Tupac Encouraged The Arab Spring

Rap and hip-hop were both a driving force, and a coping mechanism, for people in the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring. In particular, the music of Tupac Shakur resonates with Arabs, long after the U.S. rapper's own death. But why? Michel Martin looks for an answer, along with Khaled M, a Libyan-American rapper.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are going to spend a bit more time in the Middle East and North Africa today. In a few minutes, we'll talk about Nowruz, also known as Persian New Year. We'll hear from a young Persian-American who will tell us how his family uses the holiday to celebrate both his Persian and African-American roots and he's also a comedian, so that should be quite a good time. That's later.

But, first, we want to talk more about the Arab Spring. That's the wave of demonstrations that swept across North Africa and the Middle East two years ago and unsettled several longstanding regimes.

Now, you've probably heard about how Twitter and social media played an important part of the Arab Spring, especially for young people, but what you might not have heard is that music, especially rap music and one rapper in particular, was also a big part of the story for young people, bringing them encouragement.

I'm joined now to hear more about this by Khaled M. He is a Libyan-American hip-hop artist. He says that Tupac Shakur inspired him and countless other people during the Arab Spring and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

KHALED M: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: So how big is Tupac in Libya?

M: I would say that Tupac is, still to this day, the biggest western music artist in Libya, maybe along with Bob Marley, but the two are definitely neck-and-neck.

MARTIN: Give me an example of, like, how I would experience that if I were to go.

M: It's everywhere. I mean, I was shocked because I grew up listening to Tupac over here and, you know, my first time ever going to Libya in my life was last year, and I was shocked. I mean, visually, you see it everywhere. You see graffiti, RIP Tupac. Just riding around in the streets, you still see people playing his music from the '90s to this day, and I'm talking about kids that are 18, 19 and 20 years old that may not have been around when he was making music, but his influence is huge. I mean, he's still the premier hip-hop artist in Libya.

MARTIN: Not just hip-hop artist, but artist who represents, kind of, the soundtrack of what young people are listening to. Does that...

M: For sure.

MARTIN: ...sound about right? Why do you think that is?

M: I think he made music that's very relatable. I think Tupac really represented a struggle. He represented trying to come up out of your environment and be something bigger, exceeding expectations and, you know, that's something that all of the youth in Libya can relate to.

MARTIN: I just want to play one of Tupac's songs now. I want to play "Only God Can Judge Me." Let's hear some of that and maybe you can talk a little bit about how, why a theme like this would resonate. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME")

TUPAC SHAKUR: (Singing) Dear Mama, can you save me? (Bleep) peace 'cause the streets got our babies. We got to eat. No more hesitation. Each and every black male's trapped and they wonder why we suicidal running 'round strapped. Mr. Police, please try to see that it's a million (bleep) stressing just like me. Only God can judge me.

MARTIN: So talk a little bit about - if you would - about how you feel some of these themes kind of dovetail with what's on people's minds.

M: I mean, the situation that he's speaking of is something that, you know, Libyans can relate to, kind of an oppressive, authoritative figure, whether it's police, whether it's Gaddafi's military guards, kind of rebelling against them and responding to that with, you know, only God can judge me and, you know, God knows what our true value is as human beings.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that I think, if people think about it, they might think about how music has played a role in social movements lots of places around the world. I mean, in the United States, for example, in the civil rights movement, nobody would think about the civil rights movement without thinking about the music that people used to inspire them. I mean, there are many, many stories about people who were imprisoned singing to give each other courage and strength.

And it was also a way for other people to know that you were alive and I know you were in the U.S. during much of that time, but how do you think this music was actually used during this period?

M: I mean, it was twofold. I stayed in the U.S. I had actually wanted to go to Libya during the revolution and they told me, no, stay there. You know, what you're doing is more valuable. You're more valuable to us in the media doing interviews, making music, doing shows and raising money than you would be to us on the ground.

