"Keep Ya Head Up": Tonya Pinkins, Saycon Sengbloh and Joaquina Kalukango on the Feminist Message of Holler If Ya Hear Me

The women of Holler If Ya Hear Me weigh in on Tupac Shakur's conflicted legacy of empowering women through hip hop. Was he the "feminist," "prophet," and "Shakespeare" they proclaim him to be?

Tonya Pinkins
Tonya Pinkins (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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Tupac Shakur was 22 years old when he released the anthem "Keep Ya Head Up." In the song, dedicated to Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African-American girl shot and killed at the outset of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Shakur implores women to know their worth, proclaiming: "And when he tells you you ain't nothin' don't believe him/And if he can't learn to love you, you should leave him/'Cause sista you don't need him."

"Raise Ya Head Up" and other Shakur songs like "Unconditional Love" and "Dear Mama" pepper the score of Holler If Ya Hear Me, currently playing the Palace Theatre, with words of encouragement for women amid a gritty urban tale replete with murder, prison, and a tempestuous love triangle. The ambitious new musical from Tony winner Kenny Leon and writer Todd Kreidler represents a first for hardcore hip hop and Broadway.

"Never before has this story been told on Broadway, and never has this kind of energy been on Broadway," says Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins, who stars as the story's matriarch, and who appeared in the 1994 film "Above the Rim" with the late rapper.

Starring Saul Williams, Christopher Jackson, Saycon Sengbloh and John Earl Jelks, Holler is a non-biographical story that uses Shakur's music and poetry to tell an original tale. "I always loved his music, and the [time] I spent with him on the set of 'Above the Rim,' he impressed me in every way," Pinkins says of her brief time with the rapper. "Tupac was a feminist. His lyrics in 'Keep Ya Head Up' espouse everything women deserve and which the patriarchal society undermines and which government continues to try to control."

Though his career was short — roughly five years — Shakur is recognized as one of the most prolific hip hop artists of all time — one that brought gangster rap to the mainstream. Known as 2Pac or just Tupac (and sometimes Makaveli), the Harlem native was also a poet and an actor, starring in movies like "Juice," "Poetic Justice" and "Above the Rim." He died at the age of 25, six days after being shot in Las Vegas in 1996.

"He comes from a family of revolutionaries," says Pinkins of the rapper whose parents, Afeni Shakur (a producer of Holler) and Billy Garland, were members of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. "This is a brilliant mind, a brilliant articulate man. He didn't allow himself to be defined by any genre within rap; he made all kinds of rap from gangster rap, thug rap to political rap. He was a prophet and just a brilliant artist and wordsmith, like a [modern] Shakespeare."

Saul Williams and Saycon Sengbloh
Photo by Joan Marcus

Saycon Sengbloh, who departed the Broadway box-office hit Motown last spring to join Holler, was already attached to the project during its workshop stages. She portrays Corinne, the female lead caught in a prickly relationship dynamic between John (Williams) and his best friend Vertus (Jackson).

"She's a young woman who is torn between her needs for change and her love for the people she holds most dear," says Sengbloh. An avid listener of Shakur's music throughout the years, the Atlanta native — who also starred in the Broadway productions of Fela!, Hair, The Color Purple, Wicked and Aida — says she's looking at his work with a more "critical eye" these days.

"I'm approaching his lyrics differently in regards to his entire body of work and what he was saying in regards to hip hop," she reveals. "I know in general people talk a lot about misogyny in hip hop, but Tupac was one of the few artists that had lyric after lyric dedicated to women or about women. Beautiful songs like 'Brenda's Got a Baby' or 'Keep Ya Head Up,' and as much as he would write these party anthems, he came from a family that was somewhat political… and as an artist he wasn't afraid to write a song that uplifted women and not worry about whether it was going to sell records or not."

Joaquina Kalukango may have just come from playing the legendary African queen in the Public Theater's ambitious production of Tarell Alvin McCraney's Antony and Cleopatra, but nothing could keep her from Holler.

"I told my agent, 'Please send me in, I have to go in for this' because I grew up listening to Tupac as well," the Atlanta native reveals about hearing of the show. "When we were little, my sister and I had this thing where she said she was going to marry him, so I always had this admiration for him, thinking that Tupac was going to be my brother-in-law," she muses. Kalukango worked with Leon when she was 16 at True Colors Theatre. She won rave reviews for her performance in Katori Hall's Hurt Village and made her Broadway debut in 2011's revival of Godspell. For Holler If Ya Hear Me, she has been on board since the beginning.

"This is my first time actually workshopping something that actually comes to Broadway. To see it go from where we are creating a piece and collaborating together and watching the process of where it starts and literally where it ends, it's kind of a little surreal for me right now."

For Pinkins, being a part of a milestone project was well worth the wait. "I cannot fully express how important this show is to me. This is the story that needs to be told now, in this forum — the only time black males have had a voice. We may not get it perfect or right but we are planting a seed and contributing to the evolution on the planet toward saving endangered black men.... It is thrilling to see these young people dancing and singing on the stage, it is just thrilling."