“I SEE NO CHANGES” – Exploring Mass Incarceration in the United States Through Tupac Shakur’s Lyricism

by Aaron Navid Dahm
This paper examines the issue of mass incarceration, especially its most striking feature, the racial dimension. The issue of mass incarceration is, first and foremost, a social issue and, as such, touches upon the lives of individuals, families and communities. By intertwining the music of Tupac, who was a respected voice within the Black community, with contemporary literature, I seek to break with the traditional antagonistic relationship between researcher and research topic and attempt to make the voices heard of those most affected by the here examined issue of mass incarceration. Two major themes are addressed in this paper: mass incarceration as a system of social control and the War on Drugs as the driving force behind this system. Mass incarceration can be understood as the “what” while the War on Drugs answers the question to the “how”, more specifically the question “how did we get here”? Tupac’s lyricism informs the exploration at every step of the way. Many aspects of both the system of mass incarceration as well as the War on Drugs, are addressed in his lyrics and can be explored through them. But Tupac’s voice in this paper transcends the mere function of illustration. His commentary allows the reader to gain insights into the inner life of the Black community and the effects which the system of mass incarceration has had especially on impoverished ghettos. Since the here explored system of mass incarceration has had a paramount effect on a whole population – the Black community – I think of it as my responsibility as a researcher to make these effects visible through an authentic voice from within this community. As we will see Tupac’s lyrics add an invaluable dimension to the effort of understanding this complex issue.