Assata Shakur

Hip-hop’s Infatuation With Assata Shakur: It’s Complicated

This piece originally ran on TheGrio.com.

It wasn’t our parents who introduced us to Assata Shakur. It was hip-hop. Chuck D of Public Enemy broke the thick, cold ice when he bellowed, “supporter of Chesimard!” in the group’s seminal song “Rebel Without A Pause.”

However, Assata Shakur, known to her haters by her married name, JoAnne Chesimard, lived a graphic tale that began well before the 1987 classic song by P.E. Shakur, 65, was accused of the 1973 murder of state trooper Werner Foerster during a traffic stop in New Jersey. A member of the Black Liberation Army, Shakur was convicted in 1977, even though her case was wrought with controversy (she has consistently denied killing Foerster and proclaimed her innocence). And then she famously escaped, and fled to Cuba. Chuck D name-checked her, and sparked a lot of brain cells in the youth who were consuming rap music at a time when her name was not ringing many bells.
After Chuck D came others in rap who acknowledged Shakur in their lyrics, like revolutionary rapper Paris, the jazzy Digable Planets, militant crew X-Clan, and Common, a more palatable purveyor of conscious rap. Assata’s name came up in 2011 when Common was invited to the White House to perform, as many on the Right took exception to his early lyrical content. They were also offended at his outright, unapologetic support for Shakur on “A Song for Assata,” who is now widely known only as a “convicted cop killer” as if injustice didn’t exist in America.

RELATED: An Open Letter From Assata Shakur

But hip-hop also embraces Assata for a reason deeper than any name-check.

Her godson, Tupac Shakur, was probably the biggest name ever in rap music. Many have fantasized that Pac is in Cuba right now, chillin’ with his step aunt. Although most people gravitate to the thug in Pac, he had revolutionary blood in his veins. He’s mother was a Black Panther and his stepfather Mutulu Shakur, also an activist, is considered a political prisoner by his supporters. Mutulu is in jail right now for helping his sister, Assata, in her escape from prison on November 2, 1979. These are the ones Tupac considered “real n***as.” We absorbed that in his songs as he name checked them.

The wormhole goes deeper.

The Rebel…With A Cause
Shakur holds a major distinction that probably contributes to the ire of her detractors. Simply put, she got away. Davey D, a hip-hop activist and historian, says her supporters can relate to her success at bucking the system.

RELATED: Assata Shakur Becomes First Woman on Terrorist List

“Of course she was a rebel,” Davey says. “She’s been a rebel — not in some sort of nostalgic way — but in a real way that people can relate to.” And he says Shakur’s supporters in the world of hip-hop “don’t see her as some crazed cop killer, the way the popular narrative would have you believe. She was somebody who was about defending our community. She comes on the scene [as a] response to our community [being] attacked” by racist forces.

More than anything, Assata Shakur’s story feels to her supporters like she was at one with hip-hop’s sense of rebellion. At the core, hip-hop music has balked at convention in all its forms. The culture itself was bred out of a particularly dark period in the Bronx the late 70’s and early 80’s, when the young black and brown society that would eventually give birth to hip-hop culture felt marginalized and dismissed by the entire nation. Some in the community accused the  government of overtly conspiring against young people of color with everything from crack cocaine to “Reaganomics.” Through it all, hip-hop was born, survived and, in some ways, escaped those conditions, something that feels familiar in Assata Shakur’s story.

Rosa Clemente, the fiery grassroots organizer, hip-hop activist and journalist, lets it be known exactly why she and others gravitate to Assata.

“Hip-hop culture inherently speaks truth to power and tries to act against power,” Clemente says. “Assata Shakur, through her life and her freedom, not only speaks against power, she escaped from the most powerful military empire in the world. That is why they want her [so badly]. She comes out of a time in history  — the late 60’s, early 70’s — when this country was on the cusp of a revolution. The Black Panther Party was named the biggest internal security threat to the USA. The state used all its power through the COINTELPRO program to stop this.”

Rob “Biko” Baker, who helms the League of Young Voters, agrees, stating that urban youth are in a similar fight every day, albeit not as dramatic.

