Afeni Shakur, the mother of rapper Tupac Shakur and the subject of his song “Dear Mama,” died on Monday, May 2, in Marin County, possibly from cardiac arrest. She was 69.
Born Alice Williams and raised in Lumberton, North Carolina, Shakur moved to the Bronx as a child with her mother and sister. Swept up in the black nationalist movement that gained popularity following the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, she disavowed her “slave” name and became known as Afeni Shakur.
She joined the Black Panthers and married another member, Lumumba Abdul Shakur, though their union was short-lived. She rose quickly in the organization before being jailed in 1969, along with other Black Panthers, charged with conspiring to murder police officers, among other crimes. She became pregnant by another Black Panther, William Garland, and she and her colleagues were found innocent. Tupac was born only about a month after her release from jail.
Afeni became something of a celebrity in the civil rights community, speaking at universities and being written about glowingly in publications like New York magazine. But during the childhoods of Tupac and his half-sister, Sekyiwa — the daughter of another famous black nationalist, Mutulu Shakur — she had increasing difficulty finding work, and descended into drug use. The family shuffled between homes in Manhattan and the Bronx before moving to Baltimore in the mid-1980s. A few years later they moved again, to Marin City, where Tupac disowned his mother for a time owing to her crack addiction.
During their estrangement, Tupac’s rap career began to gain traction. He moved to Oakland and linked up with the group Digital Underground, who were soon to break big with their 1990 hit “The Humpty Dance.” Starting as a roadie and backup dancer and graduating to rapping verses of his own, Tupac soon gained a solo deal, and released his debut, 2pacalypse Now, in 1991. His mother’s Black Panther ideals had influenced him from his very first raps, and 2pacalypse drew fire for songs about characters who murder cops. (In real life, Tupac’s godmother, Assata Shakur, was convicted of the 1973 murder of a state trooper in New Jersey, and his stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, was convicted of aiding her escape — as well as playing a part in a 1981 Brinks car robbery that left three dead. Assata Shakur escaped to Cuba, where she still lives.)
Tupac’s 1995 album, Me Against the World, released while he was in prison for sexual abuse, featured “Dear Mama,” and became one of the most beloved songs in rap history, famous for its moving line, “Even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama.” By now they’d reconciled, but Afeni lost her home, and Tupac was nearly broke himself owing to his court cases.
While in prison, Tupac signed a deal with Suge Knight and Death Row Records, which included a new house for his mother. At the time of his murder a year later, she lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia, where she launched the service and arts organization that became known as the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation. She battled with Tuapc’s birth father, William Garland, over their son’s estate — though Garland had been absent for most of Tupac's life — as well as with Death Row Records, though they eventually came to terms, and released a series of extremely successful posthumous 2Pac albums.
Working with people including Tom Whalley, the Interscope executive who initially signed Tupac, the estate has been extremely successful under Afeni’s watch, in projects that have included a documentary, a Coachella hologram and an upcoming biopic, All Eyez on Me, scheduled for fall release. Since their deaths, Tupac’s fame has outstripped that of his onetime rival Biggie Smalls, and Afeni’s stewardship of his catalog is a big reason for that success.
Later in life Afeni moved to Sausalito, California, not far from where Tupac got his start in the industry. She died after being taken to a hospital near where she lived following an emergency call last night. Her cause of death has not been released but is suspected to be cardiac arrest.
It’s become a cliché for rappers to give shoutouts to their mothers. But it’s fair to say that none were more influential on their famous offspring than Afeni Shakur.
Former L.A. Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff is the author of the forthcoming book Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and the Birth of West Coast Rap, available for pre-order via Amazon.com.