Shaka Senghor: The Intentional Storyteller

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  Senghor after an arrest in 1991. © Shaka Senghor. Courtesy of the artist.

 I believe that humans, by nature, are redeemable. I believe that we live in a society where we throw away people without giving consideration to their humanity, to their lived experiences, which allowed them to fall from grace…I want my words to always challenge that, challenge the idea that people are to be thrown away and aren’t redeemable. — Shaka Senghor

 

BY KEEM MUHAMMAD| STUDENT CONTRIBUTOR| THE UNSHELTERED ISSUE  | WINTER 2017   

Shaka Senghor grew up in Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit, Senghor’s life evolved from scholarly student, to drug dealer, to inmate. For 26 years, Senghor’s story stretched from pain and incarceration into innovation and atonement. The challenges Senghor has faced have been well documented by journalists from Fusion, Fast Company, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Detroit Free Press, Oprah Magazine, and others.

Most of the features on Senghor cover different aspects of the same issues: the choices which lead Senghor to incarceration; the perils faced and discoveries made during his sentence, particularly in solitary confinement; Senghor’s public advocacy for U.S. prison reform. What isn’t covered in the articles are the times Senghor was living displaced, or unsheltered.

It is important to note Senghor has had the space to tell his story. His experiences have placed him in a unique position of privilege. He uses this privilege as a platform for his storytelling, a method also for combating the negative connotations (legal and social) people experiencing incarceration face on a daily basis.

Today, Senghor is a published author, professor, mentor, and motivational speaker. His storytelling serves as a living example of hope for those who are, were, or at risk of being incarcerated. When Senghor is able to tell stories in his own words, the audience can find more than just exemplary storytelling. The stories themselves are evidence of his activism and social change.

But what kind of storyteller is Senghor? What are his goals as an artist, and how do his experiences inform his art? In what ways has Senghor deployed storytelling for social change, particularly at the intersection of homelessness and incarceration?

Below is an condensed and edited excerpt of the conversation I had with Senghor about these questions in the spring of 2017.

— Keem Muhammad

 

Keem Muhammad: I wanted to talk with you about how storytelling, as an art, has influenced your personal and professional life, specifically as it relates to incarceration and homelessness. For starters, what kind of artist were you in grade school?

Shaka Senghor: In grade school I was a visual artist. I grew up in love with drawing and painting. I actually wanted to be an artist at one point in my life. I wanted to go to art school. I was pretty well-known for drawing the superheroes and entertainment people—from Michael Jackson to Prince.

I was like most of the kids in my class; they all loved comic books. We never really paid attention to who the superheroes were and what their names were. We drew whatever we saw.

KM: Did you have a particular superhero, a go-to drawing you would sketch a lot? What was your process like?

SS: I’d probably say [the Marvel Comics character] Wolverine. Wolverine was probably my favorite because he was kind of complex to draw. But I was pretty much just drawing everything, you know?

I lost interest, though, after my mother and father wouldn’t allow me to go to art school. I didn’t realize that we couldn’t afford it at that time…

KM: What age were you when that happened? The art school thing?

SS: I was in probably about third or fourth grade. [Getting into art school] was based on this little test, where you draw this little turtle, this pirate, and houses. I actually forgot the name of the school but they still do that today.

KM: Really? Is it [the school] in Michigan, in Detroit?

SS: [The test] is actually a national program, but they send this brochure out and you have to complete these art-based tasks and then they’ll reach out to you and see if you qualify based on your completion of the tasks. And that’s how it went.

 

 Left to right: Nakia White (Senghor’s sister), James White (Senghor’s father), and young Shaka Senghor. © Shaka Senghor. Courtesy of the artist.

 

KM: Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t you experienced displacement or homelessness?

SS: When I ran away from home I was homeless. [It was during] that time I was introduced to the crack trade, which happens a lot with young people. We talk about human trafficking a lot, that human trafficking tends to public porn, women who are being exploited sexually and taken advantage of. But human trafficking also happens in the hood, where you get young men and young women who ran away from home, who don’t have a space like a home. They end up introduced to the drug world because they don’t have anywhere to live and they’re just trying to find a means to take care of themselves. That’s what happened to me.

KM: How old were you when you ran away?

SS: About thirteen or fourteen.

KM: Was that the only point in your life where you experienced being displaced or homelessness?

SS: Yes.

KM: For how long?

SS: Probably three weeks, a month. I was living in crack houses, technically.

KM: Can you tell me a little bit about that month? What was the experience like?

SS: I was sleeping in my friends’ garages and basements whenever I could. It’s interesting because at our age, we were refurbishing abandoned houses and turning them into club houses. I realized, with the epidemic of homelessness in the world, all these communities have abandoned houses. We need to be refurbishing those homes for people who don’t have anywhere else to go, you know?

