Sunday, May 19, 2013

She Who Struggles  
Assata Shakur and Hip Hop

"I am a 20th century escaped slave. Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the U.S. government’s policy towards people of color." Assata Shakur

A few posts ago I wrote about the seeming incongruity of Assata Shakur being put on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list -- 30 years after the 1960s Black revolutionary escaped from prison and began living in exile in Cuba. (Assata means "she who struggles").

Grio graphic
The FBI's move elicited much head shaking in Leftist media, and I pointed to a piece by one of my favorite writers and commentators, Margaret Kimberly, that made the most sense to me. Kimberly argued that it was done primarily to silence the Black Liberation movement and erase from memory one of its important figures.

Tonight some more light was shed on things, for me anyway, when I came across a couple of articles that talk about Assata Shakur and Hip Hop. It seems she's been a topic of Hip Hop lyrics for a long time and is known to many Hip Hop followers.

Whenever I'd come across Assata Shakur's name it was in the context of her living in Cuba. I'd see her picture, read about her, read her articles, in publications I follow because I'm interested in the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban peoples' struggle to create an alternative to Capitalism in the face of every effort by the hostile empire to the north to prevent it from setting a good example for its docile and ignorant subjects.

Cultural critic Chuck 'Jigsaw" Creekmur, co-founder of, and James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University, both writing in the Grio, offer their takes on why Assata's name comes up in Hip Hop songs and why she strikes a cord with today's youth, and not so youth.

A lot's been written and said about Hip Hop -- about it's liberatory potential, it's subversive nature, its co-optation by the basically White-owned music industry -- and of course it's been demonized and hated and misunderstood and manifestly feared by basically conservative White America.

Creekmur and Peterson argue, essentially, that what Assata was about, Hip Hop artists and fans are still about. They talk about the system she fought against that still oppresses them, about how irregularities in her trial have always cast grave doubts as to her guilt, and about the fact that despite all the power and all reach of the empire, she got away.

I've re-produced both their articles below. Neither is overly long, and taken together with Margaret Kimberly's article, I think, make the picture about why the FBI fears Assata Shakur, more than ever, a bit more clear.

Hip-hop’s infatuation with Assata Shakur: It’s complicated


by Chuck 'Jigsaw' Creekmur

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.

Why the Assata Shakur case still strikes a chord


by James Braxton Peterson
In “A Song for Assata,” rapper, Common asks “I wonder what would happen if that would’ve been me?” Common wonders aloud what readers of Assata Shakur’s gripping autobiography, Assata, must ask themselves as they are confronted with the miscarriages of justice at the core of Shakur’s life as a black revolutionary.

Published in 1987, the autobiography chronicles Shakur’s emergence as an activist at the center of America’s racial conflict. She ultimately affiliated with the Black Panther Party and the black liberation movement in the 1960s. Her case and her bouts with the criminal justice system recall all of the angst and murkiness within which the battles for black freedom were fought in the mid-20th century: brutal prison conditions, falsified evidence, conflicting statements, frenzied media panic, and violent racists posing as officers of the law. 

In spite of these at times unlawful and regularly dehumanizing experiences, Assata Shakur has been living in exile with asylum in Cuba since 1984.

‘She Who Struggles’ 

Assata – whose name means “she who struggles,” was implicated in the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper on May 2 1973. Today marks 40 years since that day. 

While little detail is available as to how Ms. Shakur was ferreted away to freedom from the maximum security wing of the Clinton Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey in 1979, the “facts” of her case, or rather, the state’s case against her are shaky at best. By her supporters’ accounts they are institutionally designed to falsely prosecute and imprison her. 

For more info on her case and details of her experiences go here: 

As recently as 2005, the U.S. government issued a one million dollar bounty for information leading to her capture and/or extradition from Cuba. Her name, as well as her government name, Joanne Chesimard, has been on the FBI’s most wanted list since before most Americans had ever heard of Osama Bin Laden. 

’20th Century Escaped Slave’ 

Assata refers to herself as “a 20th century escaped slave” and her experiences with the criminal justice system and the verve with which the U.S. government prosecuted and persecuted her suggest that this reference is not exaggerated in the slightest. 

She has occasionally given interviews and or written from somewhere inside of Cuba, but it is unlikely that our government will ever be able to come to terms with its own role in the violent racial conflicts of its immediate past, and thus unlikely that Assata will ever be able to live freely in her country of origin – these United States. 

Assata’s status, the government’s case against, her and the moment out which all of this emerged, are signal reminders to many of us that not so long ago, members of the Black Panther Party were considered the greatest threat to the United States government; that revolutionary activists like Assata Shakur, were considered this nation’s most feared terrorists. 

We can only hope that as the fight against terror creeps through the beginnings of a new century, that this nation will fight to uphold the tenets of justice above and beyond its xenophobic and racialized history.

Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur is a father, son and the co-founder of He’s a cultural critic, pundit and trailblazer that has been featured on National Public Radio (NPR), BET, TVOne, VH1, The E! Channel, MTV, The O’Reilly Factor, USA Today, The New York Times, New York’s Hot 97 FM and like a zillion other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @chuckcreekmur.

James Braxton Peterson is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He is also the founder of Hip Hop Scholars LLC, an association of hip-hop generation scholars dedicated to researching and developing the cultural and educational potential of hip-hop, urban and youth cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @DrJamesPeterson

(Note: The quote that begins this post is posted on Assata's web site and begins an open letter in which she discusses her arrest, trial and escape, in the context of the inherent racism in the US media and the US court system.)


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