Strictly 4 everyone: Why do Kremlin apparatchiks, African rebels, and the Vatican all love Tupac?

Tom Friedman's column today reveals the Vladislav Surkov, the deputy prime minister and political strategist known as "Putin's Machiavelli," is actually more of a "Makaveli":

Surkov, once described as Putin’s Machiavelli, is impressive, and his plans to stimulate innovation in Russia sounded real to me. But I couldn’t resist noting that innovative cultures don’t do things like throw the punk band Pussy Riot into prison for two years for performing a “punk prayer” in a cathedral. That sends a bad signal to all freethinkers. Surkov, who also keeps a picture of the American rapper Tupac Shakur behind his desk, pushes back. “Tupac Shakur is a genius, and the fact that he was in prison did not interrupt either his creative juices or the innovative development of the United States.” Pussy Riot is no Tupac Shakur, he added. “Being orthodox myself, I feel really sorry for the girls from Pussy Riot, but [their situation] has no implications for the innovative developments of Russia.”

Surkov is the second prominent cultural conservative to out himself as a Tupac fan in recent days, after Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who told GQ that "Killuminati" is one of his favorite songs and laments that modern hip hop has "crossed over and sort of become indistinguishable from pop music in general."

Think it's odd that these two men share devout Christianity, culturally conservative views, and a fondness for West Coast gangsta rap? Consider the fact that the Vatican included the slain rapper's posthumous hit "Changes" on its Myspace playlist in 2009.

American conservatives may still like to take shots at hip hop now and then -- witness last year's fracas after the decidedly PG-13 rated "conscious" rapper Common was invited to the White House -- but I imagine this will mellow with the ascendance of figures like Rubio and Surkov -- both in their 40s -- who grew up listening to it. (Even Vladimir Putin has been known to attend a rap battle now and then.)

But what's interesting about Tupac in particular is that he seems to appeal to both the world's most powerful people and its most marginalized. As Sean Jacobs wrote last year, Tupac's status as an icon among urban African youth today has eclipsed older figures like Bob Marley. Jacobs links to a 2003 Wilson Center report that attempts to explain the reasons for the rapper's continued appeal:

A popular T-shirt has a black background, showing Tupac (spelled “2Pac”) looking alert, with U.S. dollar signs ringing the collar and his most popular slogan, “All Eyez on Me,” across the bottom. “All Eyez on Me,” indeed—Tupac’s lyrics expressing his alienation, fury, and his conviction that his quest for revenge is thoroughly justified, the police sirens in the background of many of his songs, the belief that he was not really murdered but is still alive (often proclaimed in “Tupac Lives” graffiti), all conjure an image of a defiant, proud antihero, and an inspiration for many of Africa’s young and alienated urbanites.

Tupac -- whose Black Panther parents named him after an indigenous Peruvian rebel leader and folk hero --  has also been adopted as an icon by rebel groups in Congo, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere. The largest rebel faction in Sierra Leone's civil war, the Revolutionary United Front, commonly wore Tupac t-shirts and took on his lyrics as mantras. As Paul Rogers notes, as recently as 2011, a Libyan rebel fighter told a British journalist, "I only listen to 2Pac before going to shoot Gaddafi boys." 

Compared to other global icons like, say, Michael Jackson, Tupac is a figure very much associated with a geographic region (California, city of Compton, etc.) and the tragically short era in which he was active. So it's a bit surprising that his appeal has turned out to be universal enough that everyone from Kremlin political technologists, to Tea Party senators, to African rebels, to Haitian gang leaders to rural Chinese teenagers can find something to identify with in his work. 

Frank Micelotta/Getty Images


Benghazi panel rebuts conspiracy theorists

My colleague Josh Rogin has a more complete and straightforward writeup of this report, an independent look at the State Department's handling of the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, over at The Cable, but I want to highlight a few elements of it in the meantime.

In short, it demolishes some of the more outlandish storylines on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. "special mission" in Benghazi (officially, it wasn't a consulate), from the notion that the Obama administration delayed its response for some strange reason to the idea that anyone gave orders not to come to the mission's aid.

"The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith," it reads, before going on to detail in gripping bureaucratese the heroic efforts of the mission's security officers to save their boss -- going back into the smoke-filled complex multiple times, at great personal risk, to try to find him and bring him to safety.

What about the story, reported by Fox News, that the "CIA chain of command" ordered the rescue squad from the agency's Benghazi annex to "stand down"? Nope: "The departure of the Annex team was not delayed by orders from superiors," the report found.

Nor did officials in Washington dawdle on the night of the attack, though they come in for plenty of criticism for lapses in security planning beforehand. "The interagency response was timely and appropriate," the report concludes," noting that there "simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference. ... The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or military combatant commanders."

That said, the report is focused by design on the State Department. At least in the unclassifed version released Tuesday evening, it doesn't have much to say about the intelligence community's failures or the White House's role in the response to the attack. It doesn't name names, or make clear at what level certain key decisions were made. But it makes a pretty strong case that the conspiracy theorists got this one badly wrong.

As a side note, the report also confirms Foreign Policy's story on the Benghazi mission's concerns about "troubling" surveillance of the compound by a local police officer:

At approximately 0645 local that morning, a BML contract guard saw an unknown individual in a Libyan Supreme Security Council (SSC) police uniform apparently taking photos of the compound villas with a cell phone from the second floor of a building under construction across the street to the north of the SMC. The individual was reportedly stopped by BML [the British contractor's] guards, denied any wrongdoing, and departed in a police car with two others. This was reported to ARSOs [regional security officers] 1 and 2. Later that morning they inspected the area where the individual was seen standing and informed the Annex of the incident. There had not been any related threat reporting. The local February 17 militia headquarters was informed of the incident and reportedly complained to the local SSC on the Special Mission’s behalf. The Ambassador reviewed a Special Mission-drafted complaint to local authorities on the surveillance incident; however, it was not submitted due to the typically early closure of Libyan government offices. Later on September 11, the Ambassador was informed by his Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Tripoli of the breach of the Embassy Cairo compound that had occurred that day and briefly discussed the news with ARSO 3. The TDY RSO [regional security officer on temporary assignment] was also informed of the Cairo compound breach by his Regional Security Officer counterpart in Tripoli and shared the information with colleagues at the Annex.