Why the Message of Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up” Still Resonates with Us, 30 Years After Its Release

Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur
Growing up as a Black girl is tough, and this very writer knows it. Not always feeling appreciated by the world and being mocked for skin color, hair touched without permission more times than you can count, as well as being followed around stores. It’s not an easy experience at all to be a Black woman. When listening to a song like “Keep Ya Head Up” by rapper Tupac Shakur, it’s like all these struggles are seen and recognized.
Stream: “Keep Ya Head Up” – 2Pac

This year commemorates the 50th anniversary of one of the world’s most diverse and culturally expressive genres: Hip-hop. With origins deep within the Black community, it is easy to understand why many of the most known rappers are Black and or African American. The genre itself is composed of some of the most prolific artists in the game.

Among these artists, Tupac Shakur is one of the most recognizable. Born in NYC, but resident of California, Tupac (2Pac) lived and breathed the air of the West Coast’s hip-hop scene. Inspired by the events in his life, he picked up a pen and wrote about it. Oftentimes using words to recite the harsh realities of this world and the things he witnessed with his own eyes. “Keep Ya Head Up” is just one of the few songs he wrote regarding these tough subjects. Released in 1993 on 2Pac’s second studio album, the song is a direct dedication to Latasha Harlins (an unarmed 15-year-old Black girl who was shot and killed in 1992) as well as a love and support letter to Black women everywhere.

Little somethin’ for my godson Elijah
and a little girl named Corin

Here Tupac is referring to his goddaughter Corin (rapper Salt of Salt-N-Pepa’s daughter) as well as his godson Elijah.

Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots
Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. - 2Pac
2Pac’s sophomore album, released in 1993 via Interscope Records and TNT Recordings

The direct first lines are a reference to loving the Black skin tone of women for some say the darker and richer the skin tone, the deeper one is to their ancestors.

I give a holler to my sisters on welfare
Tupac cares, if don’t nobody else care
And uh, I know they like to beat ya down a lot
When you come around the block, brothas clown a lot
But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive but don’t forget, girl, keep your head up

In the next lines here, Tupac gives note to the women on welfare, and those struggling to make ends meet. The women who are constantly judged by society for making do with the hand they’ve been dealt. He’s saying if nobody else cares, he does. He offers comfort to that pain of trying one’s hardest to make ends meet in a world made for the rich.

Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur

And when he tells you you ain’t nuttin’ don’t believe him
And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him
‘Cause sista you don’t need him
And I ain’t tryin’ to gas ya up,
I just call ’em how I see ’em (you don’t need him)

Here he is giving praise and uplifting the women who are being mistreated by their partners, the ones who are told they’re nothing and beginning to feel that. He’s saying don’t listen to these men because if they can’t learn to love you, they don’t deserve you nor do you need him. A very passionate appeal indeed.

You know what makes me unhappy? (What’s that?)
When brothas make babies
And leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman
and our game from a woman (yeah, yeah)
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women? (Why? Why?)
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep your head up
Keep ya head up, ooh, child, things are gonna get easier
Keep-keep ya head up, ooh, child, things’ll get brighter
Keep ya head up, ooh, child, things are gonna get easier
Keep-keep ya head up, ooh, child, things’ll get brighter

These lyrics are some of the deepest and most prolific ones in the entire song. It is a direct plea from Shakur to start caring for these women who give the babies, who provide love and support without that same love given back. He’s saying it’s time to start giving that same love and support back, to start caring and respecting these women. His message for these women is to once again keep their heads up, and things can only get better from here. The usage of the repetitious lyrics were used here to drive home the message of never giving up on faith and love amongst the pain and strife.

Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur

Ayo, I remember Marvin Gaye, used to sing to me
He had me feelin’ like black was the thing to be
And suddenly the ghetto didn’t seem so tough
And though we had it rough, we always had enough
I huffed and puffed about my curfew and broke the rules
Ran with the local crew, and had a smoke or two
And I realize momma really paid the price
She nearly gave her life, to raise me right (oh, yeah)
And all I had to give her was my pipe dream

Here Shakur mentions how the iconic musician Marvin Gaye made him feel growing up Black was empowering and important – making the tough life he was dealt not seem as rough. He also realizes the sacrifices his mom made for him to give him what she could, providing direct appreciation for his mom – despite Shakur not giving that same appreciation in the past.