“Hip-hop is attracted to Assata Shakur because her story represents the oppression, pain and hopefulness of the hip-hop generation,” Baker says. “While her life’s work may anger some politicians, the harsh reality of racism and exclusion in the 60s and 70s forced many to adopt a more militant brand of protest politics. Those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s know that racism and exclusion continued and was reinforced by the war on drugs. Assata’s story shows the hip-hop generation that it is possible to survive.”

Hip-hop at a tipping point

Its a fact that people of color have been victimized in America in ways that continue to this day, from systemic racism to environmental racism to inequalities in nearly every facet of life. Every statistic imaginable supports this notion. Still, people forge ahead with conviction. Detractors may not agree, but hip-hop’s adoration of Assata Shakur is not blind. It’s complicated. It’s rooted in history: past, present, and and probably future. Assata is not O.J. Simpson. She too is complex to be bound by linear, elementary terms like “cop killer” and “domestic terrorist.”

Hip-hop has seen how mainstream groupthink helped reduced Tupac to a common thug. Hip-hop has also seen how police troll rap music websites and maintain dockets on artists, tracking them like future crooks. And we’ve seen hip-hop launch as the most revolutionary art form to originate on American soil, and with all that potential, turn into what today seems to be a tool to keep people brain dead — drugged-up students of a new game who go on to major in party and minor in bullsh*t.

In a 2000 interview with Christian Parenti, Assata Shakur spoke about the power and potential downfall of hip-hop.

“Hip-hop can be a very powerful weapon to help expand young people’s political and social consciousness,” she said. “But just as with any weapon, if you don’t know how to use it, if you don’t know where to point it, or what you’re using it for, you can end up shooting yourself in the foot or killing your sisters or brothers.”

Typically, America loves the outlaw (The Outlaw Josey Wales), the rogue cop (Dirty Harry) jailbreak prisoners (Escape from Alcatraz) … as long as it’s a white guy portrayed by the likes Clint Eastwood. Real outlaws, not so much.

So forget, for a moment, all of the political-social-conspiracy-activist talk about fighting the powers that be, runaway slaves and the like. In a quintessentially American way, some folks in hip-hop just appreciate the raw “gangsta” of a woman who didn’t back down, stood firm in her convictions, completely bucked the system, and lived to tell The Pope about it.

  • she’s an icon who represents self-determination & manifested her own destiny when the courts/prisons thought they had her under their thumb. She represents defiance of absolute control & the name Shakur holds its own weight. They tortured this woman in the hospital and had her in deplorable conditions while she was pregnant in prison. Now they on some slave-catchin ish, tryna up the price on her head–it’s like she escaped to the north & the slave-catchers bein tempted to kidnap her & take her back to the south. They want all political prisoners under their absolute control, they tried to stop Mumia Abu-Jamal’s Freedom of the Press. But the man writes books (literally WRITES) from prison w/out access to the resources those of us who aren’t incarcerated have. (he shames anyone who hasn’t finished their book or album, self included) Much respect to Ms. Shakur for showin us young Black women how strong we are, never underestimate us, in the face of racism, patriarchy, oppression, etc. I look up to this woman

    • Tupac was born in her book….obviously he wasn’t famous then, and only received like 3 sentences, as a diary? entry.

      “Afeni had her baby today. She named him Tupac Amaru Shakur. Then the state came and took him away.”

      They were in the Tombs? during the Panther 21?

      Castro looked out for her, like Qaddafi looked out for Mandela.
      #IJS

  • What’s crazy, when iLL$eed started $chool ‘Em $aturday$, the first topic was on her co defendant, Sundiata Acoli, and included a brief bio, and address to write him:

    CLARK EDWARD SQUIRE 39794-066
    FCI CUMBERLAND
    FEDERAL CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION
    P.O. BOX 1000
    CUMBERLAND, MD 21501

    The purpose of $E$ was to feature our political prisoners & local artist while educating Hip Hop to counter to negative images constantly being portrayed as the culture. It started to spread, leading to WSHH adding political education into the mix, as they chased AHH for the #1 slot.

    (*Fueled by iLLseed’s Rumors ^^^^ #I’mJustSayin’ )

    Sundiata is 76 years old, and has been in prison 40yrs, without any infractions, a model prisoner, that should make every one of us ashamed for supporting him financially with $1 a day, or week, or month, or year.

