It is better to die for an idea that will live, than to live for an idea that will die.
If there’s one thing this writer has observed, it’s that the months of February, March and September are seemingly the doomsday components of the fiscal calendar. Between atrocities such as Taiwan’s Massacre Day, the assassination of Julius Caesar and the 9/11 attacks that rocked New York and forever changed the way Americans perceive life, it’s safe to say that one must feel even the slightest of paranoia whenever the three months arrive each year.
In the hip-hop community however, those three months are more significant than the remaining nine, as many of the culture’s prominent artists have tragically passed on to the next realm, perhaps irrevocably shifting the soundscape of music itself. Whether it was the dusty funk of Jay Dee, the bluster-ridden rhymes of Big L, the hyper-kinetics stylistics of Big Pun or the rabble-rousing energy of Freaky Tah, the months that produce the national day of love and the first day of Spring have been marred by the deaths of some of rap’s brightest stars.
However, it is the deaths of two individuals that strike the hardest, whose after-effects still affect this poetry in motion today: Tupac Amaru Shakur and Christopher “The Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace. Aside from their contributions to the game and the glaringly obvious, crater-sized absences these two heavyweights have left behind, most remarkably is the pull these two artists had on not only rap, but also perhaps music’s culture as a whole.
Sadly though, while many people within the hip-hop community will celebrate the lives of the most popular rappers, telltale activists and political prisoners, one such individual – whose contributions to the political affairs of an entire continent continue to shape the entire planet over three decades later – is seemingly, and sometimes shockingly, snubbed, save for the recent resurgence of his likeness being splayed on the shirts in high-end boutique stores across the country, or the 1987 movie Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington. Despite the fact that he coined the term “black is beautiful,” his heavy influence remains largely ignored.
When Steve Bantu Biko arrived at a Pretoria prison September 12, 1977, he was a beaten, bloody mess, chained to a window grille during the 700-mile excursion to his destination. Shortly thereafter he died, but according to a police report, it was due to an extended hunger strike. What they did not realize, however, was that their brutal treatment of Biko would be the catalyst for the defining changes in South Africa.
The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
To understand the massive impact one individual had on an entire country, one must go back to a time where South Africa was in the grips of quite possibly the worst system of racial segregation and white supremacy ever: Apartheid. Similar to the Jim Crow laws that plagued the Southern and border states of America for nearly nine decades, Apartheid rules similarly legalized classified the natives of South Africa, separating them into Blacks, White, Indian and Coloured classifications. The split laid the groundwork for unequal rights and treatment of Blacks; essentially disenfranchising them in “white South Africa.”
As with America’s sick fascination with mocking the peoples its ancestors dragged and separated from families, forced into slavery and considered them “three-fifths of a man” after slavery was abolished, Apartheid was designed from the same racist cloth, where Blacks – among other vile acts – were poorly treated, not allowed access to the most basic of amenities such as proper medical care, forcibly supplanted from their lush locations to dilapidated shantytowns and townships and considered an inferior standard.
Born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa known as King Williams Town, Steve Biko would become a student at the local medical school, where he would found and become president of the South African Students’ Organization, which would eventually become the influential Black Consciousness Movement. Biko would go on to become a champion of the disenfranchised black South Africans, using the ideals made popular by Huey Newton’s Black Panther Party of empowering Blacks through “psychological and physical liberation.” Becoming a movement more powerful than any Dip Set, G-Unit or G.O.O.D. army could provide, the BCM would be instrumental in the protests leading up to the infamous Soweto uprising of 1976, recently depicted on the cover of dead prez’s debut album, Let’s get Free.
Viewed as a threat to the Apartheid law, the South African government did everything in their power to quell his voice, seeing Biko as a legitimate threat to their corrupted power. He would then be “banned” as a result: prohibited from speaking to more than one person at a time, unable to make public speeches and barred from being quoted were among other restrictions. Eventually, Biko would be arrested in 1977, accused of terrorism. While in police custody, Biko would be clubbed viciously and tossed into the back of a police van naked. Shortly after arriving at a Pretoria prison for processing, he died from the massive head trauma inflicted upon him. Steve Biko was only 30 years old.
The initial police report stated that Biko died of a combination of a hunger strike and a self-inflicted suicide attempt, while the presiding judge at the subsequent trial ruled that due to the “lack of witnesses,” the officers in question could not be prosecuted. It had to take the combined efforts of then-journalist Helen Zille, who famously exposed the truth behind his death, and Donald Woods, a white journalist who exposed the South African government’s cover up of the cause of his death by snapping pictures of Biko’s pummeled body, to bring his hideous demise to light. Sadly – and perhaps unsurprisingly – the government refused to prosecute the murderers.
Although Biko’s life was short, his shockwaves throughout South Africa were enormous. His influence inspired a legion of anti-Apartheid movements. And while the BCM would collapse without their charismatic leader, other groups would form to take up their cause. Other champions like Bishop Desmond Tutu, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela would lead the charge. Eventually, in 1994 – 46 years after they were implemented – Apartheid was outlawed throughout South Africa. Zille would eventually become mayor of Cape Town, while Woods would continue to speak against Apartheid until its dismantling, and would remain a vocal influence until his death of cancer in 2001.
Although Steve Biko’s time in the physical realm was short, his essence has remained throughout the continent of Africa for generations. Shockingly enough, he is not praised as his contemporaries, and even pushed further to the back of the martyr line, even behind hip-hop’s most outspoken poets. Perhaps in another lifetime his acts will truly be praised throughout the nation, even if his visage is plastered on the chest of a random crew cut is the medium.
For more information on Steve Biko, check out I Write What I Like by Steve Biko and C.R., Biko by Donald Woods, or simply pick up a copy of Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline.
Man, you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being.