‘Detroit’s Native Son’ from street gang to activism
Yusef Shakur shares his story
By Puakea Olaisha Anderson
Special to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — “Love is what I needed,” says author and entrepreneur Yusef Bunchy Shakur of his prison sentencing 20 years ago.
Shakur, who returned to his community in 2003, says when the judge convicted him, it was to punish him, not make him better.
“Punishing is not what I needed, love is what I needed,” he said. “I cried. And as I cried, I wiped my tears and went to face what I had to face.” He was only 19 years old.
In a recently released documentary, Shakur, now 39, shares his life’s struggles from gang-banging with the gang Z8ne (Zone 8) to prison to community leader.
He often cites his newfound relationship in prison with his father, who was also incarcerated for his evolution. “Prison didn’t rehabilitate me, my father did,” Shakur is known to say.
Born Joseph Ruffin, he changed his name to Yusef Bunchy Shakur after being incarcerated for assault with the intent to rob unarmed.
“I took the rap and I was innocent. I come from a different era, but I wasn’t no angel,” he recalled. “My crew could have easily took the fall from something I had done. The possibility of ratting and telling was never a part of the equation.”
When Shakur made the transition to prison, he met his father, Ahjamu Baruit. “I knew of my father before I went to prison, but he was considered a sperm donor, the guy that say, ‘I’ma do this and do that’ and don’t do a goddamn thing.”
He continued, “I met my father in prison in the sense of what a father does for his child — nurturing, love and provide care.”
Shakur says his father helped reshape him and allowed him to revisit himself.
“Every boy wants to be like their father and I was granted the opportunity to be like him in a positive way,” he says.
In 1995, while serving his sentence, Shakur became a father himself.
His father has been well recognized in the prison community by guards and other inmates.
“I was so naive when I went to prison, I asked the guard did he know my father and this white guard had nothing but positive things to say about my father,” says Shakur. Brother Blair a former inmate and friend of Shakur’s father also had positive things to say about Shakur’s father. He considered them both peacemakers.
“What was frightening about my generation is that we had to go to college in prison and then you get there and there’s an epiphany and you say there has to be something better than this,” Shakur said.
“It’s frightening that my generation in prison are the people resolving conflict,” says Blair, who just returned home five months ago from serving a 21-year sentence. “What happens when my generation is gone and the hip hop generation is in control?”
Blair is diligently helping Shakur make a difference in their community.
Shakur mentions how difficult his transition was when he returned home from prison. “When I came home, I was hopeful but I was scared, I ain’t gonna lie. It’s like being a baby born all over again,” he says. “The reality was the only thing that was going to separate me from a bum was my parents and my sister. I was not even home a month and a female lied on me, because I wouldn’t be with her, so I went back. I beat the case, but when I came home that time, my hope had vanished but I rebounded,” says Shakur.
Since then, Shakur has opened Urban Network bookstore and has a biographical documentary, “Detroit’s Native Son,” that tells his story.
He has also written three books: “The Windows of My Soul,” “My Soul is Back” and “Scribes of Redemption,” which is a book of letters he and his father had written to each other while incarcerated.
Shakur, a lifelong Detroiter, aspires to change his community with the help of its residents.
His first step was the opening of Urban Network.
“We opened the bookstore in 2009 and it expanded into a café. This is a place where people can come eat, watch movies, get on the computer and have community discussions,” Shakur say. “It’s a renaissance to support the work that needs to be done in the city of Detroit.”
Shakur recently hosted the premiere of “Detroit’s Native Son” at the Urban Network. Those who attended were moved by his honesty in the documentary. Some said they could even relate.
“I can identify with him; it’s not an ‘I,’ it’s a ‘we thing,’” said Gary Jones, an ex gang member.
“He talked about not only him, but us — me, too, and how I grew up in my community and where I come from. You know?”
Jones says although his mother tried to raise him a certain way, the streets taught him another way.
“The movie reminds me of my life and how I grew up. The only way we knew to feed ourselves was the streets,” he said. “My father was there, but only for financial support. I had more fathers in the street as far as the teachings. I got a Ph.D. in the streets.”
A close friend and former gang rival of Shakur, who goes by the name Squeak, attended the viewing. He also played a role in the documentary.
“It ain’t worth it. It ain’t worth it; (there are) better things to do,” says Squeak when asked what advice he would give young men and women now who feel pressured to join a gang. “Actually I wish I had not wasted my life and my time putting so much energy into it. It wouldn’t be so hard to do what I’m trying to do right now.”
Shakur emphasized a lot about how important it is for everyone in the community to be accountable to one another.
“We as a community have to be able to support the people who want to do the work and use our resources. We cannot blame anyone but each other if we do not support each other,” he said, using the Urban Network as an example of supporting local, Black-owned businesses.
He added: “If we don’t have any recreation centers, then we need to try get our pastors who do have recreation to open their doors. We got the resources in our community, but do not have the mindset to follow.”
Shakur is hosting another screening of his documentary at Burton Theatre Oct. 21. For more information, contact Yusef Shakur at 313.459.6008.
Contact Puakea Olaisha Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org