KM: Can you tell me a little bit about what the process was like, to “fix” some of those homes when you were a kid? Were you all basically flipping abandoned houses and making them livable?

SS: Basically. When there was an abandoned house in our neighborhood, we would typically go and take over the garage. It’s crazy, a lot of kids do this stuff. We thought that it was the best adventure in the world. We were living from alley to alley. We would find old couches, old chairs and we were just carrying them back to what we turned into club houses. We would hang out there. That’s where we would play, kick it, you know?

We would go get milk crates from the grocery stores and use those as chairs. Oftentimes, when one of us didn’t have anywhere to go, we would go crash out there. People would throw mattresses out. We would take all the mattresses and put them in a backyard. That’s where we did our hood gymnastics. We would store our break dancing cardboard in them [the abandoned garages]. We weren’t busting windows, we just occupied them, so to speak.

 

 Shaka Senghor (left) with his friend Frank (right). © Shaka Senghor. Courtesy of the artist.

 

KM: For this conversation, I’m arguing that storytelling is an effective, pragmatic art form with everyday uses for people to engage society. It takes a particular skill set to be an effective writer and orator. Sometimes people develop these skills somewhat naturally, but sometimes they have to build on and learn these skills through many years of extensive trial and error. In retrospect, can you point to any instances which might have shown your potential for storytelling as a youngster—before you knew you were a storyteller?

SS: Constantly trying to get out of trouble is probably where it began. It was about being able to scrape together stories to talk my way out of trouble.

KM: Can you describe an incident where you were arrested and you finessed the situation to get out of it?

SS: It’s been so long, man; it’s been so long…I had been arrested before, so I was just like, “Hey, you know if you give me this opportunity I’ll make sure I’ll go back to school,” blah, blah, blah. I guess it’s true that I had storytelling potential; the officers would let me go. I understood the power of being able to communicate on a deeper level.

On a deeper level, I mean being able to effectively communicate narratives, aspects of our life. As a mentor to many young people who are often criticized for being on social media, what I explain to them is that actually what they’re doing is a form of journalism. Whether you’re posting tweets, making Facebook posts, or working through your visuals on Instagram, it’s an art form if you’re really skilled at it.

Because you’re telling people a story, you’re telling people where you are in your life, what you’re going through, what your interests are. I think narratives state every aspect of our life. I’m a big sports trainer but outside the athletic part, there’s the stories of the athletes, the stories of the franchises. All these major things really add to the drama that is sports.

 


Left to right: George Lewis, Kidd-Bey, Oronde Elliott, and Shaka Senghor. © Shaka Senghor. Courtesy of the artist.

 

KM: When do you think your interest in writing came about? Was there ever a major shift, when you went from drawing and painting to writing, or was your talent for writing always present?

SS: I was a good student in school, but I never had any interest in long form writing. I never had an interest in being a poet or anything; I wanted to be a rapper when I was young. Outside of that, I didn’t put any intention into writing until I was in prison. I didn’t take writing seriously until I was serving the time in solitary confinement.

KM: How do you define storytelling?

SS: To me, storytelling is the ability to communicate across various landscapes using a multitude of mediums—whether it’s the written word, song, visual piece, or theater production—to highlight the most humane aspects of who we are while dealing with the most inhuman aspects of who we are.

KM: When under great stress, like loss of a loved one or a heartbreak, it is often the case that the artist experiences a moment of profound thinking and turns that into art. Can you think of a specific instance where you were able to turn a kind of tumultuous experience into art, specifically into storytelling?

SS: My first novel I wrote while I was in confinement, serving what turned out to be about four and a half years straight. There’s not a more stressful environment than the madness and chaos of solitary confinement inside of American prisons.

It was in that environment I began my journey as an intentional writer, a purposeful writer. When I began to craft my first novel, one of the things that allowed me to do was offset the trauma of being in confinement, the trauma I experienced in my childhood and growing up. It was so therapeutic. It helped me set a real intention in my life.

KM: Can you expand a little bit on what you mean by being an “intentional writer” or a “purposeful writer”? What does that mean to you?

SS: I was very intentional about my writing and what I wanted to write about. I was very purposeful in the sense that I have some real, lived experiences and I wanted to ensure that whatever I wrote honored the purpose of my writing. Making sure that other people are aware of the consequences that come with living street life, being caught up in street culture. So readers understand how these consequences can devastate families and communities. At the same time, I was very intentional about writing in a way that was entertaining as well as informative.

KM: What are your goals when you set out to do storytelling or write?

SS: My intentions as a communicator, whether in written or spoken word as an artist, is to ensure that when people walk out of the room, they acknowledge and recognize that humanity exists in everybody they encounter. They realize that there is a child inside of every person they encounter. That they’re informed in ways they may not have been informed prior to internet searches or prior to reading any of my writing.

