Young, Gifted & Black, An interview of Prince Shakur

Photo by Ben Willis

PrideIndex presents our fascinating interview of Prince Shakur. He is a queer, Jamaican American freelance journalist, author and NY Times recognized organizer. His writings range from op-eds in Teen Vogue to features on the violent impacts of policing and cultural essays that delve into black icons, like Bob Marley or Huey Newton. In 2017, his video series, Two Woke Minds, earned him the Rising Star Grant from GLAAD. As an organizer, he brought Black Lives Matter to his university campus, organized for labor rights in Seattle, disrupted a Bill Clinton speech in 2016, did solidarity work at the US/Mexican border, and organized with Black Queer Intersectional Collective during the height of the George Floyd protests.

In a recent interview PrideIndex talked to Prince Shakur about his book, “When They Tell You to Be Good, A Memoir,”  his activism and more.  

PrideIndex (PI): Introduce yourself and talk about your journey, thus far, to becoming a writer.

Prince Shakur (PS): My name is Prince Shakur. I am a journalist, an organizer, and an artist in various forms. I run a YouTube channel where I share writing resources. I host a podcast where I interview other artists. A lot of my writing work has centered around uncovering movement spaces on a journalism level. It includes talking about prison or police abolition, writing about different icons throughout black political or creative history, and unpacking other truths around them. I started reading at a young age. I studied creative writing at Ohio University, and a year or two after, I started freelance journalism. I’ve been doing that for the past few years. I just published a memoir titled “When They Tell You to Be Good.” It’s basically about my political coming of age and my family’s history alongside Jamaica, post-independence. 

PI: You mentioned that book, “When They Tell You to Be Good, A Memoir.” How did that come about? What was your muse?

PS: A big part of my muse was when I had the book idea. I spent a lot of time in Standing Rock, North Dakota, and helping protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline with water protectors and other indigenous organizers that started that movement. We were holding it down. That experience and some of my experiences traveling as a young adult, someone who’s graduated, lived in Seattle, and worked seasonally in Montana. Those experiences and Standing Rock made me realize that a lot is happening politically for young people. Now people in their teen years, people in their 20s, millennials, and Gen Z folk. I feel like writing about these present realities is really important for going against how the mainstream media reduces and sanitizes these movements and turns them into just an image or a video. I wanted to do my part by adding that complexity through a black queer lens and navigating my family’s culture. I was born in the US, and my parents immigrated to the US, so I try to make sense of what it’s like to be black, Jamaican American, or of the diaspora. All of those are things that I always want to see more people write about and like a singular space, so I really wanted to tackle trying to do that.

PI: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer and artist?

PS: That’s a good question. I knew [I wanted to be a writer] when I was 13 or 14. In middle school, I had a teacher sign or class to write a short story and that kind of. I’ve always loved reading, but writing stories were new to me; after a year or two of doing that, I found online communities where other teenagers were writing original fiction or fan fiction and saw this whole world where people were. I love to write stories, and something about that was really captivating. Around 14 or 15, I also wanted to publish a book one day. I don’t know if I wanted to be a career writer then, but I knew I wanted it to be like a goal. It was something that I wanted to do because I knew I’d be proud of it. Definitely, by age 14, or 15, it was like, my 25, I want to be a published writer. So, it was around that.

PI: What was the writing process like for “When They Tell You to Be Good, A Memoir?” 

PS: I started writing in 2016, but I really started putting energy behind it in 2018. I’m a writer who goes through periods where I write intensely and with particular goals. I’m an incremental writer; I like to think, Okay, if the book is going to be around this word count. I want to finish it by this date; how many words do I need directly write a day? I base my writing routine off of that. It allows me to figure out if I’m writing something more dialogue-driven, research-driven, or action-driven and how quickly I can get through my words for the day, depending on what else I’m juggling. But that’s also the training I had as a teenager, like I wrote books as a teenager, like full-length novels. If I have an idea where it’s going, I will keep working at it because I believe in getting the draft down. But for this book, I started writing it in 2018, then I moved to Columbus; I’d say I’d written about 10,000 words.