Of how I’d rock the mic, and make it to the bright screen
I’m tryin’ to make a dollar out of fifteen cents
It’s hard to be legit and still pay your rent
And in the end it seems I’m headin’ for the pen

It’s hard to make a living and succeed when the hand you’ve been dealt doesn’t have much to go from. Here he makes a direct reference to that.

I try and find my friends, but they’re blowin’ in the wind
Last night my buddy lost his whole family
It’s gonna take the man in me to conquer this insanity (no, no, no, no)
It seems the rain’ll never let up
I try to keep my head up, and still keep from gettin’ wet up

Here’s that same rawness Tupac was known for. These lyrics here are a direct symbol of him writing his own experiences and the harsh realities he’s faced of losing loved ones to the current world. Even he himself needs to remind himself to remain strong amidst this pain.

still from 2Pac's "Keep Ya Head Up" music video
still from 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” music video

You know, it’s funny when it rains it pours
They got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor
Said it ain’t no hope for the youth and the truth is
It ain’t no hope for the future
And then they wonder why we crazy
I blame my mother for turning my brother into a crack baby
We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup
And even though you’re fed up
Huh, ya got to keep your head up
Keep ya head up, ooh, child, things are gonna get easier
Keep-keep ya head up, ooh, child, things’ll get brighter (ohh)
Keep ya head up, ooh, child, things are gonna get easier
Keep-keep ya head up, ooh, child, things’ll get brighter

Tupac provides a direct call out to the environment of the world at that time, which is still prominent today.. Despite having money for more wars, there never seems to be enough money to help feed the poor. War is being put over the needs of those desperately in need of love and support. In the same world that states there’s no hope for the younger generation. Shakur states there’s no hope for the future instead, because this younger generation has been dealt a hell of a hand to cipher through. Despite this, and how wanting to give up is easier, it’s important to just stay strong and keep fighting.

To all the ladies havin’ babies on they own
I know it’s kinda rough and you’re feelin’ all alone
Daddy’s long gone and he left you by ya lonesome
Thank the Lord for my kids,
even if nobody else want ’em (left you all by yourself)

‘Cause I think we can make it, in fact, I’m sure
And if you fall, stand tall and comeback for more
‘Cause ain’t nothin’ worse than when your son
Wants to know why his daddy don’t love him no mo’
You can’t complain you was dealt this
Hell of a hand without a man, feelin’ helpless
Because there’s too many things for you to deal with
Dying inside, but outside you’re looking fearless
While the tears is rollin’ down your cheeks
Ya steady hopin’ things don’t all down this week
‘Cause if it did, you couldn’t take it, and don’t blame me
I was given this world I didn’t make it
And now my son’s gettin’ older and older and cold
From havin’ the world on his shoulders
While the rich kids is drivin’ Benz
I’m still tryin’ to hold on to my survivin’ friends
And it’s crazy, it seems it’ll never let up, but
Please, you got to keep your head up

These lines are a direct plea to all the Black women raising their kids on their own, despite all the struggle of the world on your shoulders. Despite not having any support and despite it seeming like the struggle will never end, keep your head up. And it seems like Shakur also needed that reminder in the end.

Tupac Shakur
Tupac Shakur

Shakur was never shy to speak up on the issues dear to him, and he used his platform to be the voice for change.

He never gave up hope for this world, even when times were tough. “Keep Ya Head Up” serves as that reminder to stay strong, because even the toughest of times have got to come to an end eventually. You’ve just got to stay strong and not give up, which is a message that can resonate within us all. And as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Hip-hop amongst an ever-changing world, always remember the message of this song and “Keep Ya Head Up” amongst the trials and tribulations of today’s world. Such as the climate crisis, the political landscape and wars, and it’s hard, very hard. However, it’s still okay to have a bit of hope and to keep your head up literally.

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Stream: “Keep Ya Head Up” – 2Pac

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Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. - 2Pac

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