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By Nick Leisure (Nick Leisure & Suge Knight) CC BY-SA 2.0

Two years after Suge Knight was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, the legendary music executive who brought West Coast gangsta rap to the mainstream, is an advocate for social change and is exploring new avenues to reach out. 

In an interview, he said he was more hopeful than ever about the younger generations’ ability to bring about change. He spoke regretfully about actions in the past that brought pain instead of joy. 

Knight spoke to his friend and fellow prisoner Joel “Cowboy” Baptiste at Donovan Prison on June 25, 2020. The story was first published on Medium by Brick of Gold, which publishes art and writing by incarcerated people. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity) 

Cowboy: Suge, there is some real change going on in the Streets. It’s even making its way to us inside the prison system. What do you see that’s different from our era?

Knight: Big difference! I remember in ’92, Compton and Watts was like a big party. Man, it was a dream no one wanted to end. But we had some negative tools and taught some bad shit to all the youngsters. Initially, we were just happy it got documented on TV and in some books. But in reality, we tore a lot of shit up out of frustration. This generation is building. Today’s generation is much more multicultural, which makes ’em more powerful. They have learned.

C: What have they learned?

Knight: Look. In ’92, if they told us you could protest but you can’t loot, we would have told them, “Fuck you,” and stolen their cop cars. But these guys are much more focused, and that’s what’s going to effectuate change. You got 50,000 motherfuckers marching in Hollywood, Germany, Mexico, and even parts of Asia. There was something like 700 towns and cities last week. It’s not just Black folk. 

You got people out there marching with their kids right beside them. There are also more mixed relationships now than there was back then. Parents are teaching their kids history in real-time. We are this close to making this world a better place.  

C: How do you see that changing guys like us?

Knight: All the things we stood for that we thought brought us joy ended up bringing us pain. It masked the real things we were seeing and feeling. But we’ve learned from it man. During chaos, I see people making decisions that are better for the next man and themselves, whereas a long time ago, we were making decisions for the homies or what we thought it was supposed to be.

C: Outside of what is happening in the streets, what would you say to youth who haven’t found their path yet?

Knight: Let me tell you something. Hanging out with the wrong person can taint your life. Even talking to them can drastically ruin it. But talking to the right person could change your life and shift it in the right direction. Seek out someone to really talk to, because being alone, you make stupid decisions.

I talked a lot to my parents and uncles. I should’ve listened more. That’s part of talking too, man. When I got older, I started to see things from a better perspective. When you are young, your perspective is very limited. Realizing that is difficult, but it’s crucial to your growth.

C: You know, it was hard for me to accept that. And that’s even after I grew up. It got real when I had to admit that I needed help or someone knew better than me.

Knight: Everything is perspective. Just look at your enemies. When you’re young, you only see the extremes. But when you get more experience, you start to see a whole network that the old perspective was blocking. Look at the record business’ so-called enemies. I needed them, and they needed me. We played off each other and we ended up kinda working together. That paradox translates into everything. Certainly in business.

C: When I was nineteen, I had no direction. You know, when you’re young, you have some much passion and drive. What advice would you give someone?

Knight: Two things. Make sure you can grow up with your friends. If you can’t, get rid of them. Coming up, you have to make sure you’re not locked in one place. You gotta stay clear of the back-stabbing among friends and try to build trust in your group and help everyone up. Second, confidence! Confidence is crucial. I got it from sports. You have to find it and apply it to whatever you do. If you don’t, you’re just wasting time. And I don’t like when someone wastes my time. I call that broke talk.

C: You’ve really lived a full life, Bro. Those might sound like little things but people like us know they are sometimes the difference between life and death. You have a unique view of what’s what in the world. There’s the reality of where we sit today, which stands in contrast to your colossal accomplishments that influenced a whole generation. Outside of personal stuff like having kids, what was your favorite success?

Knight: That’s easy. Two things. It would still be kids, and by kids I mean Death Row babies. I am so proud to have employed thousands of people. I contributed to all their families being started. In the end, it would have to be that. Second thing, learning and staying open to life. I’m still learning things every day.

(Knight is working on a book about race in America with Brick of Gold that is expected to be published in 2021. Brick of Gold’s latest book “128-G: Art and Writing from a California Prison” is due out in November.)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Joel “Cowboy” Baptiste is a writer and a program facilitator incarcerated in southern California. In prison, he received his degree in sociological science. A former skinhead gang leader, he is now part of Words Uncaged, a non-profit organization running arts programs in California prisons.