    #IJS

    When Sundiata wasn’t body guarding the revolutionary Assata Shakur ( *For those that don’t know, Assata Shakur was essentially a female Malcolm X….with guns.

    More man than today’s rappers will ever be, and more woman than they will ever get!

    Since Assata is your family, I’m gonna hit you off:

    Contact Ludacris’ road manager Shaka Zulu, and link up with his father, Ahmed Obafemi, a former Black Panther, who is like a brother to Assata. He went to Cuba & filmed the documentary “Eyes On The Rainbow” about Assata. He was also approached by Al Sharpton, in the 80’s, in a sting operation by the fed to capture Assata.

    Ahmed did 5 in Marion, USP, at the time, the toughest USP in the country until ADX was built, where they house many of Ahmed’s people to this day….unless they are all dead….minus the 76 yrs old Sundiata.

    >>Shrugz “E” shoulders

    >>Shuffles “E” Feet uncomfortably

    Here’s the thing Chuck, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot….well, I do, but……

    How do you feel about a “BLACK” pres, that you support {#I’mJustSayin’} supervising the Hunt For ASSATA?

    *Technically he isn’t “BLACK”, he is “African” – American.

    His father is Kenyan, a British subject, making him a dual citizen by blood, Jus Sanguine, and ineligible to hold office, because a Dual citizen doesn’t meet the “Natural Born” constitutional requirement…..even if he was born at the Apollo, on live TV, he’s still ineligible…..and since that is clear…..we must ask the question….why would they knowingly allow an illegal presidency if the purpose wasn’t to eventually challenge / change the 14th amendment & why?

    ^^HMMMM, sounds like an $E$ topic?

    “The Hunt For Assata Shakur”

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  • Drew Emmerson

    “Her godson, Tupac Shakur, was probably the biggest name ever in rap music.” Nice imagination.

    • hiphopdied1996

      imagiantion lol the nerve of you hahaha name anybody who transformed the game like Pac don’t worry i’ll wait!!!!

      • Drew Emmerson

        Beastie Boys, Eminem, NWA, Public Enemy, I could literally go on and on and on. Tupac didn’t transform any game, break records, or anything similar. Your stanning is based on your perception – not facts. Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer made more transformative impacts on hiphop culture worldwide than some guy who shot his own nut off. 1Pac!

      • Vanilla Ice & MC hammer were both one hit wonders. Basically put out one album a piece that the public enjoyed, went broke..and then disappeared. 2Pac put out 5 albums while alive, including a double album. 7 dropped after he was killed, all of which except one was in platinum or multi platinum status… Oh yea, Greatest Hits went 10 times platinum… oh yea, it’s all just perception, not facts… people who buy records are just a perception. 75 Million sold world wide. 50 Million in the US.. he still has an impact on music today, and is still talked about…(which you have proved by nut hugging).

      • Drew Emmerson

        again – no facts. Stanley.

      • Seriously? I don’t know if you’re stubborn or just stupid. Either way you failed miserably.

      • Darkfather504

        I’m sorry Noles I should have given you the code word for people like Drew Emmerson and that code is I – D -10- T

      • Darkfather504

        2Pac – what he did was open the eyes for the closed people , unity, doing for self, etc – that was the more militant Pac and even the less militant Pac was still enlightening to the minds of the masses (Brenda Had A Baby) so to say he did not have an effect, and for you to place him in the same category of the Beastie Boys, Eminem, Vanilla Ice and Hammer – just slap your self better yet just stop blogging for year!!!! SMH !

      • TC

        I totally agree!

      • He didn’t transform the game???? They still clonin Tupac, homie. Nobody had tatoos before Pac, including athletes! You think Allen Iverson is beloved without Tupac blazing that trail???The thug image became marketable because of the success of Tupac. We ain’t even gon talk sales. He’s the first emcee ever to be idolized by the hardest of criminals and the baddest of women. He’s still changing the game to this day. None of them people you mentioned had a hologram at Cochella, bruh.

    • Losing…..

    • Who’s bigger?

  • Q.

    Michelle O. shows off her new bangs, does the Dougie on late night…

    MEANWHILE…

    Assata, bothering nobody, gets $2 million put on her head…

    WTF?

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