IN CONVERSATION WITH…
Shaka Senghor, Author, Reformist, Father
“I wrote my way out. I wrote my up, I wrote my wrongs.”
At the age of 19, I was sent to prison for second-degree murder and did 19 years behind bars, with seven of those years being in solitary confinement. I focused on freeing my mind and expanding my thinking; reading and writing. I clung to words as I pulled myself out of the anger that led me to prison. I began to see my potential. From prison I self-published my first book Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison. Today, I am a NY-Times Best Selling Author, a former MIT Media Lab Fellow, a Prison Reform Advocate (Atonement Project), but above all I am a son, a mentor, and a father.
My father is the number one person who inspires me; that's my guy. I think as a black father a lot of times we are cast to the side as only financial providers. The reality is me and my circle of friends-who are all amazing fathers-are so much more than that. We're so much more dimensional than the world would have people believe. I'm really an advocate for fathers and, being a father myself, I love to lift that voice up.
I’ve been inspired by so many brilliant men in the past. Malcom X is one of my biggest inspirations in terms of someone who took circumstances and turned them into something powerful and meaningful for other people. Reading Malcom X’s biography changed my life.
I'm not ritualistic in the sense that I don't have a meditation room, I don't burn candles, I don't do none of that. However, if it works for other people, I encourage them to do that. Personally, I've been doing meditation for a long time starting back when I was in prison and in solitary. So for me it's really more about mindfulness and just being aware of what kind of energy I'm taking in and what kind of energy I want to project to the world.
The MANTRA (Voice in My Head)
It's actually a mantra that I came up with on my own as a result of everything I learned and read and saw. "If you focus on your passion, you can get through the pain.” And that's how I live my life. Whenever I'm in a difficult circumstance or dealing with a setback, I always think about what is the passion or what is it that I'm driving towards. When I can focus on that, it's easy to deal with the pain. I've had a lot of painful experiences in my life, more than a lot, so I've just learned that whenever you focus on what it is that you really want, you can get past the pain. A lot of times I think people get stuck focusing on the pain instead of thinking about what is the end game; what is the goal, what is it that drives you? That’s my mantra. I live by that.
7:00AM That's a complex question because I travel a lot. I'm coast-to-coast and I'm a night owl—going to bed at about 3am. I have a five-year old son and share co-parenting duties with his mom, so I'm on his schedule most of the time, when home, and I try to keep that schedule consistent.
When I first get up, I usually do a little brief meditation on what I want to accomplish that day, and also what I'm thankful for. I believe it’s important to keep yourself grounded; to really find small things in life that you're thankful for. It's easy to focus on the big things, but for me, given my history and my background, I find that when I can wake up and say, “I'm thankful that I have clean socks to put on, that I have toothpaste, and orange juice to drink,” it's just a great way to ground myself in a spirit of gratitude.
Once that part of my day is done, I'm off to my emails or if my son is here I'm also up getting him ready for school, making his lunch, getting him dressed, and out the door.
7:00AM with Sekou when he's here with me, I get up and I make his breakfast. While he's eating breakfast, I'll make his lunch for school. Once I make his lunch and pack up, I make sure he calls his mother, just to get his day off to a good start with both parents being engaged. I drop him off to school at 8:15.
9:00AM I'm not a super big breakfast person. I sometimes don't really eat until lunch, but I do get up and I'll drink a juice. Sometimes it's just the basics—oatmeal, boiled eggs, turkey bacon. It just really depends what's on my calendar and what meetings are scheduled.
My assistant arrives. I have a home office in the corner of my condo so my typical flow is on my computer writing, responding to emails, taking phone calls. Basically, what would happen in a traditional office, but it's just a little more comfortable because I'm at home and I don't have to throw on a suit.
My calendar is usually pretty organized and pretty consistent. I take a lot of funding meetings, presentation meetings, and strategy meetings. I do a lot of strategy sessions with different partners. Those are typical phone conversations I'm taking on the daily.
1:00PM Some of my lunches are in-person meetings or I may just have lunch at home and continue to work through lunch. I have a little restaurant right downstairs called Green Leaves; sometimes that's a quick go to. My assistant normally brings me something at the house. Usually she'll just grab something from Carousel; it’s Middle Eastern food which I love. I’m from Detroit and we got like the largest Middle Eastern population so I’m a little bit of a Middle Eastern food snob.
2:45PM with Sekou I pick my son up from school. Then we go home and we usually play either Legos or he's really into paper airplanes now. We'll do paper airplanes or may get outside to walk around and explore the world out there.
