As the rebels’ caravans advanced on Muammar Gaddafi’s hideout at the Battle of Sirte in October 2011, music blasted from their vehicles, getting louder the closer they came to the large drainage pipe Gaddafi and his bodyguards had belly-crawled into:
Maybe he’ll listen in his casket – the aftermath
More bodies being buried – I’m losing my homies in a hurry
They’re relocating to the cemetery
The question is will I live? No one in the world loves me
I’m headed for danger
It’s just me against the world baby
It’s likely that the voice of Tupac Shakur was one of the last Gaddafi heard before he was beaten and shot to death, for the rapper was idolized by countless young activists who were responsible for bringing about the movement toward democratization known as the Arab Spring.
“I only listen to Tupac before going to shoot Gaddafi boys,” Libyan rebel fighter Hisham al Hady told a British journalist in 2011. Fifteen years after the African-American rapper was gunned down in a drive-by in Las Vegas, his music has become the voice of Libyan youth and a generation throughout North Africa and the Middle East who led uprisings beginning in 2010 (some are calling the post-2012 civil war strife the Arab Winter). “Tupac is, still to this day, the biggest Western music artist in Libya,” says Libyan-American rapper Khaled M. “Just riding around in the streets, you see graffiti: RIP Tupac. His influence is huge.”
But the rapper’s significance on the continent reaches further back to the ’90s, when militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo donned Tupac t-shirts as defacto uniforms until the country’s regular armed forces followed suit. Shakur’s 1995 multi-platinum album Me Against the World, released while he was serving a jail sentence and fraught with verbal assaults on his enemies, became anthemic for just about every agitator carrying a grudge. By 1998, Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (who danced to Tupac’s music between firefights) were also wearing Shakur’s shirts as military get-ups, followed by rebels in Côte d’Ivoire four years later. A Woodrow Wilson Center report on youth in the developing world notes, “Tupac’s lyrics expressing his alienation, fury, and his conviction that his quest for revenge is thoroughly justified, all conjure an image of a defiant, proud anti-hero, and an inspiration for many of Africa’s young and alienated urbanites.”
Born in East Harlem, New York in 1971, Tupac Shakur – named after indigenous Peruvian revolutionary Tupac Amaru – rose to fame in California in the early 90s when his family relocated there in his teens. Much of his world outlook was shaped by his upbringing in a political family (his mother, father, godfather, stepfather and his sister were all high-ranking members of the Black Panther Party) and in the ghettos of New York, Maryland and California.
Khaled M says Tupac embodies the struggle: “He represented trying to come up out of your environment and be something bigger and that’s something that all of the youth in Libya can relate to.” Even though he passed away in 1996, there exists a widespread belief that somewhere, he’s still alive. You can spot “TUPAC LIVES” graffiti scrawled on walls from Cape Town to Oakland to Benghazi. In a sense, through his diehard worldwide fandom, he does.
Featured photo by Dan Ciminera.