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Interview: Meet Ex-Con Turned Praised Writer, Shaka Senghor

By Posted on 26 6 m read

shaka senghor

How did your dream of being a doctor transition into being a writer and motivational speaker?

Shaka Senghor: “Well, being a doctor was really something I wanted to be growing up. My life took a horrible turn when I ended up running away from home and getting caught up in street culture. Ultimately, leading me into going to prison. While I was in prison I fell in love with literature. It impacted my life in such a powerful way and it inspired me to write. It was doing short stories and essays that made me realize I wanted to do a larger body of work.”

How did growing up on the east side of Detroit influence your work for “Writing My Wrongs?”

Shaka: “Growing up on the east side of Detroit was a very gritty environment. Originally it was a nice middle-class neighborhood that eventually took a major hit with the influence of crack cocaine and the drug trade. It was really fast pace, fast hustle. It just had its own unique rhythm to it that’s a little different from the west side of the city. That hustle mentality, that grind, that don’t give up no matter what — that reflected in my writing.”

Explain how hip-hop culture inspires you.

Shaka: “Hip-hop is its own culture for me as a writer. I grew up in the Golden Era of hip-hop where MCs really put a lot of thought into the narratives they shared through music. People like Rakim, who’s known for his use of metaphors and similies, double meanings. KRS-One, who uses the trapping knowledge. Nas is one of my favorites too. Being confident as a writer is really important. That kind of comes after listening to Jay Z. His wordplay and his wittiness. I just love the art form. It makes me concentrate on how I use words. I’ve been heavily influenced by the culture.”

Who are some hip-hop artists that you feel are vital to the black community?

Shaka: “Kendrick Lamar. I really love him right now. Kanye West’s new album is bananas. That’s what I’ve been listening to the last couple of weeks. J. Cole is someone I truly truly love. He’s just so inspiring. I have to admit I am a little bit bias because I am from Detroit, but Big Sean is great. He pours his heart out and besides him as an artist, the work he does in Detroit means a lot to me. I had the chance to collaborate with him on some of that work with his foundation.”

Looking back at your 19-year-old self, how do feel you have changed?

Shaka: “I’m more conscious of my true authentic self. I think one of the things is when you’re a teenager growing up in the streets, I sold drugs from age 14 to 19. It’s a very chaotic environment to grow up in. It’s very anti-human. So now, I’m a lot more conscious of my powers and my energy. Being able to look back at that 19-year-old, I just see a lonely kid and now I’m an adult who has been fortunate enough to overcome some very tough circumstances.”

What was your speech during TED’s 30th anniversary like?

Shaka: “It was one of the most chaotic days of my life. I thought maybe about 100,000 something people would check the talk out, but it’s currently at 1.3 million views. Also just seeing other people quote from my talk and use some of that language — just to know that people are really listening and thinking about giving people second chances that part of my lecture I’ll always be proud of.”


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