American former gang member, journalist, and author Kody Scott (born 1963) rose to public prominence with the publication of his 1993 autobiography, Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member. Also known as Sanyika Shakur, Scott became an advocate of black nationalism after he decided to leave gang life behind him. Ongoing runins with the law left him in and out of prison over the next several years, but they did not keep Scott from authoring books such as the 2008 novel T.H.U.G. L.I.F.E. and 2013's Stand up, Struggle Forward: New Afrikan Revolutionary Writings on Nation, Class, and Patriarchy.
Kody DeJohn Scott was born in Los Angeles, California, in November of 1963. His mother, Birdie Canada, was a native of Houston, Texas, and had a son, Kevin, and a daughter, Kim, when she married Ernest Scott in the late 1950s. The Scotts moved to Los Angeles, where Ernest Scott worked as a chef and at the warehouse store Smart & Final. Birdie and Ernest had two children prior to giving birth to Kody, and he was followed by a brother, Kershaun, in 1965. Family members remembered the young Kody as rambunctious. “He was like a demolition derby, reckless, wild, and intriguing,” older sister Kendis recalled to Atlantic Monthly contributor Mark Horowitz in 1993.
The Scotts’ marriage was a rocky one and the children suffered abuse at the hands of their father, Ernest. Kody Scott later wrote that his mother admitted to him that his true father was former professional football player Dick Bass, and that Ernest's knowledge of the boy's parentage had contributed to the breakdown of their marriage. Although outside figures have tended to view this claim with doubt, the couple was divorced by 1969, and Birdie Scott began juggling multiple jobs in an effort to support the family. A few years later, she bought a house in an area of South Central Los Angeles that was claimed by the local street gang the Eight Tray Crips as part of their territory.
Street gangs, with their power and notoriety, attracted Scott from a young age, and at 11 he became a member of the Eight Tray Crips. In order to join the gang, he took part in a car theft and a gun fight with rival gang the Bloods; he was also given a physical beating by other gang members. “This was my ‘rite of passage’ to manhood,” he later recalled in his autobiography Monster, “and I took each order as seriously as any Afrikan would in any initiation ritual from childhood to manhood.” Scott's youthful ferocity and endurance impressed other Crips and marked him as a dangerous operator.
Indeed, Scott quickly developed a reputation for ruthlessness. One incident led to his adopting a nom de guerre that lasted throughout his association with the gang. Scott and some other Crips robbed a man who fought back. In retaliation, the gang chased the man and assaulted him so brutally that he was left in a coma and suffered permanent disfigurement. As Scott later recalled to National Public Radio contributor Mandalit Del Barco, the Los Angeles Police called the perpetrator of the crime a monster, and that “the look on the people's faces when I came back to the hood that night—it was just power. And I felt it.”
Gang activities kept Scott regularly in and out of jail. In the early 1980s, he was convicted of assault and sentenced to seven years in state prison. During his imprisonment, he discovered black nationalist ideology, converted to Islam, and adopted the name Sanyika Shakur; Shakur is an Arabic word meaning “thankful to God,” and it has been taken as a surname by several prominent black nationalists. Scott became an adherent of the New Afrikan Independence Movement, a separatist organization inspired by the ideals of nationalist thinkers like Malcolm X. An unapologetic revolutionary, he viewed himself as a soldier in a struggle against oppression and injustice.
In 1988, Scott was paroled. Although he had renounced gang life, his path forward was a complicated one following his release. Police arrested him more than once for weapons-related parole violations, but he remained mostly free. He married his longtime girlfriend, with whom he had a child, and began dividing time between Los Angeles and her home in the city's far eastern suburbs. Gang activity had reached into this part of the region, and crack cocaine dealers prowled the streets. In 1991, police again arrested Scott, this time on charges of assault and grand theft auto. Scott asserted that the incident had resulted from his desire to keep his wife's neighborhood free of crack cocaine dealing, and that the man he assaulted was a paid police informant. A witness to the incident suggested that it had happened after the alleged dealer insulted the Crips. The exact nature of the altercation remains unclear.
