Shaka Senghor became a father in prison; he became a man on his terms. After he was arrested for second-degree murder in 1991, 19-year-old Senghor welcomed his first child, Jay, into the world while he was held captive in war-like conditions where physical closeness was tantamount to a declaration of war. He entered adulthood abandoned by friends he risked his life for and the world raising his child, as it did with numerous Black men he was caged with inside prison. “What happened with me was I created an idea in my head that I was actually really doing this father thing good because I could send home letters and I could talk to him on visits, and be like, ‘Yo, here’s how you handle this, or here’s how you handle that.’ But that’s just so limited in terms of what children actually need.”
When Senghor was released from prison in 2010, he was more a statistic than a man to America. He was one of the 708,677 people released from prison, according to 2010 data from The Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S. Department of Justice. He had a 76% chance of returning to prison and was more likely to return to prison than his white and Hispanic counterparts. But, Senghor didn’t allow his life story to be written by numbers he can’t control and past failures he can’t erase. So, he took decided to write it himself. He sold a copy of his first book, Crack Vol. 1, in the parole parking lot on his first day out, and the next 12 years have been one of the greatest comeback stories ever. He’s been interviewed by Oprah Winfery for Super Soul Sunday, met President Barack Obama, had his work featured on the New York Times Best Sellers List with 2013’s Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and One Man’s Story of Redemption in an American Prison, appeared on Nas’ 2021 album King’s Disease II, and most recently released his latest book, Letters to the Sons of Society: A Father’s Invitation to Love, Honesty, and Freedom. But, most importantly, he welcomed another son into his life, Sekou Akili Senghor, on December 13, 2011.
Now, he can add tech executive (as head of diversity at travel app TripActions) and executive producer to his growing list of titles after the world premiere of the documentary, God Said Give Em Drum Machines at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. The stirring music documentary tells the true story of techno music’s origins in the Black community, a truth seldom discussed.
And that’s not even half of his redemption tale.
Speaking with VIBE at his Los Angeles home, Senghor discusses the difficulty of raising a child in prison, how Hip-Hop shaped his maturation while incarcerated, his connection to Nas, and what it means to be able to raise his youngest son outside of prison.
You said early in your newest book that it’s impossible to raise a child from prison? How do you think that fact has affected so many generations of black kids?
There are the rare exceptions where children have that connection with their dad or their moms that’s incarcerated. And typically, it’s children who were able to experience their dad or mom on the outside. Jay was born after I was arrested, and so our first meeting was like two strangers meeting, even though he was a baby and I’m an adult. The impact of a parent being absent is something that profoundly changes how a child navigates life.
Did you see other fathers trying to father their children from behind bars when you were in prison?
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen tons of guys who were fortunate to have either a grandparent, their moms, or their dads really lean in and do what they could to bring their children to see them. The difficult thing is that most prisons are very remote, most incarcerated people don’t typically have a ton of resources, and people don’t even afford a visit. My dad would bring my son up, and it was five hours to get there, five hours back. So they had to be very calculated about, first of all, do they have time off from work? Do they have the means to pay for a hotel? All those different things, and usually, my dad and my stepmom, they would just try to figure out a way where they can stay somewhere in the area and do something, make it a little mini-vacation. But that just wasn’t the norm, so those who were fortunate to have loved ones who would bring our children up were definitely in the minority.
To that point, how do you feel like America raised your kid when you were in prison? What do you see him that they presented him?
When I think of America parenting, I think about the narratives taught to us about black males, specifically as it relates to my son, Jay. Still, I also think about my family’s impact because they really stepped in and helped raise him, the narratives they’ve been fed, their ideas, and what they’ve witnessed within our own family. Out of my brothers, there are five boys; four of us went to prison, and three of us were shot. Out of my family, eight males have been shot, and two of my brothers. My cousin was shot multiple times, and he eventually committed suicide. My brother was shot twice, and he ended up getting paralyzed the second time around. That narrative of the community, which is an extension of the realities of America, definitely has an impact on how my son was raised because my family’s like, “We got to protect him. We got to make sure he doesn’t get caught up.” They did whatever they could to try to make that happen.
