Wordsmith Wednesday: 2Pac’s “Brenda’s Got A Baby”

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The words this week are the lyrics to 2Pac’s song “Brenda’s Got A Baby” from his 1992 debut record 2Pacalypse Now on Interscope Records.

“I hear Brenda’s got a baby, but Brenda’s barely got a brain
A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name
“That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family”
Well, let me show you how it affects our whole community
Now Brenda really never knew her moms
And her dad was a junkie, puttin’ death into his arms
It’s sad, ’cause I bet Brenda doesn’t even know
Just ’cause you’re in the ghetto doesn’t mean you can’t grow
But oh, that’s a thought, my own revelation
Do whatever it takes to resist the temptation
Brenda got herself a boyfriend
Her boyfriend was her cousin, now let’s watch the joy end
She tried to hide her pregnancy, from her family
Who really didn’t care to see, or give a damn if she
Went out and had a church of kids
As long as when the check came they got first dibs
Now Brenda’s belly’s gettin’ bigger
But no one seems to notice any change in her figure
She’s twelve years old and she’s havin’ a baby
In love with a molester, who’s sexin’ her crazy
And yet and she thinks that he’ll be with her forever
And dreams of a world where the two of them are together
Whatever, he left her and she had the baby solo
She had it on the bathroom floor and didn’t know, so
She didn’t know what to throw away and what to keep
She wrapped the baby up and threw him in a trash heap
I guess she thought she’d get away, wouldn’t hear the cries
She didn’t realize how much the little baby had her eyes
Now the baby’s in the trash heap, bawlin’
Momma can’t help her, but it hurt to hear her callin’
Brenda wants to run away
Momma say you makin’ me lose pay
There’s social workers here every day
Now Brenda’s gotta make her own way
Can’t go to her family, they won’t let her stay
No money, no babysitter, she couldn’t keep a job
She tried to sell crack but end up gettin’ robbed
So now, what’s next? There ain’t nothin’ left to sell
So she sees sex as a way of leavin’ hell
It’s payin’ the rent, so she really can’t complain
Prostitute, found slain, and Brenda’s her name
She’s got a baby”

This is pure storytelling from a figure who remains legend and somewhat of an enigma in modern American culture, partially due to the juxtaposition of his self-ascribed thug image and demonization by high-profile conservative figures with the skilled, thoughtful, and emotional poetry found throughout his body of work. In just under two minutes on this track, Tupac Shakur creates a character to discuss poverty, sexual abuse, community responsibility, teenage pregnancy, and other social issues from a close-up, personal perspective rather than through the dehumanization of a headline. He is an observant, intelligent street reporter explaining the root causes, blending the personal with the political, rather than exploiting the tragic effects like the media often does. Only twenty when these words were released and only twenty-five when he died, Shakur was a poet at heart navigating his past, his reality, his imperfections, and the challenges of his/our time with an open heart and an open mouth. The world needed Tupac to tell these stories, his stories. We needed to see him grow, to reconcile his gentle with his gangster, his poet with his panther. I hope there’s heaven for a G.

– NR

tupac

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Rage Against The Machine “Bulls On Parade”

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Our words this week come from Rage Against The Machine‘s song “Bulls on Parade” off their 1996 album Evil Empire.

The words are:

“Weapons, not food, not homes, not shoes
not need, just feed the war cannibal animal
I walk from corner to the rubble that used to be a library
line up to the mind cemetery now”

