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'Brenda's Got a Baby' — Then and Now

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A young woman in a top ponytail holds a white blanket containing a baby
Ethel Love, at age 17, as Brenda in Tupac Shakur’s music video for ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby.’ Love says the role came naturally, ‘because it was similar to my life already.’ (YouTube/Interscope Records)

Editor’s note: This story is part of That’s My Word, KQED’s year-long exploration of Bay Area hip-hop history, with new content dropping all throughout 2023.

There’s an alley in downtown Oakland that connects Webster Street and Harrison Street, between 12th Street and 13th Street. Situated on the border of downtown and Chinatown, gated on both ends and naturally lit from above, the block-long walkway has been the site of day parties, shady doings, and a runway for rats in the middle of the night.

I’d often walk past this alley when I lived on 13th and Webster, thinking nothing of it. That is, until one day when I was watching the 1992 music video for Tupac’s classic song, “Brenda’s Got A Baby.”

It suddenly hit me: That’s the spot where Brenda’s body was found.

A scene from Tupac Shakur’s video for ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby.’ (YouTube/Interscope Records)

In the video, an OPD cruiser idles in the alley as Brenda’s body is covered by a bloody white sheet — not far from where, earlier in the video, she’d dropped her newborn in a dumpster. As Tupac narrates the story, Brenda’s death is shown reported on the front page of the Oakland Tribune.

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Brenda’s death may have been fictitious, but as the video notes, it was based on a true story. Tupac had been inspired by one particularly heinous account of a 12 year-old girl in New York who was molested and impregnated by a family member — a story that symbolizes the unfortunate reality too many young people face, then and now.

As the video begins, the character of Brenda walks down the street holding a baby wrapped in a white cloth. Her image then cross-dissolves, revealing Tupac surrounded by a crew of teenagers and young adults.

Money B, rapper of Digital Underground fame and friend of Tupac, is among the people in the posse. Money B says everyone in that shot, aside from him and Pac’s childhood friend Mouse Man, were artists Pac was working to develop at the time. “Pac was very strategic in all of that,” Money B says, on a group call. “He understood product placement and branding from the very beginning.”

A scene from Tupac Shakur’s video for ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby.’ (YouTube/Interscope Records)

There’s some other Easter eggs in the video too, says Money B, including Digital Underground’s DJ Fuze portraying a cop, a street pole adorned with an Oakland logo, and a cardboard sign reading “Bush Sucks,” a shot at George H.W. Bush, the United States’ sitting president at the time.

In addition to appearing in the video, Money B is featured on the song through a brief back and forth with Pac:

“I hear Brenda’s got a baby / But Brenda’s barely got a brain / A damn shame, the girl can hardly spell her name,” says Tupac.

“That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family,” says Money B.

To which Pac responds, “Well, let me show ya how it affects the whole community.”

Discussing the music video now, Money B laughs and says, “When I say that line, I’m leaning down, and I try to get up and I stumble, and I fall, and I do a smirk, like, ‘Oh shit, I scrubbed.’ But they kept it in there.”

Tupac wrote the whole song, including that line for Money B, before Deon “Big D the Impossible” Evans produced the track. The day they recorded it, Money B happened to be hanging out with Chicago singer Dave Hollister (formerly of Blackstreet) and Roniece Levias (who has also worked with Too Short, E-40 and Digital Underground). When they heard the beat in Starlight studio, the two vocalists, both steeped in the church, began to sing.

“They were going back and forth,” Money B says of Levias and Hollister. “They caught a groove and Pac was like, ‘Go in there and do that.’ That was on the spot, spur of the moment, lightning in a bottle.” Atron Gregory, Tupac’s former manager, chimes in on the call: “That was the first time on a hip-hop record that singing was done all the way through the record. There was singing on hip-hop records, but not all the way through.”

Money B points out another distinguishing feature of the song: “Brenda’s Got a Baby is just one verse,” he says. “It’s not like: song, hook, song, hook. All (Tupac) wanted to do is tell a story, and everything else just happened on the spot.”

Ethel Love, who played Brenda in Tupac Shakur’s ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby Video,’ pictured in a recent photo. (Courtesy Ethel Love)

Ethel Love, the woman who portrayed Brenda in the music video, is watching her grandchildren when she joins the call. Bright-spirited and full of energy, she talks to us from a car in Georgia, preparing to celebrate her 49th birthday, remembering the video shoot vividly.

“I didn’t hear the story for the first time until after I did the video,” says Love.

Just 17 years old at the time, Love was tapped by her brother Deandre (a.k.a. Papa Doc), a friend of Tupac’s, to be the lead actress. Love says the video’s directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, let the song’s lyrics inform their direction, and simply told Love what they wanted her to do in each scene.

