Tupac Shakur mural. photograph taken by Teun Voeten in December 1999, Sierra Leone.
TUPAC SHAKUR June 16, 1971 – September 13, 1996
One of the reasons why hip-hop culture works well, for better and worse, as a tool for self-expression around the world is because it allows disenfranchised people to speak on their own behalf: the dance, music, and visual aesthetic provides a creative platform that transcends language, race, and religion. Hip-hop is used by local organizations like the Uganda based Breakdance Project, for instance, as art therapy for former child soldiers and AIDS orphans. While many of the world’s major nongovernmental organizations and international aid organizations still don’t understand what participants in the culture have since, like forever, hip-hop can be used as a tool for social change. But that’s another story.
One of the most fascinating aspects about hip-hop to me has been the global obsession with Tupac Shakur, especially throughout the African continent.Â In Sierra Leone, for instance, Tupac was seen as a patron saint of sorts. Countless rebel forces whoâ€”they shed their former selves by taking on new namesâ€”adopted Tupac’s name as their own. Many of them acted the lyrics to his more violent musical offerings, against countless victims (many of which were women). Unfortunately, they also took on what they perceived was his gangster demeanor.Â In one town upcountry, the journalist Lansana Fofana told me that a rebel group wore Tupac Shakur T-shirts in lieu of military uniforms and proceeded to almost completely destroy the village. The chief, who hid in the bush and watched helplessly as his community was decimated, declared that anyone wearing Tupac’s image from that moment on would be considered an enemy: a crime punishable by death.
It’s really too bad that songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” and “Dear Mama” didn’t make it to the continent. I think that if more people would have experienced Tupac Shakur for who he was a very impressionable and talented young man growing up in the spoltlight who was pitted against his friends by the media and his handlers, and ultimately, lost his life to senseless violence it may have affected these child soldiers and rebels differently. I’d like to think so.