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.
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.
“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.