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A new docuseries explores the relationship between rapper Tupac Shakur and his mother

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A new documentary explores the origins of a beloved song and the life of the musician behind it, one of the most influential artists ever, Tupac Shakur.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) When I was young, me and my mama had beef, 17 years old, kicked out on the streets. Though back at the time, I never thought I'd see her face, ain't a woman alive that could take my mama's place.

RASCOE: "Dear Mama" is a five-part series starting Friday on FX. It's a dual biography of Tupac and his mama, Afeni Shakur. She was a key figure in the Black Panther Party of the '60s and '70s, later struggled with addiction and then kept her son's legacy alive after Tupac's murder in 1996 until her own death. The series is directed by Allen Hughes, who shot some of Tupac's videos back in the day and went on to have a big Hollywood career with films like "Menace II Society" and "The Book Of Eli." In tracking Tupac's story from drama student to Death Row Records superstar, Hughes set a very specific goal.

ALLEN HUGHES: Find the answers to the riddle of Tupac through his mother. So all the revolutionary spirit, the education, the intellectual curiosity, the world knowledge about human rights and history, that all came through Afeni to Tupac. And his Panther uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters, there was an expectation for Tupac placed upon him when he was born. He was born a prince. No one knew that, either. They thought he was going to be the leader of the new African Panther movement. And unfortunately and fortunately, there was this little thing called rap that derailed that program.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) And even as a crack fiend, Mama, you always was the Black queen, Mama.

RASCOE: Afeni dealing with the struggles and the pain that she was dealing with, she ends up turning to crack, to drugs. So there was also, like, a lot of pain there. You know, it was a lot that both of them were carrying in that relationship.

HUGHES: Yeah, there was a lot of inherited trauma on both parts. You got issues with, you know, men letting you down, fathers not being there. But for Tupac, when your mother is also an addict, you've got to grow up real fast. You know, when you're seven, you're 21 all of a sudden, because you're seeing and hearing things that maybe you shouldn't be hearing or seeing. Just being born as a Panther baby, you have to watch out for feds. You know, they put you on the stoop at 8 years old to watch the block for undercover agents. No kid should be subjected to that. I thought I knew why Tupac was paranoid just by knowing him. Young, Black male, hip-hop, Hennessy, weed. No, that's not what it was. That's not what it was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRENDA'S GOT A BABY")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) 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 her 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, putting death into his arms. It's sad, because I bet Brenda doesn't even know. Just 'cause you're in the ghetto doesn't mean you can't grow.

RASCOE: People always have this conversation about Tupac where they go, yeah, he was doing "Brenda's Got A Baby," but then, you know, he switched it up, and it was "Thug Life." It was this and that. But it seems like to me, I think, watching this, and the more that I think about Tupac - is that question of, was he really a thug, or was he really a revolutionary? - I don't know if that's the right question, but it does seem like he was ready to fight for what he believed in.

HUGHES: No doubt. He was - he definitely was a warrior. You know, doesn't mean he was hip to the streets the way they move. There is a difference between a drug dealer and a revolutionary. You know, Snoop says it best. He goes, Tupac couldn't bring gangbanging to hip-hop, but what he could bring to it was his military mindset and his revolutionary and his community organizing mindset. Part of it is when you come from abject poverty - I'm talking about extreme poverty, where you go many years with not knowing where your next meal is going to come from. People don't know that about Tupac - when you start to get a taste of success, you know, you succumb to this life of hip-hop a little bit. But, you know, also, you're becoming a rock star. You're becoming a rock star. And rock stars - No. 1 thing with rock stars, you're going to give in to the excesses at a certain point. So he had to go there as part of his progression as a man. And unfortunately, his life was cut short at 25 - a baby.

RASCOE: A baby. A baby. Like, I have to say I was surprised, like, when I heard you were doing this documentary. And I was - because I was like, Allen Hughes? Wait a minute. Didn't Tupac fight or get into it with him and get arrested? Like, there was a conflict between you and Tupac, a falling out that was violent.

HUGHES: Yeah. I won't get into the thing that happened because it's in the movie.

RASCOE: Yeah.

HUGHES: There was a falling out, a disagreement over him in our film. He was cast in "Menace II Society." He was very helpful towards getting that film greenlit. And it just didn't work out, and we had to go our separate ways. He wasn't happy about the way that happened. And no, when I got brought in or asked to do this from the family and the estate, I didn't want to do it, for some of those reasons. Like, oh, man, you know, people are going - what are people going to think? I thought I made peace with him years ago. I know he apologized several times in several different ways. But, you know, he passed away without us physically coming together and reconciling. The reason why I did the film was I was like, I don't understand what happened. That social conscious kid and then the Death Row thing, I just didn't - I knew intellectually certain things, but I just wanted to understand because I was confused because Tupac is one of the most misunderstood figures of the 20th century. So I wanted to come to terms with it. And on this journey, I absolutely did.

RASCOE: You say he's the most misunderstood. What do you think people misunderstand about him?

HUGHES: They think he's a gangster.

RASCOE: Yeah. Gangster rapper.

HUGHES: Yeah. They think he's a - he's not a gangster. Now, he's embodied that as an alter ego at times, but that's not all he is. He is also something you rarely see in modern culture. He's a young man - particularly in Black men - who was available to whatever emotion he's in.

RASCOE: He was very sensitive. Like, he was very sensitive.

HUGHES: Very sensitive. Highly, highly sensitive. And if he was going to love on you, he was going to love hard, so hard that you'd be like, I don't know what this kind of love is. If he was angry with you, it was violent anger. You know, if he was going to have an intellectual conversation with you, he's going to the outer space where you're like, what is this? You know, if he felt joyful, you never felt that kind of joy in your life. Like, this just - it was all extremes. And he was available to it. Most men are not available to their emotions, just period. And that's what made him special. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T MAD AT CHA")

SHAKUR: I ain't mad at cha.

RASCOE: That's Allen Hughes. His new docuseries about Tupac and Afeni Shakur is called "Dear Mama." Thank you so much for joining us and talking about this. I really appreciate it.

HUGHES: Thank you, Ayesha. I really appreciate it as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AIN'T MAD AT CHA")

SHAKUR: (Rapping) Now, we was once two brothers of the same kind, quick to approach a ghetto cutie with the same line. You was just a little smaller, but you still rolled... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.