The Trio of Brothers of AKNU Went From the Shelters of L.A. to The X Factor

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AKNU (pronounced "anew" and an acronym for A Kind Never Understood) is a Los Angeles-based pop and R&B trio of the brothers Scott -- Marquis, Mark and Rayne. Together since 2008, AKNU came out of the early experiences of Marquis and Rayne who, as preteens, performed and toured professionally as Triple Pla and New Five Era. The group's father pushed the members at a very young age -- Rayne since the age of four -- to perfect their singing and dancing talent before he departed from their lives for more than a decade. During that time, the three boys lived in shelters, with dreams of a better life fueled by music and movies like Hook. In 2013, the talented outfit appeared on The X Factor and was given positive comments from Simon Cowell. Today, the guys tour nationally and internationally, and in 2013 released an eponymous EP of original material. We caught up with the band the morning before it played the Open Door Youth Gang Alternative earlier this month.

Westword: You grew up in shelters. How did you get out of that situation?

Marquis Scott: When we went into the shelters, because of the conflict between my mother and my father -- that's how we made it to L.A. from Georgia -- it was a low period for my mother and for the family. I've got to say rest in peace for Robin Williams. He was a big help in the shelters. He wasn't there, but it's funny what a movie like Hook is, and you're watching Peter Pan, and there's the lost children and there's this dream that this guy comes to the lost children and beats the odds. That's kind of what a shelter felt like, where you're kind of lost and you're there, and I remember watching Hook all the time. And sometimes the way to get out of it is arts and culture, with music and movies and stuff like that. When you have that kind of stuff around, it helps you.

When my mother finally got to L.A. and connected with some of her family out there and was able to get a little bit on her feet, that's pretty much how we got out of shelters. But that's been the spirit that drives what we do today. Being in the shelters, it is music, it is movies -- it's these things that save a person's life. You come in, and there's women with battered faces and you think, "Where am I?" And there are places where the atmosphere's a little better.

Being in that part of L.A., did you have to deal with the gang thing much?

MS: The gang thing was a huge part of our lives. There was no escaping that, especially being in L.A. in the '90s. Poverty is bad, it's annoying. Your family problems with your parents, that's pretty bad. But it's not actively at you like gang members are. When you're broke, you're just broke. Your dollar's not trying to beat you up, it just ain't there. When you're growing up in these kinds of environments in L.A. when people are looking to have problems, that was a huge part of our whole experience.

So for us there was a lot of fighting, and a lot of our friends were gang members. To be totally truthful, a lot of people look at it as if there's the gangs and there's the people. But the gangs are the people. My friends that I grew up with transformed into gangsters. Some guys I knew were really good guys who don't have a family and don't have a lot and they just need something, and there's nothing more actively trying to pull you in more than a gang, so it's easy to find yourself in it, even if you're not a bad guy. It's a culture, and in a way it has certain brotherhood aspects to it, but it's just destructive. For us, gangs was our life at a certain point.

There's a big misconception about the nature of gangs among people who have never had to live directly with that reality, as though there is a big separation between "normal" people and gang members, and that there is a very clear moral choice being made either way.

MS: There's not. It's a twelve-year-old kid who goes home and gets a whooping, just like I did. He wants to eat and just have fun, but he's afraid for himself, and he just wants to be safe on his own street. We all thought about it. There was a day after I got jumped that I sat and said, "Maybe I'm going to join this, because I just want to walk down my own street. If I join this gang, at least I don't have to worry about fighting here." But then what happens is that you can only stay on that street. You don't go anywhere else because the enemy is on that street. So thank God that we didn't fully indulge in that. But we're not running from it, either. A big part of our mission is for the friends that we lost, the ones that we have in jail and the ones who are trying to make their way. A big part of what we do is them.

Seeing people who are like you, especially people from the same city, the same part of town, the same social class, the same ethnicity, doing something interesting and important is a big deal. It can raise the bar for what you think you are capable of doing. You were on X Factor.

MS: That's a big part of it. It's like Barak Obama becoming president. Whether you think he's a good president or a bad president, when you're an African-American -- I've got to say black -- and you're growing up, and the only people you have to look up to is this rapper or this gangster, it's just cool when you see that guy become president.

You work with schools?

MS: We work with a lot of schools and nonprofits all throughout the country. I think schools have been reaching out to us because of our story and that rose-growing-out-of-concrete kind of thing. A lot of kids are going through hard times, and people don't understand it and like to judge. The children are an effect of a cause. People like to go after the effect instead of the cause. They didn't create the school they're in, they didn't create the community that they grew up in. They didn't create any of that. They're just reacting to it and responding to it. So it's just rare that you have people that show you can react in this way, you can rebel in this way, you can respond in this way.

Think of the term "project." So this is a "project," and it looks like this. What are we experimenting with here. Children rebel, but often they go with the nature of the projects. That's not rebelling, that's going along. To us, we're rebelling. We're saying this project is here for us to be like this, but this is what we decided to be. Forget the projects. They can go to hell.

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If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.

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