Tupac Shakur died on September 13, 1996, six days after a being ambushed in a drive-by shooting on Las Vegas Boulevard. Almost 25 years later, he is still very much alive in countries across Africa. Youth from Kenya, to Liberia, to Zimbabwe strut the streets in t-shirts bearing his image. There are also young Nigerians remixing his tracks on YouTube, and murals that have been painted as monuments to his memory in Sierra Leone and South Africa.
His legacy on the continent has probably been rendered most vividly in these last two countries. During Sierra Leone’s bloody conflict, for instance, Tupac t-shirts doubled as uniforms and his lyrics served as battle cries for young fighters trying to emulate the rebellious bravado of their idol; in South Africa, members of Cape Town’s estimated 130 gangs still revere Tupac as an embodiment of a powerful “outlaw masculinity” that valorizes crime, violence, incarceration, and wealth. It is men—especially poor young men—that most obviously connect to the masculine aggression that pulses through songs such as “When We Ride On Our Enemies” and “Hit Em’ Up.”
But Tupac’s influence is not limited to men. A Cape Town-based study published in 2020 in the journal Ethnography found that young men and young women both identify with him. To them, Tupac is a symbol that being young, marginal, and black does not necessarily mean also being powerless. Listening to his songs, males and females alike find a shared refrain in survival and pride, echoing their personal defiance against racism, violence, and poverty in Tupac’s own voice.
Take 36-year-old Kelly (names have been changed ), for instance, who started going by the nickname “Tupac” at the age of 14. Like other study participants, she lives in a community where jobs are scant, government services are inadequate, and violence is common. Driven from her home by a physically abusive stepfather, Kelly had to find a way of surviving on streets ruled by the powerful 28s gang. “I used to listen to Tupac’s songs, all his numbers. He was almost like a motivation for me,” she said. “I cut my hair. I cut it bald. And I used to wear my bandana like him [in the front], and a diamond in the nose. And that’s when the gangsters started calling me Tupac.”
Becoming Tupac provided Kelly with a lyrical script and a role model to help her deal with the dangers around her. It also won her respect from local gangsters. “When they [the 28s] heard it was me, they thought don’t fuck with that girl, because that’s a badass bitch that one. It’s a real west-sider,” recalled Kelly. “If they see me, they go: west side, Tupac, or they gave me a westside [hand sign] … and when they passed at school and they fight, they won’t touch me.” Eventually she joined the 28s too. Being in a gang can offer a young woman like Kelly protection against community violence and abuse, and can be a source of status and income.
Of course, joining a gang comes with its own risks. Kelly ended up in prison through her associations with gangster culture—just as her hero Tupac had. She ultimately spent much of her life jailed for various violent crimes, including murder. “It put me in a fucked-up world. I thought [being Tupac] made me brave and famous, but it led me to a fucked-up world,” she declared. When I met her, Kelly was living in abject poverty, addicted to drugs, and dying of AIDS. Tupac himself was incarcerated and died young, murdered in a retaliatory gang shooting for an assault he had participated in just hours before his death. It is a sad story that is repeated far too often in Cape Town, a place where gang wars kill hundreds of youngsters every year, in what has become Africa’s deadliest city.
That life mirrors art is a well-known axiom. But art is also subjective. Kelly’s story is just one out of 22 in the study. Each served as a testimonial to the ways that research participants were differently encouraged and inspired by Tupac. Watching his interviews, analyzing his rhymes, and moving to his tracks, helped put some on paths towards gangs, whereas it assisted others in finding alternative routes to school and work; others still gained strength to leave addictions, manage domestic and community problems, and find personal empowerment and strength in other areas of their lives.
Ultimately, how the artist and his art were interpreted depended very much on each person’s perspective; but always these were rendered as a tool formed in opposition to the anemic South African state, its racist societies, its brutal poling, and its exclusionary markets. This is precisely why Tupac is famous on the continent. He conjures “an image of a defiant, proud antihero, and an inspiration for many of Africa’s young and alienated urbanites,” as stated in a 2003 Woodrow Wilson Center report on young people in Africa.
Kelly literally turned herself into Tupac. Youth elsewhere are turning to him in their own ways. With every bar that rings into their headphones, and every beat that booms out over their speakers, young Africans are breathing life into Tupac’s memory, channeling his image and his music to be heard and seen in social spaces where they feel neither audible nor visible.