The characteristic that makes a timeless artist is the ability to stay relevant over a long span of time. Tupac did that. His beats are still hot, his delivery is still captivating, and his lyrics remain undeniably applicable.
This song came out in 1997, five years after the L.A. riots, which were sparked by Rodney King’s police brutality case and the murder of LaTasha Harlins, a 15-year-old girl who was killed by a Korean storeowner (who was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter) for putting a bottle of juice in her backpack. A reported 55 people were killed as a result of the riots, and another 2,000 were injured. The country watched as fires raged, citizens looted, and officials wondered how long the unrest would last.
Today, the killing continues, the government is still corrupt, and the people are still crying out for justice and equality. Here are the parts of “I Wonder If Heaven Got a Ghetto” that grip my heart every time.
Here on Earth, tell me what’s a black life worth?/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts/And even when you take the sh*t/Move counties, get a lawyer, you can shake the sh*t/Ask Rodney, Latasha, and many more/It’s been going on for years, there’s plenty more/When they ask me, “When will the violence cease?”/When your troops stop shootin’ n*ggas down in the street
These lyrics remind me of the myriad of deaths we’ve seen, on video, of our brothers and sisters at the hands of law enforcement officers or those protected by the system, and the justifications that the media uses to twist the victim into the perpetrator. For example, they made it seem like Eric Garner deserved it because he sold cigarettes, illegally. Treyvon Martin deserved it because he was a violent kid with a questionable Facebook profile. Tamir Rice should have known better than to play with toy guns in the park while being black. Sandra Bland deserved it because she had a smart mouth. This vilification has absolutely been going on for years, and now, there are exponentially more cases to prove the artist’s point. When will the violence cease? Pac wouldn’t be surprised to know that cops are still murdering black people in the streets and in the jails, and the accountability is still, infuriatingly and depressingly, minimal to none.
I see no changes, all I see is racist faces/Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races/We under, I wonder what it take to make this/One better place, let’s erase the wasted/Take the evil out the people they’ll be actin’ right/Cause both black and white are smokin’ crack tonight
Oh Pac, you are so right. Misplaced hate is, and always will be, the source of prejudice, bigotry, and racism. The truth is that the way a person feels about another is more about the person who has the feelings than the object of the feelings. The government and media have done an excellent job of disparaging black people, so we’re labeled as the destroyers of society. In the mind of the collective population, we’re the murderers, the burglars and the drug addicts, but Pac highlights the fact that black folks and white folks (and everybody else) have the same problems and struggles, and evil is the cause, not skin color. If we could overcome evil, then and only then would the world become a better place.
I wake up in the mornin’ and I ask myself/Is life worth livin’? Should I blast myself?
This line is especially jarring, in light of the fact that the suicide rate is reportedly on the rise among young black Americans. Mental health is historically a taboo subject in the black community. If you’re having problems, such as depression, you need to toughen up and/or pray. However, the burden is sometimes too much to bear, and now, we’re seeing life traumas take the ultimate toll on our young people.
Pac might have wondered if Heaven had a ghetto because it was the environment he knew, and he felt comfortable there. It may have been a question about the color line and if it existed in Heaven, or perhaps he was inquiring about equality and whether the next life was any different from this one for the marginalized. Such an existence would be hard to imagine, when your entire life on earth has been riddled with inequality and oppression at the hands of the government. Regardless of the motives behind his lyrics, he remains a voice for those of us who still wonder the same thing.
We can win, though. We can. Pac said, “It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.” It’s going to take leadership, communication, strategy, self-care tactics, fortitude, and empathy, but we have everything it takes to help, to heal, to empower. When we make these efforts, we find heaven wherever we are.