Sanyika Shakur‘s, aka Monster Kody Scott, Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, was published in 1993. Featuring literary tropes, the style flows, everything is explained easily for the reader, and yet the book is hard to read. It’s difficulty lay not in the writing but in the content and the emotions they evoke. Without glamorizing gang life, Sharkur describes his rise through the ranks of the Crips gang. After brutally disfiguring someone, Kody is nicknamed Monster, and redefines himself by his new moniker. By the time Kody is 16, he has been shot on two separate occasions, with a total of 7 bullets entering his body.
Sanyika Shakur was born Kody Scott, with five siblings, and a mother who reared them on her own. Kody joined the Crips when he was in the sixth grade, at the age of 11. Extremely driven, his ambition was to become an O.G., Original Gangster, which is the most famous and respected of the gang members. He worked hard, also known as gang banging, and quickly rose up the ranks. He took pride in protecting his neighborhood and looked to the gang to provide a deeper, stronger community than what he had. In the preface he writes, “I have shot numerous people and have been shot seven times myself.” (xiii)
This book is an autobiography, written by an extremely intelligent man who spent the majority of his youth with underdeveloped reading and writing skills. His mind always worked quickly and was capable of massive problem-solving and memory keeping. He has written this book nearly two decades after his gang years and as he writes of his past, he reflects on his past emotions and shares things with the reader he never admitted to his fellow gang members. For example, the night of his gang initiation, when he was eleven, he killed someone and felt guilty and ashamed but never told anyone (13).
Shakur writes about the gang life and does his best to put it in perspective. He explains the language, culture, and organization. His writing, clear and precise: “Before he could mount a response I blasted him thrice in the chest, started the car, and drove home to watch ‘Benny Hill’. Bangin’ was my life. That was my decision” (46), does not glamorize his life. He doesn’t go party with a bunch of gang members. No, he goes back to his mom’s house to watch tv. Those that disagree are the same people that would say Trainspotting glorifies drug use. But they are missing the entire point of the book.Yes, there are scenes in which you are rooting for Kody, you want him to escape his enemies and the police. But that is because he writes with empathy and wants his reader to understand where he came from and what he has had to do to get out of there. He does not make excuses for who he was, he demonstrates what is normal for him, such as the morning of a rival gang’s driveby of his mothers home, “we ate the rest of our cereal with guns in one hand, spoons in the other” (123). I cannot imagine ever holding a gun in one hand as I ate a meal.
Kody’s life is so far from anything I’m remotely familiar with. He never tries to justify his life but he does try to explain what it’s like: “For a youth with no hope in a system that excludes them, the gang becomes their corporation, college, religion, and life” (118). And prison life is normal, “prison is like teeth, you live long enough, you get them” (163). “A weapon in South Central is part of your attire, a dress code” (89) much like having the proper smartphone to match your career and lifestyle. While Shakur explains how this is a normal way of life for many of his peers, he also admits that this is the life he chose. He became a gang member because he saw them around his neighborhood. They are what he was familiar with. I grew up in a small surf town. Nothing Kody describes is familiar to my childhood. Besides the art of Shakur’s telling, therein lies the importance of this work. Shakur is not quiet. He is revealing a hard and dangerous life in a neighborhood that many are fortunate to never witness.
He was born Kody Scott, he became Monster Kody Scott, and finally, he recreates himself as Sanyika Shakur. Without glamorizing gang life, Shakur walks us through the organization, the lifestyle, (even the clothing) to reveal how different gang life is. There is more to say about who he becomes and what he is doing, but I’d prefer to leave that for the reader to discover in Shakur’s own words. Shakur reaches out to some to explain the life and to others who are in or considering gang life. He wants to show them that there is another way of life, that he understands where they are coming from and that they are not alone. This is one of the more important books I’ve ever read. It makes you consider your life and who you would be if you grew up in South Central Los Angeles. It makes you wonder what would happen if you saw drivebys on a daily basis. It makes you cringe to think that you are scared to get on the wrong bus and end up in the wrong neighborhood. It makes you worry what would happen to your family members. But most importantly, it makes you ask the question, would you join a gang if that’s what you knew and you didn’t have anyone to take care of you?
Sanyika Shakur, aka Monster Kody Scott. Monster: The Autobiography of an L. A. Gang Member. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.