I think, first of all, for me especially because my song was in English, it raised a lot of awareness to the western world when we released "Can't Take Our Freedom." But, second of all, it really inspired Libyans inside. All the music that you saw coming from artists in Libya was meant to offer a voice to people who never had a voice before, who were never allowed to be journalists, who were never allowed to be on television or write newspapers and offered them a voice and let people know that others were standing with them.

MARTIN: Hold on a second. Let me just play a clip of the song that you just mentioned. This is your song, "Can't Take Our Freedom," and I will mention that the government actually blocked the song online because of...

M: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: ...the impact that it was having on people and because of the message. Let's play a little bit. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T TAKE OUR FREEDOM")

M: (Singing) In the darkest hour when the world has turned away and no one's watching, when the sky has turned to gray and you have no options, when your voice is illegal. Only choice for the people is to stand up proudly in the face of death. It ain't a waste of breath when you speak up loudly on behalf of the kids in the street with no pot to piss in, living on the young 'cause their pop is missing. Don't know if he's dead or if he's locked in prison. Disappeared, they consider him the opposition and now I'm having visions of dreams I shouldn't see. And could we be this close? Nah, couldn't be, but if the people in Egypt and Tunis can do this, decide their fate, then why wouldn't we? More than 40 years...

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about - how did you figure out that the government was blocking your music and what was the work around, if you don't mind my knowing that?

M: We actually linked up with Anonymous, who are known to be activists for anybody that isn't familiar. And Anonymous worked around and did their internet magic and even actually helped us shut down some of the Libyan government's websites and online presence for a little bit.

MARTIN: I did want to ask, you don't mind sharing this, that I mentioned that you're a Libyan-American, but this is not all hypothetical, just for people who are wondering. This is not all information that's gathered from a distance.

M: Sure.

MARTIN: Do you mind sharing some of your personal experience with the regime of Muammar Gaddafi?

M: Sure. I mean, the revolution started long before February 17th. My father was thrown in jail in 1973 for being part of a student protest against the government and he was tortured every day in jail. He shared a jail cell with his father, actually, and eventually my father escaped jail after five years before he was supposed to be executed. I also have two uncles that were killed in 1984. They were part of an assassination attempt on the regime.

So, after '84, my whole family, every male on my father's side of the family, was thrown in jail, some of them not getting out until 2002 and, sadly, my family is just one example of the many. We spent the first few years after my father escaped, living country to country, on the run. You know, I didn't find a place to live really permanently until I was about four years old. We moved to Lexington, Kentucky. Before that, we were in Sudan, Chad, Algeria, Iraq, London, Egypt.

And Kentucky, which sounds random, sort of became the pseudo headquarters for the opposition movement, so you find a lot of Libyans in Kentucky and people who have been working against the regime, you know, since the late '70s and early '80s.

MARTIN: Now that Gaddafi is gone, I mean, obviously, Libya still faces many trials. I mean, I'm just interested in what it's like for you as an artist.

M: You know, for me, obviously being blessed to grow up here in America, we've always been outspoken. We've always been at every protest, every demonstration, from D.C. to New York. We used to spend our last pennies to just get gas money and drive up there. But it's really, really amazing to see people inside Libya who are speaking freely now. The music scene has flourished and not just musically, but individuality has flourished, I mean, from journalists to break-dancers to painters to writers. It's really, really amazing to witness it all firsthand.

MARTIN: Before we go, what should we go out on? Do you have a favorite Tupac track?

M: I think the first song that my mom let me listen to in the house was "Dear Mama." She knew I loved Tupac. She would never let me listen to him in the house because I guess it was kind of explicit, but "Dear Mama" - all the Libyans relate to it. You still hear it blasting to that day. In Islam, we have a saying that says heaven is under your mother's feet. You know, it's very big culturally to always almost idolize your mother and take care of her and "Dear Mama" just hits the soul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")

SHAKUR: (Singing) Ain't a woman alive that could take my mama's place. Suspended from school and scared to go home. I was a fool with the big boys, breaking all the rules. I shed tears with my baby sister. Over the years, we was poorer than the other little kids and even though we had different daddies...

MARTIN: All right. Khaled M, thank you for speaking with us.

M: All right. Appreciate it. It was my pleasure.

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