Strictly 4 everyone: Why do Kremlin apparatchiks, African rebels, and the Vatican all love Tupac?

Strictly 4 everyone: Why do Kremlin apparatchiks, African rebels, and the Vatican all love Tupac?

Tom Friedman’s column today reveals the Vladislav Surkov, the deputy prime minister and political strategist known as "Putin’s Machiavelli," is actually more of a "Makaveli":

Surkov, once described as Putin’s Machiavelli, is impressive, and his plans to stimulate innovation in Russia sounded real to me. But I couldn’t resist noting that innovative cultures don’t do things like throw the punk band Pussy Riot into prison for two years for performing a “punk prayer” in a cathedral. That sends a bad signal to all freethinkers. Surkov, who also keeps a picture of the American rapper Tupac Shakur behind his desk, pushes back. “Tupac Shakur is a genius, and the fact that he was in prison did not interrupt either his creative juices or the innovative development of the United States.” Pussy Riot is no Tupac Shakur, he added. “Being orthodox myself, I feel really sorry for the girls from Pussy Riot, but [their situation] has no implications for the innovative developments of Russia.”

Surkov is the second prominent cultural conservative to out himself as a Tupac fan in recent days, after Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who told GQ that "Killuminati" is one of his favorite songs and laments that modern hip hop has "crossed over and sort of become indistinguishable from pop music in general."

Think it’s odd that these two men share devout Christianity, culturally conservative views, and a fondness for West Coast gangsta rap? Consider the fact that the Vatican included the slain rapper’s posthumous hit "Changes" on its Myspace playlist in 2009.

American conservatives may still like to take shots at hip hop now and then — witness last year’s fracas after the decidedly PG-13 rated "conscious" rapper Common was invited to the White House — but I imagine this will mellow with the ascendance of figures like Rubio and Surkov — both in their 40s — who grew up listening to it. (Even Vladimir Putin has been known to attend a rap battle now and then.)

But what’s interesting about Tupac in particular is that he seems to appeal to both the world’s most powerful people and its most marginalized. As Sean Jacobs wrote last year, Tupac’s status as an icon among urban African youth today has eclipsed older figures like Bob Marley. Jacobs links to a 2003 Wilson Center report that attempts to explain the reasons for the rapper’s continued appeal:

A popular T-shirt has a black background, showing Tupac (spelled “2Pac”) looking alert, with U.S. dollar signs ringing the collar and his most popular slogan, “All Eyez on Me,” across the bottom. “All Eyez on Me,” indeed—Tupac’s lyrics expressing his alienation, fury, and his conviction that his quest for revenge is thoroughly justified, the police sirens in the background of many of his songs, the belief that he was not really murdered but is still alive (often proclaimed in “Tupac Lives” graffiti), all conjure an image of a defiant, proud antihero, and an inspiration for many of Africa’s young and alienated urbanites.

Tupac — whose Black Panther parents named him after an indigenous Peruvian rebel leader and folk hero —  has also been adopted as an icon by rebel groups in Congo, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere. The largest rebel faction in Sierra Leone’s civil war, the Revolutionary United Front, commonly wore Tupac t-shirts and took on his lyrics as mantras. As Paul Rogers notes, as recently as 2011, a Libyan rebel fighter told a British journalist, "I only listen to 2Pac before going to shoot Gaddafi boys." 

Compared to other global icons like, say, Michael Jackson, Tupac is a figure very much associated with a geographic region (California, city of Compton, etc.) and the tragically short era in which he was active. So it’s a bit surprising that his appeal has turned out to be universal enough that everyone from Kremlin political technologists, to Tea Party senators, to African rebels, to Haitian gang leaders to rural Chinese teenagers can find something to identify with in his work.