What is the smallest prison habit you got over that made you feel like you were re-acclimating to being free?
One of the simplest was just allowing people to be physically close to me. That was a big transition for me to make coming out of prison because there, the only people that are even in arms reach are your team. Anybody else, that’s immediate hostility, it’s like, “Yo, what’s up.” It pops off. I was in the trenches in the yard. I went through the most violent prisons in Michigan early in my incarceration. So that hostility, that defensiveness, that quickness to be ready to go to war, I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained that was in me until I came home. I recognized I had compounded PTSD. I got shot 17 months before I went to prison. I had never reconciled it. I had never had mental health treatment that, at 17 years old, somebody tried to kill me. I just did what I saw around me. You get shot; I started carrying a gun every day, and 16 months later or so, I ended up shooting and causing a man’s death. And then I went straight into a violent system where shit just pops off on the yards. The stabbings, the bludgeonings, the fights, and that was consistent throughout most of my incarceration. But as I began to mature, I began to evolve emotionally; I began to think about life differently. I thought I had addressed all of those things until I got home and realized, “Damn, I really got some things to work on.”
The title of your book is Letters to the Sons of Society, so you’re talking to more than just your own sons. How did you choose which letters to put in the book, or how to structure it in a way to balance between talking to your sons directly and talking to other fathers and other sons? How did you choose what to put into it?
The book’s origin and the origin of the title started with my work in the world. When I got out of prison, I knew I wanted to mentor. That was really important to me because I saw so many young men coming in and out of prison, and most of us went to prison between the ages of 16 and 21. So I spent the early part of my incarceration around really young guys, and they were smart; they were creative; they were brilliant in some instances, and things had transpired in their lives that led them down the path similar to what happened to me. I knew when I came home that I wanted to be able to work with kids in my community. I grew up on Detroit’s east side and lived on both sides, the east side and the west side. I knew I wanted to work with those kids, so I started at work early on, and I just met so many brilliant kids.
But then, as my work began to grow and I became more successful, I started meeting other young people on their journey, these young guys in the Hip-Hop industry, sports, and things like that. And we had just real conversations; they’d reach out to me like, ‘OG, I’m navigating this, I’m navigating that.’ And I’ve watched some of them go down paths where it’s just like, ‘Hey, you just threw it all away.’ So when I first started, the thought to write these letters was based on all the things I saw happening in the world around Black men. George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, all the brothers you just see blazed across the screen, killed at a super early age, killed with callousness and coldness, in front of their children, in front of their community. And it’s just a psychological trauma of what’s happening to black boy’s bodies, and I was like, “You know what? I got to talk to our sons,” because I’ve seen both sides. So it was letters to my hip-hop sons, letters to my entrepreneurial son– that’s where it started.
I remember when George Floyd was murdered, I was sitting here at home watching the news, and my son Sekou is sitting in front of me, and I’m just seeing my son’s silhouette and seeing LA on fire and all the things that were happening. And then I just started thinking about my oldest son because I’m looking at the young guys who are out there on the front lines and protesting and thinking about him. And I was like, between the two worlds of both of my sons, exists all our sons.
You mentioned having chats with some hip-hop artists, too, asking you for your help. Who were some of the artists you worked with or spoke with during your time giving your help?
I’ve spent time with T.I. talking about criminal justice reform and what that means for our communities. How do we work and move things from ideas into real action? Me and Nas kick it about fatherhood and just life and real stuff. Tee Grizzley, a young rapper out of Detroit, actually was in the school that I mentored too, so when I came home, he was a high school student at that school and sat in on sessions that I’ve had. He went to jail briefly, and then he got out and got into the rap game. And then I just meet so many young people in the industry just through my work, and they’re always hitting me up, like, ‘I’m thinking about this.’ Or, ‘can you make this connection?’ Or, when we are in-person, we’re just really building. I’m very intentional about how I communicate with men. I think it’s essential, especially for younger guys, to have older guys in their life who’ve been through some real shit that’s going to speak truth to them without demeaning them or knocking them.
