous double-disc “Greatest Hits” album. The whole album is marvelous, but “Changes” was the song I always silently enjoyed.
It invites the listener to the mindset of a rapper that believed in challenging the status quo and that enforcing a new method of governing was essential for Black well-being. With a former Black Panther as a mom and prominent familial ties to other militant leaders, he produced lyrics in the song that not only criticized a system embedded with systemic unfairness but also provided a sobering wake-up call for the era’s African Americans.
To be Black is a harsh reality for many across the country even today. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Of the good things in life, the Negro has approximately one-half those of Whites. Of the bad things of life, he has twice those of Whites.” Tupac doesn’t shy away from this structural inequality deeply rooted in the American project. For instance, he rightfully criticized the pervasive White Supremacy and hostility of state-sanctioned harassment.
“It ain't a secret, don't conceal the fact.
The penitentiary's packed and it's filled with blacks”
Later in the song, he adds:
“Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”
Though “Changes” was recorded and released decades ago, the message has been a stark reality for African Americans since the Reconstruction Era. To deny the existence of a massive campaign to criminalize and incarcerate African Americans would be fanciful. As such, Tupac is expressing righteous outrage towards centuries of inhumane and cruel treatment from a criminal justice system designed to unjustly harass.
Continuing his lyrical courtroom, Tupac states:
“Cops give a damn about a negro. Pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he's a hero.”
Armed officers murdering innocent African Americans is a common occurrence and is not new. Time and time again, we've heard the verdict that the officer was acting within their obligations against a threat. We've seen officers and neighborhood vigilantes be hailed as guardians of the Second Amendment. With each acquittal, White Supremacy and the “good guy with a gun” mantra flourishes. We hardly ever acknowledge the infringement of the sacredness of human life. And when Pac says officers are careless, it is deeply rooted in how African Americans have historically perceived law enforcement.
Equally moving is his plea to African Americans for personal responsibility. It should be said that, in an attempt to push accountability, many African-American politicians and entertainers offer scathing critiques of Black culture that perpetuate harmful stereotypes and historically damaging views rooted in White Supremacy. How many times have we heard an African-American conservative mention “Black-on-Black crime,” as if intracommunal violence is only known to this community?
However, when I immerse myself in the lyrics of Pac, I don't sense pseudo-accountability. Instead, I hear the desperate plea of a man once living a criminal life that wants to see a massive sea change of self-love and reconciliation.
“I got love for my brother,
But we can never go nowhere unless we share with each other.
We gotta start makin' changes.
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers.”
By urging this type of fraternal reunion, Pac recognizes the value of interdependence. No progress can be made unless we're willing to put aside differences and form a united front within our race.
Shakur wants to strengthen the race by offering the truth about self-responsibility and living an honorable image. In order to truly be reconciled, one must be open to abandoning the selfishness of old and consider the larger implications of our actions. This is conveyed when he makes the drug dealer aware of his or her destruction of the community.
“You gotta operate the easy way.
“I made a G today,” but you made it in a sleazy way.
Sellin' crack to the kids (Oh-oh), “I gotta get paid.” (Oh)
Well hey, well that's the way it is.”
With this chastisement, Pac wants the low-level street peddler to realize their actions contribute to the collective in a damaging way. Not only were the means corrupt, but the act of selling dangerous drugs also contributes to the demise of the race. Hence Tupac demands a new ethic to counteract the failures.
At his core, Shakur was a Black nationalist, a person of African descent who advocated for the advancement and interests of their ethnic community. With roots deep in the early 1970s Black Panther movement, this worldview rooted in racial pride and Black self-determination would have been consistently reinforced in the Shakur household.
His militant mindset and enlightened worldview have always been integral to his hip-hop career. From powerful socially conscious songs like “Words of Wisdom” or his more notable song “Keep Ya Head Up”, Pac was undeniably committed to the liberation and education of his race. So when we listen to “Changes”, we must understand that Shakur isn't just sampling a catchy 80s tune or merely describing the social and political climate of the 90s. He's inviting his Black audience to continue the torch of liberation, racial pride, and unity.
By articulating this vision of self-determination and self-improvement, he carried an illuminating torch in the vein of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. You can see this in the spoken word section of the song where Pac implores his African-American listeners to break the cycles of generational oppression, abuse, and mistreatment. This “old way” he refers to was so ineffective and counterproductive that a new awakening of dignity and self-respect must be ushered in. Moving beyond the dejected helplessness of living in the ghetto, “Changes” refers to self-empowerment, pushing past unhealthy environments and embracing a new realization of the untapped greatness of being Black.
Moreover, Shakur wants African-American listeners to understand the truth about their standing in the nation. Whether it’s disagreements with US policy, the hypocrisy of American ideals, or the flawed criminal justice system, Pac wants the reader to understand that their poverty, mental health decline, drugs, and violence are by design. Responding to these manufactured circumstances, “Changes” reveals an upward path of much-needed reform to ensure longevity.
When I reflect on the legacy of “Changes”, I’m reminded of the seminal verse from the Book of James:
“But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing.”
After listening to Shakur’s wisdom, caution, and exhortation, African Americans are faced with two choices: allow the ravaging effects of oppression to flourish, or do everything possible to create solutions and strategies that reflect a new approach.
Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.