Cover To Cover…‘The Life And Times of an American Icon’

Have you ever wondered why music is important to you?

Scientists have all sorts of explanations, but you probably can’t live without your iPod because those tunes speak to you. Those songs move you, body and soul, and the singers say words you wish you could say.

But despite the fame and fortune, the lives of those singers aren’t as great as you think they are—or were, as in the case of one rapper. In the new book “Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon” by Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred L. Johnson III, you’ll read about him.


Afeni Shakur was an activist. Born before the Civil Rights Movement, she joined the Black Panthers as an adult and quickly became a leader within the group. She conceived her first child while on bail for conspiracy charges (for which she was subsequently found not guilty). She named the child Lesane but later re-named him Tupac, after a revolutionary Incan emperor.

Though he was almost always homeless, had little to eat or wear, and though many of the adults surrounding him were in trouble or in jail, Tupac Shakur grew up to be “a sensitive soul.” He attended Baltimore School for the Arts, acted in plays, and wrote poetry. He was well-versed in Shakespeare. His best friend was a White boy named John.

And then, to protect Tupac and his younger sister from violence in New York, Afeni sent them to California to live with a friend who turned out to be an angry alcoholic. Because he knew little about sports and a lot about literature, Tupac was preyed upon by rougher boys near his new home.

Trying to fit in, Tupac briefly dealt drugs. He couldn’t play basketball, but he was “stunning on the microphone,” which gained the attention of a White woman who took him under her wing. She nurtured Tupac’s talents and guided him, and within three years, he was a star.

But though Tupac’s career was on the rise, his life was out of control. Because of the lyrics, his songs were banned and vilified. He began hanging out with people who were into drugs and guns. He was shot, spent time in jail, and was shot again. And in the end, his music couldn’t save him.

The authors include a thorough examination of the infamous feud between rappers, but though it was well-done, it wasn’t enough.

If you’re looking for a definitive biography on the musician, this book isn’t what you want. It’s okay, but overall, “Tupac Shakur” just doesn’t wrap it up enough.

(“Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon” by Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred L. Johnson III, c.2010, Da Capo Press, $15.95/$20, Canada, 276 pages, includes index.)

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