In the book, you mention how Nas’s “One Love” showed you the kind of love from another friend who looked out for you that you never saw in your life at that point. Who were some other artists that helped mature you while in prison?
With Nas, though, I want to go back to the “One Love” song. When I tell the story now about that song, people look at 50-year-old me telling the story. They’re not looking at that I was about three years in my sentence, so I was about 22, and I want to say Nas was probably 17, 18 when he made Illmatic. Nobody was talking about criminal justice reform back then. Everybody talked about, ‘Lock them up, throw away the key,’ including our community. Nobody was even talking about prison on a human level. You did have Public Enemy with “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” talking about a prison rebellion. You had Pac talking about all he wanted to be was a soldier, about a guy going to get his brother out of prison. So, you had those more protest-oriented songs. Nobody was talking about the personal, intimate relationship of friendship.
And for Nas to have been that age at that time, speaking directly to a friend was mind-blowing to me because it made me think about all my friends I grew up with. We hustled in the streets, got into the shootouts, got into all the things. When I was incarcerated, they were nowhere to be found. And that story is true. I don’t care what city or state you’re in, ask any brother who’s done longer than five years, and they’ll tell you pretty much 90% of the people they called friends abandoned them. For him to be in a studio at the time, writing an album to think about a friend who was incarcerated just spoke volumes about his character as a human being.
How did your son Jay’s relationship with hip hop and your relationship with hip hop, how did you all mesh that, and did it affect y’all reconciliation?
Jay’s not really a big fan of music in that way. He’s kind of counterculture almost. He has a very particular personality, so he doesn’t really do many things. That was part of the poor side of my idea of parenting. When I came home, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m coming home. My son is 19. He knows what’s popping out here; he’s going to have that hustle.’ We come from a hustling family, and now to pursue
legitimate enterprise, we are just going to be out here grinding, listening to hip-hop, and turning up and doing all the things, and that wasn’t the world that he wanted to exist in.
What’s great is with Sekou, who’s 10, is he loves hip hop; he loves old school. I try to monitor what his intake is. Obviously, some of the music is very salacious and objectifies women, so I have to monitor his intake. But just from a cultural standpoint, he really loves hip hop, so I can’t wait until he’s a little bit older. But for now, what’s really dope is I can throw on an Eric B. & Rakim joint right now and call him out here, and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, this is such and such.’ So he loves it, and we come from just a musical family, in general. But it
definitely helps me relate to a lot of my mentees.
How did you end up on Nas’s King’s Disease II?
Some years ago, I interviewed with Oprah, and one of my best friends now, Ben Horowitz, interviewed Oprah after she interviewed me, and he asked Oprah a question “How do you get a person to really open all the way up emotionally about their life?” And so, she was like, “Well, let me tell you about this guy I just interviewed.” So she tells him the story, and he tells his wife, Felicia. She looks me up on Facebook, and we exchange numbers. Now at the time, people are reaching out to me; writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison is out, and the book is hot. I’m doing all this criminal justice work.
So I get people reaching out to me all the time, and I rarely do any real research beyond just a basic scan of their face to see if they look like a normal person. So she and I hopped on the call, and she asked me if I had heard of her husband’s work. I hadn’t at that time. We just got into a conversation. She’s like, ‘What are you into?’ I’m like, ‘I love books, I love writing, I love hip hop, blah, blah.’ She’s like, ‘My husband loves hip hop, too. He’s a big fan of different artists. Who’s your favorite?’ I’m like, ‘Nas.’ She’s like, ‘That’s crazy. That is my husband’s friend. The next time you’re up in the Bay Area, Northern Cal, hit us up; we would love to go to dinner.’
