Túpac Amaru: A Legacy of Rap and Revolution

Image of the last emperor of the Inca, Tupac Amaru. Author and date unknown.

Image of the last emperor of the Inca, Tupac Amaru. Author and date unknown.

The name Tupac is known around the world. One of the most charismatic rappers of the 90’s has seen his image posthumously plastered on shirts and posters around the globe. Few in the Western World would not have heard of him. But the name Tupac was not an original. It’s an Inca name, one steeped in history, with origins going back to the emperors of the Andes.

I admit that my first encounter with the name was due to the rapper. Having grown up near San Francisco and graduating from high school in 1995, I was well and truly familiar with the poster boy of West Coast hip hop. But shortly after the rapper’s death, a Marxist revolutionary group in Peru took over the Japanese embassy, holding hostages for over 100 days before a commando raid by government forces ended the standoff. I became more interested in the name behind the deceased emcee.

Empire of the Incas

Tupac Amaru was the name of the last emperor of the Inca. But the story doesn’t begin there. The name dates back to Pre-Hispanic times. Emperor Topa Inca Yupanqui (known in Quechua as Tupaq) was a famed emperor known for expanding the Inca lands far to the north, into modern day Ecuador.

The capture of Atahualpa at Cajamarca. From an engraving dated 1760 or 1810 by Pierre Duflos.

The capture of Atahualpa at Cajamarca. From an engraving dated 1760 or 1810 by Pierre Duflos.

His son, Huayna Capac, took the throne after his death and the empire reached the zenith of its power during his reign. The empire covered all or parts of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and even parts of Colombia. He was famed for his public works, building temples and palaces and expanding the famous Incan road network.

Beginning of the End

Following Huayna Capac’s death, the empire began its decline. Two of his sons (he had 50 children) were each given half of the empire to rule and a civil war ensued. Atahualpa emerged victorious in 1532 after killing his half-brother and much of his family. He soon found the Spanish, led by Francisco Pizarro, on his doorstep.

Atahualpa, despite leading an army of 80,000 men, was captured by Pizarro’s forces, numbering less than 200 men, without the loss of a single Spanish life. Legend has it that he filled a room 22 feet x 17 feet x 8 feet with gold objects and later twice that amount of silver in an attempt to secure his freedom. It was to no avail. The Spanish staged a mock trial and had Atahualpa executed.

Following Atahualpa’s death remnants of the royal family fled and set up an independent state in the Upper Amazon. After a series of rulers, Tupac Amaru acceded to the throne. His reign was short, only a year. The Spanish attacked and eventually tracked the fleeing emperor. He was hung in Cuzco, in 1572 in front of 10,000 – 15,000 indigenous spectators. The last emperor of the Inca was dead.

Portrait of Túpac Amaru II. Author and date unkown. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Portrait of Túpac Amaru II. Author and date unkown. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Tupac Amaru II

The story doesn’t end there. Life for indigenous people under Spanish rule was not easy. Many lived in conditions not much better than slavery, serving as forced laborers with their incomes heavily taxed. There were various indigenous rebellions during this time lasting until the end of Spanish rule in 1824.

The most famous and first large-scale uprising was led by a man named José Gabriel Condorcanqui Noguera, better known to history as Tupac Amaru II. He was born in 1738 of mixed Spanish and indigenous heritage. He belonged to the minor nobility and claimed descent from the last emperor of the Inca.

After killing a local governor, Tupac and his followers proclaimed they were fighting to overturn the abuses suffered by indigenous Peruvians under the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru. They had initial success but were unable to take the regional capital of Cuzco. They remained active in the countryside, at one point massacring 600 Spanish soldiers sent to corral them.

After some weeks, Amaru was betrayed and eventually captured by the authorities. He was sentenced to death in a most elaborate way. After being forced to watch most of his family executed, Amaru was drawn and quartered with his four limbs scattered to be displayed in towns that supported him. He was beheaded, with his head put on a pike on the city walls at yet another city. His torso was burned in a sixth locality. All other surviving relatives were murdered, save for his 12-year old son, who was sent to Spain to live out his life in prison.


The name Tupac laid relatively dormant until recent times. In the second half of the twentieth century, revolutionary movements spread across Latin America. Most were Marxist. Peru was no different in this respect. The primary revolutionary group were Maoists going by the name of Shining Path. In 1982, a less-brutal group, the MRTA, or Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement began to make headlines.

Drawing of Tupac Shakur by Gringolivier.

Drawing of Tupac Shakur by Gringolivier, via Wikimedia Commons.

On December 17, 1996, 14 members of the MRTA stormed the Japanese embassy in Lima. Many high-ranking diplomats were on hand for a celebration. Hostages were taken and a standoff ensued that lasted for 126 days. Some had been freed by the militants earlier in the siege. Commandos raided the premise, freeing the remaining hostages. All MRTA militants were killed, along with one hostage and two commandos.

Tupac Amaru Shakur, more commonly known as 2pac, was born in New York City in 1971 to parents affiliated with the Black Panther Party. He was named after Tupac Amaru II, the leader of the failed 18th Century rebellion. The name’s connections to anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism mesh well with the BPP’s stated aims. The rest is history and if you really need more information on 2pac, it won’t be hard to find.

From the Andes to the Amazon to Oakland, the name Tupac holds powerful meaning for millions. That it means such disparate things to such a wide group of people is what I’ve always found so fascinating. Gangster rap, Marxism and indigenous pride. And you thought Tupac only stood for Thug Life?

Further Reading

12 thoughts on “Túpac Amaru: A Legacy of Rap and Revolution

  1. seanmunger says:

    Amazing post! I didn’t know any of this.

  2. seanmunger says:

    Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    Here is an absolutely fascinating article from Yesterday Unhinged on the three Tupacs: the last Inca emperor, a Peruvian revolutionary and the Tupac you no doubt have heard of from the 1990s. This is a prime example of how history can be engaging, fun and topical, and I learned a lot from this article that I didn’t know before. Highly recommended!

  3. Ste J says:

    I like the mixing of modern and historical…the abuses and brutality of the Spanish was sickening. If this approach to history was used by schools then perhaps kids would want to get involved and learn.

    • I don’t understand the lack of interest in history by the average person. It was always my favorite subject in school. People like watching 300, Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypto and other ‘historical’ films.

      History is more interesting than fiction most of the time.

      Hopefully this will change.

      • Ste J says:

        To right and Jason and the Argonauts and the Sinbad films to name a few are a brilliant introduction to the rich myths of the time. Films are a great introduction if only people would delve into it.

        I have yet to read Dickens’ History of England, he wrote it for kids and is very gory so I think that would help in schools or being Dickens maybe it would be a bit impenetrable…whimsical writer that he was.

  4. jarretr says:

    Really cool post. I read about Tupac Amaru in my Latin American graduate readings courses, and it was some fascinating stuff.

    • Glad you liked it. I’d always believed that Tupac was named after the last emperor of the Inca until I started researching this and found that he was named for a guy named for the last emperor.

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