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We Need Revolutionaries
From the Black Panthers to Tupac to BLM today
Hi again, Ari here, thanks for being a subscriber! Here’s my Friday post for subscribers only.
Some of the most influential musicians have been dead a long time — Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Tupac Shakur.
When I talk to younger artists, it is interesting to hear that many find Tupac inspiring, even if they were born after he died. Vic Mensa, a Chicago rapper who works on immigration and criminal justice reform and has been on The Beat, recently told me about Tupac’s impact on his politics and art.
Vic specifically cited Tupac’s 1996 song “White Man’z World,” where Tupac shouts out his “teachers”:
Mutulu Shakur (his stepfather)
Geronimo Pratt (godfather)
Mumia Abu Jamal
Mensa cited Tupac’s ability to mix his tough lyrics with emotional vulnerability and an appreciation for revolutionary thought. The people Tupac cites were in jail when that song was released — largely for acts they viewed as political protests, from working with the Black Panther Party or Black Liberation Army.
Pratt served 27 years in prison, and eight of them in horrific solitary confinement, for a conviction that was ultimately overturned. (He faced profiling and pursuit by the FBI, and a judge later founded the government wrongly concealed evidence that could have shown Pratt’s innocence.) That was Tupac’s Godfather.
So he was steeped in revolution, in challenging power, authority and the “story” the powerful tell about the world. Tupac’s mom, a Black panther, started on this front early. She named her son after Túpac Amaru, who resisted Spanish conquerors in Peru. He is a legend there to this day, you can see the streets named after him.
Tupac’s music spans many across many themes, he had a sensitive poet side, a party side, a political revolutionary side and, after a stint in prison, a “gangster” side that was promoted when he signed with the notorious Death Row records. You can find many of the themes at different points in his lyrics and music.
He was also remarkably thoughtful and prescient in interviews, even as a very young man. (He died at age 25)
Consider these remarks from a 1994 interview, when he was 23 years old, about the struggle for survival and equality in an unfair capitalistic society:
“If I know that in this hotel room, they have food every day, and I’m knocking on the door every day to eat and they open the door, let me see the party, let me see them throwing salami all over; I mean, just throwing food around [and] they're telling me there’s no food. Every day, I'm standing outside trying to sing my way in: "We are hungry, please let us in. We are hungry, please let us in." After about a week that song is gonna change to, "We hungry, we need some food.” After two, three weeks, it’s like, "Give me the food or I’m breaking down the door." After a year you’re just like, "I’m picking the lock, coming through the door blasting!" It’s like, you hungry, you reached your level. We asked ten years ago. We was asking with the [Black] Panthers. We was asking with the Civil Rights Movement. We was asking. Those people that asked are dead and in jail! So now what do you think we’re gonna do? Ask?”
The point resonates with any protest movement being told to “wait,” and “ask,” and “play by the rules.”
It’s even more poignant when we remember he knew those people who ended up “dead or in jail.”
This is my newsletter, so you read the words, but I encourage you to go watch him say it in his own words — the excerpt runs about one minute.
Tupac’s art lives on an inspires. He also lived and acted on his revolutionary views and civil rights stances, something we profiled as the protests over George Floyd first began.
His art, actions and passion were inspired by his personal and intellectual knowledge of many who came before him, so there is some hope in seeing a new generation of leaders follow his example today. Could he have ever known that would happen?
Yes. We only know that because he told us, when discussing his controversial work challenging American racism and policing:
“I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world -- but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.”
P.S. Here is the report citing Tupac that I mentioned