As a kid, Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics on the radio were my first unconcious introduction to anything resembling radical American political thought, planting seeds about corrupt government (“Testify”), brutality by racist police (“Killing In The Name”), and exploitation for greed (“Sleep Now In The Fire”) in my head that would germinate into adolescent opinions during the Bush Era. Rage Against The Machine and The Battle Of Los Angeles both served as catalysts to the development of my personal politics and interest in alternative histories before an introduction to Howard Zinn at sixteen gave some structure and solid argument to de la Rocha’s anger. However, it was always these lines that stuck out to me as a boy growing up in the shadow of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically the imagery of a destroyed library. The juxtaposition of war and ignorance against learning and care is a relationship that has only become stronger and clearer as I’ve grown up in a world where the United States has been at constant, endless, expensive war without any clear objective or exit strategy. For over half my life now, we have had troops on the ground in Afghanistan fighting, and dying, in a war on terrorist organizations that essentially fuels itself by providing propaganda for these organizations with U.S. military presence. Just this week there has been a presidential call for an increase in troops. Eisenhower is ignored, Halliburton is forgotten, and the military-industrial complex chugs on. This cycle is pushed forward by politicians and pundits championing American safety, strength, and prosperity while children in parts of this country go hungry, homeless, and hopeless. Unfortunately for those kids, feeding, clothing, and empowering the poor has little of the perceived or real political and economic benefits that war can provide to the powerful elite, so they just keep rallying around the family with a pocket full of shells.

– NR

rage

Wordsmith Wednesday: Wallace Stevens’ “Gubbinal”

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We are proud to have our words this week come from friend and Issue 4 contributor, Raul Clement.

“Gubbinal” by Wallace Stevens, is exactly the sort of poem I love – one whose surface simplicity gives way, on closer examination, to a great complexity of content and possible interpretations. Here is the poem in full:

“That strange flower, the sun,
 Is just what you say.
 Have it your way.
The world is ugly,
 And the people are sad.
That tuft of jungle feathers,
 That animal eye,
 Is just what you say.
That savage of fire,
 That seed,
 Have it your way.

The world is ugly, 
And the people are sad.”

I read this as a poem about how a certain pessimistic and unimaginative outlook fails to see the wonder of the world—and in doing so, actually diminishes that wonder.

The speaker of the poem sees the sun poetically, as a “strange flower.” But at the same time, with a bitter and sarcastic resignation, he tells the unnamed “you” to “have it your way.” In other words, according to the “you,” the sun is just the sun and nothing more.

The famous second stanza, repeated at the end of the poem, should not be interpreted literally—or at least not with a singular meaning. It does not represent the attitude of the speaker, but the attitude of the “you” he addresses. Stevens might have punctuated the poem like this:

That strange flower, the sun,
Is just what you say.
Have it your way:

“The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.”

To do so, however, would have reduced the secondary meaning. The world is indeed ugly, and the people are sad—but only because of people claiming this is the case. By leaving out quotation marks, Stevens allows for this double meaning.

There is so much more to analyze—the title, the rhyme and meter, etc.—but that could turn into a ten-page essay. That Stevens manages to pack so much into so few words, and with such simplicity, is a reminder of the great power of poetic compression.

– RC

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

This is a portrait of the American poet Wallace Stevens, (1879-1955). He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for his in 1954. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Wordsmith Wednesday: Nas’ “One Love”

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Our words this week come from Nas’ track “One Love” off of his 1994 classic, Illmatic.

The lines are:

“But, yo, guess who got shot in the dome piece?
Jerome’s niece on her way home from Jones Beach
It’s bugged, plus Little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hanging out with young thugs that all carry 9s
And night time is more trife than ever
What up with Cormega? Did you see him? Are y’all together?”

The textual cadence of these words is only a shadow of the spoken delivery, but the internal rhymes and crisp colloquiality of Nas’ lyrics are undeniable. Illmatic is full of dense, image intensive verses but the stylized envisioning of letters to jailed friends found on “One Love” has always stood out to me. The conversational relation of urban tragedy/reality is presented with such familiarity and frankness that I instantly relate to the unnamed recipient of Nas’ news. I feel the sadness of a little girl from the neighborhood being shot dead while walking home. I feel the anger of knowing another young kid from the block is getting involved in the same nonsense that killed that innocent child. I feel the guarded closeness between separated male friends, the commrodary of shared struggle. The clear-eyed bitterness and empathetic realism in Nas’ lyrics on Illmatic is part of the reason the record is a masterpiece, but the unique creative vision and flawless execution on “One Love” make it a touchstone for urban storytelling in my eyes/ears/mind.

– NR

Nas