By the time I applied to this artist residency that I had got into in 2019, called Sangam House in India, I had gone there in November of 2019. And there was where I did a lot of the writing for the book. I wrote about half of the book, about 40,000 or so words when I was there. Then over the next year and a half, I kept working through the kind of draft; I rewrote some chapters and added some new chapters. From 2018 to 2020, I fleshed out the first draft of the book then over the next year, I edited it with my agent. I’m indebted to a project, I’m researching it, and I’m in the zone like I’m going to keep working at it so, of course, there can be like a week or two where you slow down or have other stuff going on. But I would always fight to get back to it. The longer you take away from a project, the harder it is to get back to it. It took me about two or three years to get the first draft in, and then I was editing and editing.

Then when it sold to Tin House, we did another few rounds of revisions. But yeah, that was the writing process. I did many residencies in between Sangam House, Key West, On Northern Ireland residency, and the Planning Center for the Arts. I got into those residencies because of writing excerpts from that book. And those were spaces where I had time away to work intensely towards writing it or a particular part of the revision process. The writing was important for me, but the revision taught me even more about myself as a writer. That is where you figure out what the book is about in a way that elevates it or makes it more complex.

PI: Why is activism so important to you?

PS: We live in a world where there are a lot of social systems that force people to survive. I see my family immigrating to the US and their struggles. Like the periods of history, they lived through some racism. I know some people in my family experienced making money and adapting culturally when they first came to the US. This country is not fair to people. Some are marginalized. At a young age, I saw my parents’ immigrant perspective, and I learned a lot about inequality and understanding privilege. Then, getting older and understanding my blackness and police and police brutality and state violence, I have a deeper respect for black history and black movement struggles. All of those things spell out that, in ways big and small, the things that we do matter, like the political ideas that Martin Luther King had, didn’t just come out of nowhere. They arrived somewhat out of his religious background. Still, it also came from his struggles and understanding of political non-violence. While for Malcolm X, he became politically after prison and through the Nation of Islam.

Some seeds are planted that there’ll be movements and people we revere in the US. Outside of the notion of this American project, understanding where these figures came from gives me a deep respect for what social justice work, movement work, and organizing work are like day by day. It’s how you treat people. It’s how you hold your friends accountable. It’s how you take the time to imagine what can be different in your community. That is something I believe in because that makes a better world possible. For me, it’s not any political party that the two-party system can offer me or anything that, like America or the US, can offer me. It’s this idea that there’s a world beyond anything we see that’s possible without police and prisons. We have resources for people and housing and food. And so doing any work towards that is necessary. It’s like the long haul, which is fine as essential. I don’t know, I’m being a good person like it’s a part of how I think about being a good person in the world. Organizing work can take many different forms. I want to experiment with my writing and organizing in different ways. I want to understand the lies that we’re told on a national level, as a racial group, and a political level, and figuring out how my work can debunk those lies. That’s black liberation, and I want to be indebted to that.

Video still from Two Woke Minds Eli Hiller (Left) Prince Shakur (Right)

PI: Talk about your YouTube series, “Two Woke Mines.” As I looked through some of the entries, I saw that they had stopped, and I wondered why. Why didn’t you continue?

PS: Two Woke Mines was the video project I started with my friend Eli Hiller. He’s a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist. We started in the Philippines, working on travel documentaries and travel vlogs. We discussed the POC perspective of traveling because we saw a gap in YouTube around those POC men who like engaging with travel. I learned about video making and planning a project. We documented some protests in Ferguson. It was the main reason we stopped. I was living in the US, and Eli lived in the Philippines. We were trying to figure out how to establish ourselves as artists as freelance artists. So, we could make money in our perspective places, and the project just became too much. We decided not to continue with it. But I still look back at it. It was an amazing lesson and time but developing yourself as a freelance artist is easy. In retrospect, it’s good that we both took the time we needed to because we were both at the beginning of our careers.

PI: I see you are continuing to do some broadcasts on your podcast, “The Creative Hour.” Why is that important to do?

PS: I love podcasts. They got me through the pandemic. I listened to them all the time. As I was getting into the process of going on submissions for my memoir, I listened to a lot of writing podcasts. I saw the value in sharing information about the creative process, the business process of being an artist, and the craft stuff. It’s beautiful. Podcasts can be like a tool for democratizing the industry; they can open up transparency and make different parts of the process less scary. “The Creative Hour” is me talking to other artists and understanding why they do their work, what their like routine looks like, what their kind of goals and hopes are, and what drives them. Having those conversations challenges me to think about how to ask people who are different kinds of artists interesting questions. It also helps me because I get to be nosy. I get to talk to people I’m interested in or think are writing for things. I’m glad I’m working on it because it gives me a deeper respect for other artists in a way, being on the interviewer’s side, it’s hard to imagine sometimes when you’re the person being interviewed, like, what it’s like to open up that space, but both as an artist that’s been interviewed and an organizer that’s been interviewed, I think taking on the interviewer role. It’s a muscle I want to practice and feel is important, like having genuine and fruitful conversations about art.

