Tupac is a name the world today associates with hip-hop. To be more specific, the rage, rebellion, and violence of hip-hop. The guns, dying young, and hall-of-fame immortality of hip-hop.
All because, Tupac Shakur, possibly the greatest rapper who ever lived, used hip-hop as a medium to lay bare the bleeding, festering wounds of American society cut open by race and class but bandaged up with patchy gauze and tourniquet to look whole.
Few, however, know that Tupac Shakur is a name of far older antiquity. One that has resonated throughout the history of the Americas as a symbol of resistance, and young heroic martyrdom.
Tupac Amaru Shakur, the rapper was named after Tupac Amaru the last king of the Incan Empire that ruled much of South America between the 13th and 16th centuries.
A young emperor and rebel, Tupac Amaru would not live to see his 27th birthday, embracing death fighting Spanish conquistadores who at this time were annexing most of South America to Spanish colonial rule.
The similarities between Tupac the rapper, and Tupac the Incan Emperor are eerily similar. Both were rebels against an unjust system, both died violent deaths in their mid-20s, and both lived on as legends spawning more Tupacs.
Who Was Tupac Amaru?
Both Tupac and Amaru are words from the Quechua language spoken by indigenous people of the Andes mountains in South America. Tupac means royal in Quechua, and Amaru means the serpent.
Amaru, in Quechua, however, is no ordinary serpent. It is in fact a fantastic creature from Inca mythology that has the head of a Puma, the wings and talons of a bird, and the body of a serpent. The Amaru dwelled in the underworld for the most part. But when it emerged from underneath, it brought with it change, and transformation. The Amaru was, in Inca mythology the harbinger of revolutions.
Tupac Amaru, then literally means the Royal Serpent. But no ordinary serpent; rather one that brings revolutions and transcends boundaries between the terrestrial and the subterranean.
Tupac Amaru was born in 1545 in Peru, at a time when Spain was rapidly subjugating most of South America. The Incas at this time ruled over much of what is Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina. Considered one of the greatest empires ever in the history of mankind, the Incas are known today for building some of the most fabulous monuments man has ever known. These include the famed Macchu Picchu.
What was most impressive about the Inca civilization was that the Incas neither had a written language nor did they have any system of money. And yet they produced things that continue to leave the modern man in awe.
What Did Tupac Amaru Fight For?
By the time of Tupac Amaru’s birth in 1545, the fabulous Inca civilization was on the verge of being wiped out by Spanish conquistadores. Spain and Portugal had begun subjugating most of America ever since Christopher Columbus landed on the continent half a century ago. Equipped with newly invented gunpowder-based firearms and military technology sophisticated for its age, the Spaniards cut through the long-isolated Incas like a hot knife through butter. By the time of Tupac Amaru’s birth, the once-mighty Incas lay defeated, their people enslaved, their Gods denounced, their temples pulled down, and their culture obliterated.
Determined not to let the flame of his people fade away without one final flicker, Tupac Amaru led the last wave of Inca resistance against the Spanish colonialists. Tupac’s rebellion however was crushed by Spain, and he was sentenced to death by beheading in 1572.
His last words addressed to his people are believed to be “witness how my enemies shed my blood”.
He was all of 27 years old.
However, as with all legends in history, what seems like the end is often just the beginning.
The execution of Tupac Amaru in 1572 was only the birth of the legend of Tupac Amaru which was to continue to haunt the Spanish in Latin America for as long as they ruled it.
Two centuries later, the Spanish empire in Peru was rocked by one of the biggest rebellions it had ever witnessed. Known as the Tupac Amaru rebellion, it was led by a member of the erstwhile Inca nobility who claimed the title Tupac Amaru ii and led the Inca peasantry in a revolt against the Spanish in 1780. Coming close on the heels of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, the rebellion of Tupac Amaru ii shook the Spanish Empire to its core. The rebellion was eventually crushed, and Tupac Amaru ii, like his predecessor and namesake, was executed.
But before this, he was tortured.
His body was tied to four horses pulling in different directions in order to tear it apart so that Tupac Amaru ii would die a slow and painful death – a spectacle that the Spanish believed would ensure that no Tupac Amaru would rise again to challenge Spanish power.
However, Tupac Amaru ii was too strong to even be pulled apart by four horses. He eventually had to be executed by beheading at the exact same spot where his ancestor the first Tupac Amaru had been beheaded two centuries ago. His 10-year-old son was forced to watch the torture and execution of his father.
Tupac Amaru ii’s rebellion and his execution only served to bolster the legend of Tupac Amaru as the mythical figurehead that stood against oppression and injustice, and arose from the underground, like the mythical serpent-bird, Amaru, to bring about revolutionary change. It immediately sparked off the revolt of Tiradentes against Portuguese colonial rule in neighboring Brazil.
With time several revolutionary movements that arose in South America named themselves after Tupac Amaru. The most well-known of these perhaps was the 20th-century Marxist guerrilla army known as the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary movement that fought an armed insurrection to establish a socialist state in Peru in the 1980s.
Why Was Tupac Named After Tupac Amaru?
Tupac Shakur’s mother, Afeni Shakur was a member of the Black Panther Party, a Marxist-Leninist organzation advocating the use of violence, if necessary, for the assertion of Black rights in America. She was arrested and tried by the FBI in 1969 as part of a bomb attack on New York city police officers. Tupac’s godmother, Assata Shakur was a member of the militant Black Liberation Army who is, to this day, on FBI’s most wanted list – the first ever woman to be on the list. Accused of waging war against the US givernment, she is reported to be hiding in Cuba, and carries a reward of 2 million dollars on her head.
It was into this heritage that Tupac Shakur was born in 1971. His mother named him Tupac Amaru after the legendary Inca king of the 16th century, and the Peruvian revolutionary. of the 18th century.
The Shakur in Tupac’s name comes from the Arabic word “Shukar” which means being thankful. Tupac’s mother had changed her name after marrying a Sunni Muslim named Lumumba Shakur, though this man was not Tupac’s biological father. She wanted her son to inherit the revolutionary, indigenous legacy of the two Tupac Amaru’s. In her own words, she wanted her son to know that he was “part of a world culture, and not just from a hood.”
Thus, Tupac Amaru Shakur.
Tupac later adopted a more stylized version of his name – 2Pac – and sang songs about being black in white America. At a time when rock music, characterized by its white, middle-class fan base was at its zenith, and the greatest pop cultural icons in America were white middle-class boys of the suburbia like Kurt Cobain, Tupac, like the mythical serpent Amaru, emerged from the underground and brought revolutionary change.
Hip-hop rose Amaru-like from the streets of New York to challenge the dominance of rock, while black activism emerged from the shadows of fringe militant movements such as the Black Panthers to merge with the political mainstream.
Just like Tupac Amaru the emperor inspired Tupac Amaru ii the revolutionary. And just like Tupac Amaru ii the revolutionary inspired Tupac Amaru Shakur the rapper, Tupac the rapper in turn continues to inspire young rebels around the world. However, this time, the legacy is heavily colored by the glamor of instant fame, fast cars, drugs, decadent sexuality, and wanton, pointless gun violence.
The history of the two Peruvian Tupac Amarus now remains forgotten and unknown. Only the stardom of Tupac Amaru Shakur of New York remains, and it is to this that many today aspire, often ending up as rebels without a cause. Needless to say, few of the imitators manage to hold up a candle to this bright legacy.
Featured Image: Tupac Amaru of the Inca Empire. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons