No, we don’t know where Tupac is. #twitterversary
— CIA (@CIA) July 7, 2014
Why would the CIA tweet about Tupac? “Well,” you think, “to generate content that will strengthen their brand.” You’re right, of course: The Central Intelligence Agency’s tweet about the rapper garnered more than 93,000 faves and 164,000 RTs and counting, as well as a several rapid-fire blog posts, justifying the government agency’s involvement in social media in the first place. Suddenly, just for an instant, the CIA didn’t seem like the CIA anymore, which is saying something.
But still, the question remains: Why tweet about a rapper? As is the case with most law-enforcement agencies, rap and the CIA have rarely seen eye-to-eye. A rare example of accord came in 2012, when Kanye West gave former Agency director George Tenet a shout-out on summer jam “Clique”, saying that the two ran into each other and talked about cars (which actually happened). But West hasn’t always been so kind; he repeated the Soviet (yes, Soviet) propaganda that the CIA administered AIDS on early hit “Heard ‘Em Say.” It’s fair to say that the CIA in general isn’t very popular among rappers; even Bar Mitzvah-go-to will.i.am has taken a shot, directly comparing one the United States’ principal intelligence-gathering agencies to the KKK on “Where is the Love?”
So, rap has been antagonistic toward the CIA. But why tweet about Tupac?
Tupac still means a lot to a lot of people, obviously. As Jeff Weiss notes in 2Pac vs. Biggie, the book he co-wrote with Evan McGarvey, “Tupac is Teflon. Rappers reference him in the way Republicans deify Reagan. Name-dropping Tupac is code for the streets — a way of implicitly declaring one’s authenticity and realness.” It’s a safe guess that whoever is tweeting for the CIA, whether an intern or senior social media advisor, at some point listened to Tupac. Maybe they’re a hardcore fan, the type who listens to Funky Aztecs and Sex Packets and freaked out when a previously-unheard interview surfaced last month. Or maybe they were casual listeners. Either way, whoever hit “Tweet” was well aware of ‘Pac’s enduring hold on the public imagination.
The CIA tweeter’s devotion matters, because Tupac’s family had a long history of tense run-ins with government organizations — both the CIA and the FBI. Speaking to the primarily African-American audience of TheGrio, but also for a generation of leftists, Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur wrote,”[I]t wasn’t our parents who introduced us to Assata Shakur. It was hip-hop.” Assata Shakur is Tupac’s godmother. In the late 1970s, she was convicted of robbing several banks, and in 1977 of shooting and killing a New Jersey State Trooper who had pulled her over. While imprisoned in 1979, an international panel of seven jurists representing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights described her as belonging to “a class of victims of FBI misconduct through the COINTELPRO strategy and other forms of illegal government conduct who as political activists have been selectively targeted for provocation, false arrests, entrapment, fabrication of evidence, and spurious criminal prosecutions.” She didn’t last in prison long, however: That same year, in an act so astonishing not even Orange is the New Black could imagine it, she was busted out by three members of her political group, the Black Liberation Army, who held two guards hostage and shuffled her into a van. Various New York neighborhoods refused to give up her location for years, and in 1984 she fled to Cuba, where she still lives. In 2005, the FBI named her a domestic terrorist and just last year she became the first woman to be named to the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
Tupac was aware of this legacy. His mother Afeni had been close with Assata, and on “Words of Wisdom” from his first album, 1991′s 2Pacalypse Now, he proudly describes her in two words: “Assata Shakur…America’s nightmare.” Tupac viewed the American government with open suspicion and disdain: Only a few tracks earlier, in the outro of “I Don’t Give a Fuck,” Tupac said, “Fuck you to the FBI, fuck you to the CIA”
It’s telling that the CIA would want to focus on the comical conspiracy that Tupac is alive: It’s easy to crack wise about things that undermine a dangerous artist’s credibility. They’re not the first members of the current executive branch to make a joke about those theories, either: At the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2011, President Obama zinged Donald Trump about the issue of his birth certificate, saying now that it was put to rest, he could “finally get back to focusing on the real issues that matter…’Where are Biggie and Tupac?’” The two incidents lead to a startling conclusion: Tupac, who was killed in 1996 at age 25 and whose murder has never been solved, has made his presence felt in 2014 at the highest levels of government.
So, why did the CIA tweet about Tupac Shakur, who proudly carried the flag of his godmother’s call to overthrow the racist government of AmeriKKKa? Because they’re still afraid of him. By attempting to make Tupac part of a discussion that even federal law enforcement Twitter feeds can get in on, they were attempting to normalize the radical, to strip Shakur of his shocking power and make him just another Golden Oldie, a move not dissimilar to putting Malcolm X on a stamp. Whether or not this was the intention of the CIA is irrelevant: anyone claiming that Shakur is safe fodder for that most mainstream of institutions is slapping his legacy in the face.
It’s an established best practice of brand improvement to latch yourself onto an already well-known entity. But by hitching their wagon to Tupac, a highly political figure who was openly antagonistic to their cause, the CIA inadvertently proved a valuable point: They will now, always and forever, be the CIA.