posted February 1, 2010

Fred Johnson Co-Authors Biography of Tupac Shakur

Dr. Fred L. Johnson III of the Hope College history faculty is co-author of a biography of Tupac Shakur that considers the rap musician, his art, and life within the context of the era in which he lived.

Johnson, who is an associate professor of history at Hope, and Tayannah Lee McQuillar, author of "When Rap Music Had a Conscience," have co-written "Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon," published recently by Da Capo Press of Cambridge, Mass.

The book follows Shakur from his birth in New York City in 1971 and examines his family's close ties to the Black Panthers of the 1960s, his childhood spent in poverty, and his rise to fame. It also examines the many controversies surrounding his life and finally addresses the rapper's 1996 assassination at age 25 by an unknown gunman in Las Vegas, Nev., at the height of his fame.

Throughout, the biography the narrative examines Shakur's rise and impact as a major cultural figure. Johnson noted that Shakur's outlook and his art were affected by the increasing hopelessness and worsening conditions in America's inner cities during the latter decades of the 20th century.  The combination of those conditions shaped Shakur's personal and professional development as someone who was concerned with the plight of the urban poor, even as he also made headlines for getting into trouble with the law.

"What we wanted to do was bring a level of rigorous scrutiny to Tupac's life so people could see that he was a multi-dimensional character and not just some caricature of gangsta rapping controversy," Johnson said.

"My objective was to examine Tupac in his historical context. The evidence demonstrated that he wasn't just a loose cannon but someone who was concerned with and speaking out on the issues that were important to his generation."

The biography correspondingly examines Shakur's role as a leading voice for the urban poor and his concern with problems such as gang violence, the challenges faced by single mothers, and children whose parents were addicted to drugs.

"Tupac was not spinning fictional stories," Johnson said.  "He was speaking about crises that people were dealing with daily and the dramatic toll they were taking on people's lives."

Johnson noted that that the book also examines controversies in Shakur's life, including his involvement in shootings, arrests for assaults and the time that he spent in prison following his 1994 conviction for sexual abuse.

"There was no squeamishness about criticizing Tupac because he did and said some very unwise things," Johnson said.

Johnson joined the Hope faculty in the fall of 2000. His primary field is 19th century U.S. history, specifically the Confederacy during the Civil War. His other areas of study include the U.S. in the 20th century, the U.S. military and Africa.

His 2004 documentary "The Klan in Michigan, Part I: Reconstruction," which he created with former Hope communication professor Dr. David Schock, won a State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan in 2005.  His current scholarship includes working on a book project, "America's Blind Spot:  U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa from 1945 to Present," from which he wrote a chapter ("The Chasm is Wide: Unspoken Antagonisms between African Americans and West Africans") for the 2008 book "The United States and West Africa."

In addition to his scholarly work, Johnson is the author of three novels:  "Bittersweet" (2002), "A Man Finds His Way" (2003) and "Other Men's Wives" (2005).

During the college's Homecoming Weekend in 2002, Hope's students elected him recipient of that year's "Faculty Appreciation Award."  The graduating class chose him to deliver the Commencement address in May of 2003, and in May 2005 the graduating Class of 2005 presented him with the 41st annual "Hope Outstanding Professor Educator" (H.O.P.E.) Award. He has most recently been asked by the Mortar Board organization to make a presentation for its "Last Lecture Series."

Johnson received his bachelor's degree from Bowie State College in Maryland, and his master's and doctorate from Kent State University in Ohio. His past career experiences include serving as a corporate trainer and as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Copies of "Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon" are available at the college's Hope-Geneva Bookstore, located on the ground level of the DeWitt Center, 141 E. 12th St., as well as through other book sellers.