Love, who was raised between North and Central Richmond and grew up in the church, was involved in the arts through the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts. But she’d never done anything of this magnitude.

Money B interjects, “Do you remember my momma being your momma?” His question about his real mother portraying Love’s mother in the video is met with a round of laughs. “Yes,” says Love, before explaining that arguing with her fictional mother on the set wasn’t a far stretch from her real life. “I’d just not too long ago went off on my momma … because I wanted to hang out, and my momma attacked me, and I was talking to her just like that.”

Love was a mother of one at the time, and says she drew from her own experience in portraying the role of Brenda. “It was easy because it was similar to my life already,” she says. Aside from Brenda becoming a prostitute, the girls’ stories had eerie parallels. “All that was so real,” she says, “because I was living that life.”

The weight of the moment is broken by the laughter of one of Love’s four grandchildren in the background of the call. “Brenda’s still got a lot of babies,” Love jokes.

In the early ’90s, after the video dropped, life changed for Love. “It was hard walking down the hallway at school, because everyone thought I was different now, because I was on a popular video with this popular young man,” says Love. People questioned why she didn’t tell them what she was doing; all the while Love just wanted to remain low-key.

“I was always secretive anyway,” says Love, anecdotally sharing that she had quietly been driving to school since the age of 13, parking around the corner and not telling anyone. But now she was on TV, and friends she grew up with were changing on her. People she didn’t know treated her equally as weird. “I couldn’t go outside like I used to for a while, especially with my daughter. It used to scare her,” says Love. “People used to come up to her and say, ‘Oh my god, you that girl from the video?!’ Screaming and trying to touch me and grab her. It was really weird.”

Love soon had two more daughters, and as her children matured, she shared with them the story of the music video, the song and the golden plaque she received from her role in it all. She also warned her children not to tell anyone about her role in Tupac’s video, because she didn’t want them to be treated differently in school. But as the girls grew older, they kept seeing images of their mother on social media.

Ethel Love as a teenager. (Courtesy Ethel Love)

“Only reason I’m on Facebook and Instagram is because my kids,” says Love. She imitates her children as she says, “Mom look, you in the feed again. They’re saying you’re LisaRaye.”

Atron and Money B laugh, they’ve heard that rumor too. (LisaRaye appeared in a different Tupac video, “Toss It Up.”) Love sees no shade in being mixed up with another successful beautiful Black woman. But Love is not LisaRaye, nor is she “Brenda.” Instead, Love is quite clear on who she is and how, as a child, she portrayed an image that spoke to some of the largest issues facing society.

“I like the bathroom scene,” Love tells me, referring to the moment in the video when Brenda is physically delivering the baby. “Because that is so real to people that have kids, but don’t know how to tell their parents they’re having a child. (They) end up having a child in the bathtub or in a bathroom,” says Love. One of her own family members, she adds, experienced this firsthand.

One of Ethel’s grand-babies enters the screen as I ask about last year’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights and how hip-hop has addressed this issue—or added to the issue.

Love says she didn’t understand at the time, but being a grandmother now, she sees the significance of her role. Not just as a character in a popular music video from four decades ago, but as a volunteer babysitter, reproductive health advocate and firm believer in the concept of a village raising a child.

A scene from Tupac Shakur’s video for ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby.’ (YouTube/Interscope Records)

When she looks back at the music video, and considers how far she’s come, she realizes that, in many ways, she’s still that person — the one Tupac saw when he suggested her for the role. “It’s like he marked me,” says Love. “He knew that I was going to be that person. I’ve always been that person. I had other people’s kids before I had kids. I’m a nurturer.”

On the note of reproductive health and healthy methods of community support, I ask Money B again about that line of his: “That’s not our problem, that’s up to Brenda’s family.”

Money B refers to he and Tupac’s shared Black Panther lineage. Pac’s mother, the late Afeni Shakur, was a New York Black Panther Party member and a part of the Panther 21. As a child in the Bay Area, Money B attended the Black Panther Party’s Freedom School in Oakland. With that community-oriented foundation, Money B and Tupac share the same mindset as Ethel Love: it takes a village.

“It’s the mentality that a lot of us have, or have had, when it comes to raising the youth,” says Money B. When done right, he says, it’s amazing the difference that we can collectively make.

Before the call ends, Mon, as friends call him, tells Love how happy he is to see her, and how proud he is of the woman she’s become; he brags that he’s going to tell his mother about her.

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Love responds, “Give her a hug and a kiss for me.”

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