So, bam, I’m up in San Fran, hit Felicia up like, ‘Yo, I’m in town. I got a meeting for X amount of day, but I got free time.’ She was like, ‘We would love to have dinner with you, so meet us at this restaurant.’ I hop in the car, and as I’m going to the restaurant, she texts me, ‘Yo, actually, can you come to our house?’ This is like Silicon Valley, and I don’t know what Silicon Valley looks like. I get to the house, and Ben and I introduced ourselves. He was like, ‘Felicia was telling me you’re a big fan of Nas. That’s my guy.’ You know what? I’m going to call Nas.’ So he literally calls Nas, and I just tell Nas, ‘First of all, I’m super comfortable in who I am as a man to be able to tell you that your music had a profound impact on my life, and here’s the story of how that played out.’ And he was super gracious. We met a few months later. We then met a few more times, and it was a little bit more casual.
Then, we went to a concert with Nas, and it was probably the most surreal experience. It was around my 45th birthday, and we were having a weekend celebration, so Ben and everyone took me to a concert. It was Quincy Jones, Quincy Jones III, Fab 5 Freddy, Ben, his son Jules, and just a whole crew of us. First of all, I’m just on the bus, and I’m just like, ‘Fuck, I’m on the bus with Quincy Jones right now,’ so this is crazy. And Fab is, to me, the true godfather of hip-hop. We picked Nas up to take him to the concert. By the time we got there, we had been drinking. We pull up in a party bus, Nas comes on, and he just starts laughing. He’s like, ‘Ain’t nobody picked me up like this since the ’90s.’ So, we go to the concert, and Nas is like, ‘Y’all got to be on stage.’ When he started singing “One Love,” I was just like, ‘I’m about to lose my shit.’ It’s crazy. After that, Nas, Ben, and I hung out one day for about six hours.
During that time, we just listened to old-school hip-hop like Eric B. & Rakim, Boogie Down Productions, and NWA. We were just going through the whole catalog of our childhood. What was dope about that is in that moment, I didn't see Nas the artist or Ben the venture capitalist. It was just three teenage boys listening to their favorite artists. One night, Nas and I were in New York celebrating Ben’s book (What You Do Is Who You Are), and we were at the restaurant. We got done eating, and he was like, ‘Yo, what you about to get into?’ I’m like, ‘Shit, I’m just going back to my hotel, and I fly out the next day.’ And he was like, ‘You want to go to Queens?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s roll.’ So we hop in the whip, go to Queens, and he’s like, ‘I just got to go to the studio and punch a few things in.’ So we go into the studio, and it’s fucking DJ Premier answering the door at the studio.
Months later, he texted me one day. He’s like, ‘Yo, bro, can you drop some words on this song?’ I was actually in my office. I just remember sitting there and shit, looking at my phone. I was here by myself, looking at my phone like, ‘This shit is crazy right now. Nas just asked me to drop something on this album.’ So, I was like, ‘Yeah, when do you need it?’ And he’s like, ‘I’m actually in the studio right now, so can you get it to me?’ Bam, I go record a piece, shoot it to him. I don’t hear anything for two months or so. I start seeing the marketing for King’s Disease II come out, and the album cover is this burnt orange color, and I’m like, ‘This is crazy because we were finishing up the design of my book cover. I hit Nas, and I sent him the screenshot of his album because I was like, ‘Bro, this is crazy; your album cover is dope.’ And then he was like, “Oh, man, I can’t wait till you hear our song.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck,
yo.’ The night the album dropped, I remember me, my girl, and my son were just up waiting until midnight. I let my son stay up till midnight, and when that song dropped, I was just like, ‘Damn, this is the most surreal experience ever.’
We’re in the third year of your second decade out of prison. What do you see as this era? What is now
your plan for this decade and the next eras going forward for yourself?
I think I’m at a pivotal time in my life right now; it’s a real transition phase. I’ve learned a lot over the last year. It’s been the craziest whirlwind of a life. I’ve been a Fellow at MIT Media Lab, I’ve taught at the University of Michigan, and I’ve led national organizations. I’ve worked in the creative field; I’ve produced for television; I’ve written for the stage; I’ve written songs; I’m on the songs. I’ve done just crazy stuff that are once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and now I’m just at a point where I’m really settling into really being a dad and the dopest father I can be—and creating the dopest life experience for my son and creating a family life for my girl and me and my son. That’s what I get excited about. When I think about what the next ten years are like, we’re really maximizing and fulfilling our dreams.