Interviewed by Anne Burt
Jamal Joseph, the newly appointed acting chair of Columbia University’s School of the Arts film division, is a writer, director, producer, poet, activist and educator. He is artistic director of the New Heritage Theatre and Impact Repertory Theatre in Harlem, and has taught in Columbia’s film division for nine years. His new book, Tupac Shakur Legacy, published at the end of August by Atria, is a biography of the rap/hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. It is an “interactive biography,” with removable reproductions of Tupac’s handwritten lyrics, notebook pages, personal memorabilia, and a CD featuring rare interviews.
In this interview with Anne Burt of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs, Joseph discusses his personal history with Tupac and the Shakur family, as well as his strong personal identity with portions of Tupac’s biography.
Q: What is your connection to Tupac Shakur and what inspired you to write this book?
A: I met Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur, in 1968 when I joined the Harlem chapter of the Black Panther Party. I was 15 years old, but I probably looked more like 12 or 13. Afeni tried to send me home because she thought I was too young. I wouldn’t go, so she took me under her wing and became like a big sister to me. She still is.
I was there for some of the good moments of Tupac’s life and, certainly, for some of the bad moments, too. In recent years, Afeni has known my work as a playwright and screenwriter—I wrote a screenplay about Tupac that she was happy about because she thought it was honest and poetic. She told the publisher, Atria, that she wanted me to write the book.
Q: How does Afeni feel about your portrayal of her son's tendency to contradict himself?
A: Afeni raised Tupac in the spirit of being honest. That Tupac would one day make a song that calls women “bitches” and the next day make an anthem for single mothers called “Keep Your Head Up” wasn’t a contradiction to her or to the people who knew him and how he was raised.
Q: How does your book compare with other works on Tupac’s life?
A: A lot of books on Tupac go for the sensational element: the Tupac that inflamed and shocked and titillated the imagination. Tupac might have coined the phrase “Thug Life,” but that’s not who he was at the very core of his being. He really loved the creative arts since he was a kid. He was part of Harlem’s 127th Street Ensemble as an aspiring young actor; and in
Baltimore, where the family moved after Harlem, he immersed himself in ballet and Shakespeare at the Baltimore School for the Arts.
Of course, if we made the book a giant Valentine’s Day card, that wouldn’t have worked either. So I talked about his flawed moments, too. He was addicted to marijuana; he often talked about getting clean, only to fall back into his addiction. I talked about the sexual assault case he faced. His life was very big and fast and Shakespearean in that way.
In the end, I hope that readers are able to make up their own minds about who they think Tupac Shakur was and what his legacy is.
Q: Did you discover anything that surprised you?
Tupac predicted his own death long before he was shot and killed. For a long time, I, like many other people, thought that his incredible output, something like 400 songs, was from his conviction that he had only a finite amount of time left. But now I think we had it wrong. After his release from prison, Tupac took steps to clean up his act and get involved in the community. He really wanted to live at the end.
Q: You have a strong commitment yourself to working with youth in the creative arts.
A: Like Tupac, I spent time in prison—in Leavenworth in the 1970s. Prisoners of that era segregated themselves along racial lines. They stayed with their own kind.
So I started a theater company, first doing a play with only black prisoners about black history month. It turned out to be a play about prison life in general, and then Latino and white prisoners wanted to join. They could see there was no escape plot, there was no war, it was just art. And I began to see the power of art to bring people together to tell their stories, and to heal the human spirit.
Q: And nowadays you are involved with theater here in Harlem.
When I came out of prison, I met Vosa Rivers, who produced some of the plays I’d written in prison. Together we founded Impact Repertory Theatre in Harlem nine years ago. It’s very much based on the work I did when serving as artistic director of the City Kids Foundation. We encourage young people to use music, dance and drama for getting out the word on their lives. Maybe they can’t change the circumstances of their lives, but they can write or sing about it and be heard.
Q: You’ve led such a rich and varied life. What does teaching at Columbia mean to you?
A: I’ve been at Columbia for more than nine years now and I still can’t believe that I’m here—even though I’m a professor of professional practice and acting chair of the film division—because Columbia was the place where we came to protest in the 1960s. I remember being up here many days when students had taken over the campus. We were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam or calling for political prisoners to be freed. I remember standing in front of Low Library on College Walk, right in front of the statue of Alma Mater, shouting: “Brothers and Sisters, you’ve got to do more than take this place over—you’ve got to burn the damn place down!”
Now flash forward 35 years and here I am walking across campus one cold morning. No one is out chilling on the grass or hanging out on the steps, but I hear someone go “Psst!” And I look around and no one is there. So I take another step and I hear “Psst!” and I look around again and it’s the statue of Alma Mater and she looks at me and goes, “Oh, it’s Professor Joseph now, huh? I remember that speech when you said burn the damn place down!”
The amazing thing about Columbia—it’s also the amazing thing about American society—is that, through the arts and through education, people get the chance to reinvent themselves. They get the chance to grow and prove themselves and explore new opportunities. It’s extraordinary to me that having been in the Black Panther Party, having been in prison (where I earned two of my degrees), I am now teaching at Columbia and working with filmmakers. I’m in a place where I can help nurture artists who will go out and make us think, who will hopefully make a difference someday.