The biggest thing, as a writer, is to ensure that I always honor my humanity and that I also honor the humanity of consumers. I come from a very open-hearted space. I allow my creativity to flow from there.

KM: What kind of fictional storytelling did you mold your experiences into?

SS: All my fictions are mysteries. What I did is fall in love with characters first, and asked myself: “What does this character want out of life? What if we tried to deny them that? What do they want to understand about who they are? [What about the character] isn’t clearly understood? How can you tell the story in a way that honors the integrity of the characters that you write? Whether it’s an officer, a mother who’s raising her children, or a father—whatever it, is I want to be very true to who that character was meant to be. That allows me to gather a story.

When I started writing fiction, I knew where I wanted my fiction to land. I knew the landscapes I wanted to write on. I was very intentional about writing. I could’ve been writing anything in the world. I was getting requests to write about prison and prison life, though that wasn’t interesting to me at the time because I was living it. What I was interested in writing was literature I felt would resonate with young men and women growing up in tough circumstances and tough communities.

KM: It’s common knowledge that the art isn’t always received in alignment with the artist’s vision. Have there have been times where your storytelling or writing did not achieve the desired result? Are there times when you see pushback?

SS: I haven’t received much pushback, that I can think of, from my memoir. In terms of my fiction, the content is really urban, really gritty, really raw. Sometimes people get so wrapped up in the violence of the gangster world that they lose sight of the consequences it causes. We glamorize the gangster culture within our national culture. Some of that violence is misconstrued as worship but not very often.

 

Cover image of Senghor’s memoir, Writing My Wrongs. © Shaka Senghor. Courtesy of the artist.

KM: What belief systems, ideas, or traditions does your work challenge? What do you push against? What are you aiming to deconstruct, specifically?

SS: My art, as it relates to most of my work, is around reform. I believe that humans, by nature, are redeemable. I believe that we live in a society where we throw away people without giving consideration to their humanity, to their lived experiences, which allowed them to fall from grace, if you will.

So I want my words to always challenge that, challenge the idea that people are to be thrown away and aren’t redeemable. I challenge a system that is in place which basically marginalizes people living in it. How can we see each other on a more personal level? The real challenge is with consumers—whether it’s written word or spoken word—to really step outside of themselves. To be more compassionate. To put themselves in other people’s shoes and look at the holistic picture, as opposed to the snapshot.

KM: I remember during our first meeting back in January 2017 when you were telling the group about how you’ve become interested in interior design. Can you tell me how that came about?

SS: Prison is a very sterile environment. You don’t have the opportunity to put your personal touch on your living place. Not that many of us would probably would want to, but the fact that you can’t didn’t help.

When I got out of prison, when I first came home, I was staying with the woman who was my fiancé at the time. Actually, we broke up, but her and I were living together in a house. When I got home, we tried to add whatever personal touches for me, but realistically, that was a house that had already been settled into. After that we moved to a townhouse. A townhouse comes with townhouse rules. There’s only so much you can do when you are trying to lease somebody’s property. Eventually, I was able to purchase a home for our family. I’m a typical brother, I’m a typical guy. I was like, ‘Whatever you do to the house is cool. I don’t really care, I’m not really trippin.’

But I knew I wanted to have a man cave. I wanted to have a space in the house. Initially, I called some people and asked them quotes to get dry wall put up and finish the basement. The quotes were astronomical. I was discouraged for probably about fifteen minutes. I was just sitting there and I was like, “No. What I’m going to do is I’m just going to turn this into a loft space.” The more I started to think about it, I was like, “I could turn this into really cool man cave.” It’s really just about painting the walls, blackening out the ceiling, painting the floor, and getting some basic design concepts.

When I finished it, added some lighting and all that kind of stuff, it literally cost me probably a quarter of what they were trying to charge me. People would come down to see it and were like “It looks just like a club. It looks like an art gallery, who did this?” I said, “I just came up with this on my own.”

That’s how I got the idea that I can design any space however I want it. That comes back to the art. When you are an artist, when you paint pictures with words or actual pictures with different mediums, you see the world in a very creative and artistic way. To me that’s what interior design is, a personal take on a space. It’s something I love. I plan to have a show about repurposing spaces for those formerly incarcerated.

KM: With interior design, do you see any direct connections between the way you write and tell stories or the process that you go through in designing spaces?

SS: When I was designing my home (because eventually I designed the rest of my home once me and my fiancé broke up) I was always in my mind asking, ‘What is the story I want my home to tell when a person comes in?’ On my living room wall, I used to have these four locks. People would be like, “Those are really cool, but what made you do that?” I was like, “It represents four aspects of my life.”

