Editor's Note: Tomorrow, September 13, 2011, marks the 15th anniversary of Tupac Shakur's death. To commemorate, West Coast Sound will feature Tupac stories all week.
“I only listen to 2Pac before going to shoot Gaddafi boys,” said Hisham al Hady to a British journalist recently. Al Hady is a Libyan rebel battling the regime of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, but he's not alone. Shakur's influence on African fighters extends far beyond the current civil strife in Libya, and goes much deeper than just pre-battle pump-ups.
Militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo adopted knock-off Tupac T-shirts as de facto uniforms in the late 1990s, as did members of that country's regular armed forces. By 2002, rebels in Côte d'Ivoire were similarly clad in Pac-adorned attire.
But it was during the latter stages of Sierra Leone's hellish civil war in the early aughts that the rapper was most visibly iconized by African warriors. That conflict's principal rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front, started donning Shakur shirts en-masse in 1998. They mimicked Shakur's hairstyle. They wrote things like “Death Row,” “Missing in action,” and “Only God can judge” on their rag-tag vehicles, and danced to his music between firefights.
“The rebels take [Tupac's lyrics] very seriously and try to apply the lyrics,” a Sierra Leonean refugee explained two years later.
One of the war's most outlandish militant groups, the West Side Boys, took their very name from Tupac's rhetoric. (His classic 1996 diss “Hit 'Em Up” includes the lyric “West Side bad boy killers.”) The famously inebriated Boys — who were also fond of wearing women's wigs and flip-flops — would even scrawl “2Pac” onto their assault rifles.
“[Tupac's] music articulated a set of experiences that a lot of people around the world, and particularly in Africa, have perceived as a kind of shared experience,” says Jeremy Prestholdt, a professor of African history at UC San Diego. “Marginalization; poverty; angst; and a sense of powerlessness that can be converted into a sense of personal empowerment.”
To those youth involved in African conflicts after his 1996 death, his resonance became increasingly exaggerated.
During the Sierra Leone conflict — a war almost devoid of ideology — Tupac's projection of a justified sense of revenge offered often-conscripted combatants some sort of meaning to the violence they were witnessing and perpetrating. In Shakur they perceived a sympathetic voice for their otherwise incomprehensible experiences and unjustifiable actions.
“Tupac offers a kind of psychological solace in the midst of this chaos,” Prestholdt explains. “In a lot of different contexts, certainly not only Sierra Leone, Tupac offered this image of resilience, invincibility, bravado, and hyper-masculinity.”
Shakur's murder in September of 1996 came at a critical point in Sierra Leone's civil war. The following May, the Revolutionary United Front and mutinous army soldiers sacked the country's capital, Freetown. Amidst this orgy of looting, rape and murder, many fighters looked to the rhymes of their now mythologized hip-hop hero for some vague comprehension of their situation.
Lyrics like “Witnessin' killins, leaving dead bodies in abandoned buildings,” from “Me Against the World,” suddenly seemed almost prophetic to some of the very young — and habitually drugged — gunmen. The Pac-worshipping West Side Boys emerged near Freetown in 1998.
Across large swathes of Africa, Tupac now rivals the importance of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley as a pop cultural icon. And while other hip-hop stars – including Kanye West, 50 Cent and Eminem – are also widely idolized on the continent, none seem to have the emotional purchase of Tupac's legacy.
In fact, when the besieged Colonel Gaddafi recently started hearing “Me Against the World” booming from rebels' advancing vehicles, one suspects he might have identified with the track himself.