Hip-hop's infatuation with Assata Shakur: It's complicated
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.