After his arrest, Scott agreed to a plea deal and received a seven-year sentence. At Pelican Bay State Prison, he spent much of his time in near-complete solitary confinement, but he was far from invisible to the outside world. In 1991 Scott was profiled as part of Léon Bing's groundbreaking Do or Die, an exposé of gang life from the perspective of gang members. Through Bing, Scott met the journalist William Broyles, Jr., who encouraged him to write memoirs of his experiences with the Crips. Scott agreed, and excerpts from the resulting writings appeared in Esquire magazine. Soon after, a publisher purchased Scott's story. His autobiography, Monster: The Story of an L.A. Gang Member, was released in 1993.
Monster became a success, selling over 100,000 copies and garnering critical attention for its unflinching depiction of the real world of violent gangs. “‘Monster’ provides a shockingly intimate picture of gang life in South-Central,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, the critic adding that the book “attests not only to Mr. Shakur's journalistic eye for observation, but also to his novelistic skills as a story-teller [and] an ear for street language…. This is a startling and galvanic book.”Monster also sparked a debate about the nature of the African-American experience. In his autobiography, Scott depicts his entrance into gang life as the inevitable product of his upbringing in the gang-ridden landscape of South Central Los Angeles. Some critics pushed back against this notion, however, arguing that Scott's own family contradicted this assertion; none of his other siblings joined a gang, despite having the same upbringing.
The state of California granted Scott parole, and he left Pelican Bay in the fall of 1995. Over the next several years, he struggled to fulfill the literary and intellectual promise demonstrated by Monster while also facing the personal demons conjured by his criminal background and his tendency to abuse drugs. Scott found recognition as an ideological leader of the black nationalist community and as a journalist who penned articles for mainstream publications such as the hip-hop magazine Vibe. However, he also was at times in trouble with law for parole violations, and acquaintances noted that he battled drug addiction.
In early 2007, journalists reported, with no little shock, that the Los Angeles police had placed Scott's name near the top of a recently developed “Top 10 Most Wanted Gang Members” list. According to police, he was wanted on suspicion of car theft and assault, a symptom of his struggles to overcome the violence of his past. According to some who knew Scott, the police were unfairly targeting a man who had left the gang lifestyle well behind him. “When I saw him he was trying to get a movie deal, which I think at the end of the day the police are trying to stop by putting him on this list,” asserted friend and fellow former gang member, James Harris, as quoted by Los Angeles Times contributor Patrick McGreevy. Others pointed to Scott's personal antagonism toward the city's chief of police as a contributing factor.
A review by the courts held that Scott was again involved with criminal activities. Police arrested him in March of 2007, and his case went to trial the following spring. He pleaded no contest to the charges. Although California's “three strikes” law could have resulted in life imprisonment, Scott received a sentence of six years as part of a plea deal. During his detention at Pelican Bay State Prison, he took part in a high-profile prisoner hunger strike to protest prison conditions. The protest garnered national news coverage during the summer of 2011, calling attention particularly to the conditions in the secure unit where prisoners—often affiliated with gangs—were kept in windowless, soundproofed cells. Scott completed his sentence the following summer.
Once out of Pelican Bay, Scott furthered his literary and activist career. In 2013, he published a book of essays and other writings titled Stand up, Struggle Forward: New Afrikan Revolutionary Writings on Nation, Class, and Patriarchy. The book promotes a strongly revolutionary black nationalist point of view, focusing on topics such as inequities within the U.S. judicial system and the nation's economic structure. Although not a mainstream success like Monster, Stand up, Struggle Forward quickly found a home in college classrooms and with those seeking a race-based manifesto to center their anger and frustrations.
Scott's past has not yet been fully shed. In the summer of 2016, he again appeared on a Southern California most wanted list, this time for parole violation, and it appeared that he did not have a settled address. As one of the leading commentators on the nature of “thug life,” Scott's tendency to view the world from “the inside” may remain part of his complicated legacy.
Shakur, Sanyika, aka Monster Kody Scott, Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member, Grove/Atlantic, 1993.
Atlantic Monthly, December 1993.
New York Times, July 23, 1993.
Publishers Weekly, May 12, 2008.