One lock represents being locked up—that’s about me being arrested. One of the locks represent being locked down—that’s being me in solitary confinement while I was in prison. One lock represents me being locked out—which is what happened when I got out of prison. People locked me out of opportunities to find employment, housing, and all other things that come with having a felony on your record. The fourth lock represents being locked in, which I had to do in order to be successful. I had to be locked in the things that I believed in, the values that I have, the vision and goals I have for myself. And not allow those ugly locks to dictate what my life outcomes would be, if I wasn’t locked in.

I want my home to tell a story of things I’m inspired by, things that I enjoy doing.

 

 Shaka Senghor (top left), Senghor’s father James White, and Senghor’s son, James White II. © Shaka Senghor. Courtesy of the artist.

KM: I’m glad you brought up the four locks story. I wanted to ask you about that third lock, about being locked out. What was that experience like for you? When you were trying to re-adjust to civilian life, what were some of the major obstacles that you faced?

SS: One of the major obstacles I faced was moving to the townhouse. We realized [the previous neighborhood] wasn’t a safe environment. We tried to move, but people wouldn’t rent to me because I have a felony. It was one of the most hurtful things because at that time, my son was around one and a half and I wanted to put him in the safest environment possible. I was on the road a lot. Then having a felony, it wasn’t like I could buy a firearm to protect our home. And my son’s mother couldn’t have a firearm because I have a felony.

No one would rent to me, so I was forced into homeownership way before I was prepared for it. But it forced me to make that [safe environment] happen.

KM: I want to pivot into your current professional work. Can you give me a little background on #cut50 or any other organizations that you lead or are involved in related to incarceration or reducing recidivism?

SS: At one time, I was the Director of Strategy Innovation for #cut50. I no longer hold that position. However, I’m a big supporter of the work that #cut50 is doing and a partner through my own work.

KM: Can you describe what your day-to-day was like when you were Director of Strategy and Innovation?

SS: Largely, what I did at #cut50 was support whatever initiatives that we were working on when it came to getting bills passed. We did a lot of work in terms of policy and clemency. Oftentimes what my work looked like in that space was helping develop our social media strategy, our outreach strategy. Who are the people that we should be talking to? What are the ways in which we engage them?

My position there was about adding a human touch to a very data-driven workspace. We hosted one of the largest summits in the history of this country in 2015. I helped with the curation of the speakers. I also spoke at the event and did a panel.

KM: Were there any projects or initiatives that you might have wanted to work on during that time, but didn’t necessarily get the chance to? Or maybe the scope of the role didn’t quite fit a particular project?

SS: I can’t speak to anything in particular. Overall, in terms of criminal justice reform, there were a lot of things that I would have loved to work on, like a documentary. I thought that was a great way to talk about solitary confinement. I would have loved to work on that. I was fortunate to be able to be a part of the film Thirteenth. Ava DuVernay just won an award for that, which was incredible. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work on a lot of stuff that I really care about.

I’m currently in the process of creating a media content company. What I realized is that art has the ability to reach people in ways other mediums reach people. I’m creating stories rooted in things that I care about, addressing issues of incarceration and gun violence, child abuse and child neglect. All of that will be reflected in the content produced by our company. That’s my work right now.

We are in the process of developing a major [television] show. I can’t go through many details right now because we are still in developmental stages. I’m also working as a consultant on a show that comes out in September called Release. It’s about the first 90 days of seven men and women coming home from prison. I’m super, super excited about that. That will air on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

I’m super excited to be using artistic platforms to actively challenge things that are wrong within the system.

 

 Shaka Senghor. © Shaka Senghor. Courtesy of the artist.

KM: What do you think are the ingredients of a strong story?

SS: The ingredient for a strong story is conflict: [the characters] have been tested, tried and true throughout every platform, across every platform. Always start with the conflict. What do people want? What’s standing in the way of what they want?

Then, the ability to speak to all the senses. If you can speak to all the senses, you’ve reached the level of master storyteller—where you can get the person to hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it, see it. For me, that’s my truth. Whether that’s through social media, long form, narrative, memoir, autobiography, or visual art. When a person walks away from the experience they’ve had, touch those five senses. When you’ve touch those five senses, you’ve touched their humanity.

KM: Last question. Is there anything you wish you could say about your work that you can’t necessarily say in your work?

SS: I’m dope. That’s really it. Dope is what I do, man.

KEEM MUHAMMAD

KEEM MUHAMMAD

Keem O. Muhammad is from East St. Louis, Illinois and is a Performance Studies senior at NYU Tisch. As an NYU Global Leadership Fellow, his interests are in civic literacy and leadership, multimedia production, freedom of expression, and social innovation. Muhammad has previously worked as a consultant with the Associated Press Elections and Product Development Units, and recently served on the National Board of Directors for the Society of Professional Journalists, where he is a committed member.

 

 

 

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