Change is possible
“Some things will never change…”
Today I want to share a new piece with you that explores how we can change things, coming off the week we’ve had, while looking at the big picture…
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Some things will never change
Right now, many people feel like some of our biggest problems are intractable, from racism to gun violence. Like it’s hopeless. Like we have to accept that “some things will never change.”
That’s the refrain from Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” a 1986 song that went #1 as a memorable pop riff, while also discussing civil rights laws and inequality.
Hornsby’s ballad is plaintive and mournful, especially for a pop song. It got a whole second life in the hands of iconic rapper Tupac Shakur, who first recorded his take on the track about six years after it debuted, in “Changes,” when Shakur was just 19 years old.
Tupac picked up the same themes of inequality, racism and hopelessness, but told from his lived experience. Nothing here is sugar-coated, as the song opens:
I see no changes / wake up in the morning and I ask myself:
‘Is life worth living? Should I blast myself?’
I'm tired of being poor and even worse / I'm black
My stomach hurts / so I'm lookin' for a purse to snatch
There’s no grand poetry or allegory here. This is a teenager talking back to a world that denigrates people through poverty and racism. He’s expressing how desperation makes him think of suicide—a common theme from rappers in an era where the mental health conversation was far more limited.
The law don't change another's mind
Pac’s points form an echo to Hornsby, who closed his song by contrasting how you can “change” the law, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but not people’s minds:
They passed a law in '64
To give those who ain't got / a little more
But it only goes so far
Cause the law don't change another's mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar
In a few lines, Hornsby captures a very real dynamic—legal reforms are a step, but they do not automatically achieve social change. In his hands, it feels both apt and a bit hopeless.
As Shakur’s song continues, listeners note he goes farther, also exploring the limits of even radical social movements. Going from the personal to political, he cites how some militant activists approached America’s oppression:
‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said
Two shots in the dark / now Huey’s dead.
He’s invoking the state killing of Black Panther leader Huey Newton.
Shakur’s mother was a member of the Black Panthers, and he was steeped in that history. There’s a keen awareness, even for a 19-year-old, that there are few sustainable options for confronting America’s deeply racist system.
Two Distant Strangers
Yet where Hornsby repeats “some things’ll never change”—a grim diagnosis—Shakur ultimately takes his plea in a different direction.
His chorus proclaims, “things’ll never be the same,” an edit that motions towards dismissing all that talk of complacency. Shakur’s lyrics suggest anyone conceding “that’s just the way it is” will be feeding an environment that makes change less likely.
Shakur, known to so many as a “tough” gangster figure, offers lines that could come out of any after-school special, pleading that people learn to see each other as brothers instead of “two distant strangers.” He continues, “We can never go nowhere, unless we share with each other, we gotta start making changes.“
It’s an almost surprisingly bright note after raising poverty, hunger, suicide and racism. Like many artists, Shakur’s art and ideas were varied—other songs are more hopeless, more angry, and also violent at times. Here we see something very positive and even gentle.
These lyrics are not only “against” evil, they are openly positive and “for” a world where people truly see and respect each other as fellow human beings. He grew up in an environment bereft of that outlook, just as so many people feel that way now, and he called on us to, yes, change that.
Shakur was murdered at the age of 25. “Changes” was not released during his lifetime.
Two years after his death, his record label released the song in a wider collection. It was an immediate and enduring hit in the U.S. and around the world. “Changes” reached the Top 10 in England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Austria, Denmark and Scotland, and has hundreds of millions more plays on streaming services, which reflect audiences in just the past decade. (While Hornsby’s track remains the most popular song in his catalog, for example, Shakur’s “Changes” has about 8 times as many plays online as “The Way It Is.”)
The song has also been lauded by critics and artists in this next generation. Last year, Travon Free won an Oscar for his Netflix film about police brutality, (one of the first times a Black Director has ever won an Oscar). The title:
Two Distant Strangers, quoting Shakur.
It is one more layer of tragedy that Shakur did not live to see the worldwide reception to this song.
If there is a ray of hope, it is that his words and work continue to inspire people who can make change now. Shakur knew that could happen, and we know that, because he told us it would happen. At the age of 24, he told BET:
I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.
P.S. This essay is part of my series on protest anthems. You can subscribe to the full newsletter to receive my writing:
You can listen to “Changes” here.
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