5:00PM I try to be wrapped with my work day in terms of in-person meetings. That doesn't always happen. I do have a five-year old and I try to give him time. Normally, he wants to catch his little shows and I'll try to button up the rest of my things for the day before dinner.
I cook for my son more than I cook for myself. I can cook a little bit, I'm cool. I do a baked penne pasta, kind of like a pizza pasta and he loves that. He loves lentils and rice. So those are kind of like the go to’s for him.
7:30PM We start winding down for my son’s bedtime routine which consists of prayer with his mother. After he does prayer with his mother, we do affirmations which I started when he was probably around 2 years old. It's a nighttime ritual we have and even if I'm on the road, I'll FaceTime him or do a phone call. I've been consistently doing that for the last 3 years and he looks forward to it. It's really important I think, as a father, to help your child understand who they are before the world tells them who they aren't. We’re always dealing with the world trying to define who we are and I believe in positively affirming children early on.
9:00PM I try to wind down with a nice cocktail, tequila preferably, at the end of the evening and catch up on Sports Center. Lately I’ve been catching up on YouTube videos. I love music and hip-hop and stuff like that. It's pretty chill.
12:00AM – 3:00AM I'm a real late-night writer. That's pretty much my process consistently.
The MEDITATION (when you think Legacy + Heritage)
The long-term goal is to be the kind of father that ensures my son inherits a better world than I inherited. The legacy that I want to leave behind is as a man/father we have a responsibility to create the world we want our children to be able to thrive in, to grow in, to evolve in, to expand in. That's what drives my work. I want to create that world for as many children as possible.
And on the creative side, I want to be one of the best who’s ever done what I do as a writer. I want to be one of the best writers to span several mediums from books to stage to television and film.
Rest & Relaxation. That's the problem. I don't do that enough largely because I travel so much and I do have a life filled with amazing experiences. But, I have some friends in Silicon Valley named Ben and Felicia and I stay at their house a lot. They have a nice guest house and usually when I'm up there I can really unwind and relax; I know everything is taken care of. Felicia takes good care of me and makes sure I'm good. They give me the guest house and it's literally my own little oasis.
Because I'm a writer, most of the times when I'm on flights I'm actually writing. I rarely read anything on flights anymore. I do a lot more writing and listening to music. Music is so important in my life.
My favorite author is Donald Goines. He was one of the first writers to write urban fiction and use inner city landscape to tell stories. My favorite book is Assata - The Autobiography of Assata Shakur by Assata Shakur. It’s such a brilliantly written book.
The last thing I was really enjoying was Jay Z’s 4:44. That’s definitely real grown music. I listen to my lil homie Tee Grizzley a lot. When I'm writing, I'm in a different type of zone: it's aggressive, cocky, you need that swagger when you’re trying to get something out. So, I'm really listening to Tee Grizzley a lot when I'm writing. He went to the school I mentored at and that’s how we actually met. Shout out to the lil homie Tee Grizzley and Big Sean. I'm a Detroit guy so I'm always rocking with my guys from the D when I'm on the plane writing.
If my life were a soundtrack, it would start with Jay Z’s Interlude. That song embodies so much of who I am, where I come from, and what I've gone through. It would end with Commodores Soul. It's a real aspirational song just about dreaming into existence the world that you want, you know?
Nas speaks to me like no other. The thoughtfulness and depth of what he writes about really resonates with me as a man, as a father, and as a person who wants to uplift community. There's a deep spiritual music connection with Nas.
The WATCH (TV or Film)
I love Shameless, that's my joint. I love Insecure. Shout out to Issa. One of my favorite movies is actually Wolf of Wall Street. Overall, I’m a typical hood dude so Scarface and The Godfather. I like the gangsta gangsta joints, but outside of that, Wolf of Wall Street. Oh, Training Day is my shit too. Yeah, Training Day.
5 Things I Can’t Live Without
1. Fly Kicks: Old School Classics to High End Luxury Brands. Jordan 1s are my favorite shoes of all time.
2. Detroit Tigers Hat (D Hat). I gotta have a crispy selection of D hats.
5. Great Tequila. I have some Casa Dragones, so whenever I'm chillin’, I’m sippin’ on that. But, Don Julio 42 is my most consistent go to and Don Julio Repasado.
The LAST WORD
The greatest joy of my success is the flexibility that I've been able to create to spend the type of time that I want with my son and provide him with the opportunities I think all children are deserving of. I'm fortunate to be able to do that.
As told to Christyna Pourhabib for ICON MANN