The Tupac Uprising: Outlaws With A Cause

The West Side Outlaws rule the western suburbs of Honiara, and always leave a calling card. War zone, they scrawl on thatch huts newly "cleansed" of migrants from Malaita. 2 PAC OUTLAWZ, KILL 'EM ALL, they scribble on a nearby roadblock built of oil drums and old timber. Hip-hop music fans will recognize the graffiti as lyrics by Tupac Shakur, America's most flamboyant gangsta rapper. A swaggering talent who topped U.S. charts until his murder in 1996, Tupac lives again as the patron saint of this teen gang on the beautiful South Pacific island of Guadalcanal. "Tupac was a man of action," says a bare-chested gang member in cut-off blue jeans. "He wasn't afraid of dying."

Strange but true, Tupac is the troubadour for teen gangs that have joined Guadalcanal's Aboriginal uprising against Malaitan settlers. Youths copy Tupac's strut, hand gestures and tattoos. They study Tupac lyrics and identify with his troubled life. Born to a member of the radical Black Panther Party, Tupac went to art school, dealt crack, made films, dominated America's hip-hop scene and died in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting--all by the age of 25. "We, too, are outlaws," says a teen rebel, in the shade near a postcard-perfect tropical beach. "So when outsiders come in and try to boss us around, like Malaitans and the police, we cop a Tupac attitude."

Most of these teens had never heard of Tupac until after he was dead. Honiara, the isolated capital of the remote Solomon Islands, didn't even get television until 1992. As locals tell it, Tupac's music first came to Guadalcanal three years ago, in the luggage of islanders returning from Australia. "Someone would bring back a CD and we'd copy it 50 times," says the son of a former prime minister. Chinese merchants began importing Tupac T shirts and $1 bootleg cassette tapes. Soon, the country's only private radio station, ZFM, was getting requests. "Kids would call up and say, 'Play Tupac for me and the homies'," recalls DJ Gareth Porowai.

Tupac's popularity got an inadvertent boost from a 1997 police crackdown on reggae lovers and their marijuana farms. When the Outlaws responded by planting rows of marijuana to spell out WEST SIDE on a hill overlooking Honiara, the drug raids intensified. "We used to be into Bob Marley, who sings 'Get up, stand up, fight for your rights'," says one of the gang members. "But when we stood up, the police shot at us. Then we became outlaws, like Tupac."

The Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army started its uprising late last year, and the teen gang joined in. They chased off Malaitans at gunpoint and torched villages. A few Outlaws have been arrested, but most are free to roam. On a recent afternoon, four militants strutted along the beach wielding machetes. They wore high-top basketball shoes, baggy knee-length shorts and T shirts with the sleeves torn off--a South Pacific take on American hip-hop fashion. "These boys see Tupac as a symbol of militancy," says Francis Orodani, a local chief. "They're very revolutionary." And these gangstas don't just sing it.