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

By Karu F. Daniels
26 Jun 2014

Tonya Pinkins
Tonya Pinkins
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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?


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."


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