PI: How do you decide who will cover on your podcast?

PS: Typically, its people emerging in their careers or maybe people a little past that point. Usually, people do some work with a cross-cultural or intersectional approach. I like talking to people from like different cultural backgrounds. I interviewed this guy named Davi, who’s Southeast Asian. He makes what he called psychedelic R&B music. It’s about understanding his experience and how that tie into his music. And I interviewed Manan Kapoor, I did a residency with him in India. We talked about his perspective on literature, Kashmir, and the struggles around freedom and human rights violations. He wrote a novel from his viewpoint, which I read and talked to him about for the podcast. Other people need to be highlighted or have yet to be interviewed, or they have a different kind of experience than I do. I want to understand more.

PI: Name three people who have had the most influence over your artistic style. The second part of my question is, who would you choose if you had a chance to meet one and only one of those influences and have dinner with him?

PS: The first is James Baldwin. He traveled to Paris when he was 24 and lived there for years and years. I traveled to Paris similarly, and this summer, did a residency in his honor in the place to be lived in Southern France. 

Another person that shaped me is Assata Shakur. I like reading her autobiography about being in the Black Panthers, being incarcerated, and giving birth while incarcerated about fleeing the prison. There’s much to understand from black feminists and black women, revolutionaries. Her book had given so much to so many people that I read it at a time when it taught me the importance of like political and creative commitment. 

André Aciman, who wrote, “Call Me By Your Name.” I reread that book at least once a year because I love it so much on a writing and psychological level. Every time I read it, it teaches me something about writing or how you open up a new world with your writing. 

If I can have dinner with one of them. Oh, Lord. I’d have to have it with James Baldwin; I couldn’t pass him up and would want to talk to him about his life. We would compare our similarities and fun differences. 

PI: I’m looking at your website. You offer journalism, ghostwriting, creative nonfiction, and copywriting services. As a ghostwriter, does that mean a writer has an idea, and somebody else flushes out those ideas on paper? Is that an accurate depiction of what a ghostwriter does? 

PS: Yeah, or in the instances that I’ve done it, it’s been, they need to bring someone on to ghostwrite for their newsletter, and they don’t have time, and they want a certain tone or voice. It’s like having the skill to take instructions and then give them something as close to that as possible. And sometimes journalism can be like that: you get assigned an assignment, and you have to hit the mark in a certain way. And so, to me, some of the skills are translatable.

PI: What is the one thing you want your readers and audience to take away from your work?

PS: The biggest thing I’d want people to take away is that it’s important to ask questions about the events around you, the social situations, and the histories that you’re given. I think we are taught to survive under capitalism and white supremacy, which is a real thing. I want my work to be towards not only the notion of survival but also about getting to a deeper place of answering questions about our histories, social movements, and political truths about what’s happening in the systems around us. So by asking those questions, we get to a deeper truth and have a more profound truth to act upon, giving us a greater capacity to change our communities. Merging those two worlds is really difficult at times. Still, it’s necessary when you want to build a community.

PI: If your work were to be a flower, what kind of flower would it be? What kind of flower would most accurately represent your work? 

PS: I don’t know. I remember what these flowers were called in Jamaica when I was a kid; you touched them, and they opened up and bloomed. I feel like if I could draw any metaphor for most of my work, it’s like, I’m always coming at it from a place of some question or idea. And I hope that that idea opens up, like a portal, a new possibility, or a new way of looking at things. I am trying to remember what that flower was called. 

PI: What does the future hold for you?

PS: Right now, I’m just moved to New York. I’m living here and finding community and people to talk to, write about, and organize with. I’ve been working on a novel since 2020; I’m in the final editing stages and working hard on that. I’m figuring out my next book idea. I’ll apply to some residencies and see what kind of teaching positions are available in the near future. A staff writing position and continuing to find the freedom to write in a way I want alongside writing the live. That’s the plan right now.

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