Tuesday, May 12, 2009

T.I.’s pre-lockdown props

We’re used to the rapper esthetic being played out to the hilt in public, a parade of people bearing stereotypes from the arc-welder eyeshades to the cap cocked at quarter to nine to the Attitude, the indispensable ‘tude that helped the media establish Cristal, Glock and Escalade as some kind of holy trinity of the rapper ethos. With the rappers’ ready approval. And the world’s eager consumption.

The rapper T.I. was no exception. On March 27 the three-time Grammy-winning rapper, who starred in “ATL” and “American Gangster” was sentenced to serve a year and a day in prison for possession of illegal firearms. In 2007 T.I. (aka Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.) was arrested hours before the B.E.T. Hip-Hop Awards, and charged with holding three unregistered machine guns and two silencers, and possession of firearms by a convicted felon.

The year 2007, a wild one for T.I., was a capstone on other years that were even more, uh, eventful. In 1998 he was charged with violating a state controlled substances act and giving false information. In 2003 he was sentenced to community service for assault of a female sheriff deputy at a Tampa mall. In 2006 he was arrested on a probation violation warrant from Florida.

So far, you’re thinking, it’s the traditional arc of a tragedy about to happen. We’ve seen this doomed trajectory before. But credit T.I. with a change of heart that seems sincere. As part of the 1,500 hours of community service that’s part of his March conviction, T.I. has spoken several times before tens of thousands of high school students, warning them off the culturally seductive path of gun culture.

Then on May 11, in a blog on The Huffington Post titled “Responsibility Is a Lifestyle,” T.I. wrote of his personal awakening, speaking truth to power with the eloquence of the street and an eloquence beyond it:
“In a few weeks, I will begin a one-year prison sentence for being in the possession of illegal firearms. Where I come from, having a gun is just part of everyday life. But, through this painful process of going to court and being convicted, I realized that I had to make a change. I made some bad decisions. I broke the law and will accept my punishment. With deep reflection about where my life was headed, I have begun the process of redemption, and decided that before I go to prison, I want to speak to young people about responsibility as a lifestyle. I hope that through my mistakes, young people can begin to learn, as I did, that we have to put our guns down and start to give our guns back. …”

This is a forthright cry from the heart; there are politicians who'd do well to adopt T.I.'s forthright admission of wrong and his pledge to improve. But he also understands the broader dimension of responsibility about gun violence. He recognizes it's as much about the collective, societal We as it is about the individual's role.

“Now is the time to speak out against gun violence. Now is the time to take responsibility for our actions. Now is the time to make our communities safer. … Now is the time to give back our guns. Now is the time for me to lead by example.

May 11 was also the day that T.I. marched through Harlem with (among others) rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, Russell Simmons of Def Jam, and Kevin Liles of Warner Music Group to denounce gun violence, and to remember the lives of two teenagers shot to death recently in the area.

“I carried guns and swung dope as a 13-year-old,” T.I. told the New York Daily News. “I had my best friend taken away from me through guns. I was so hurt from the loss of his life, I didn't take notice to the knowledge that I still had mine.”

The cynics among you will say he’s fishing for a plea bargain, and maybe he is. But sometimes it’s sensible, to say nothing of refreshing, to acknowledge a statement for exactly what it states. T.I. wouldn’t be the first person in America to make some new personal pivot in the wake of the election of President Obama. In an era of change, let’s give T.I. the benefit of the doubt.

If he’s serious, and there’s no reason to think he’s not, this could signal another sea change in the tropes and traditions of Hiphop Nation, as profound in its way as the shift of rap fashion that Jay-Z, Kanye West and P. Diddy spearheaded not so long ago. But needless to say, this is bigger than fashion. This is a straight-up renunciation of the ballistic code of honor that’s been central to young black music, and young black life, for far too damn long.

The skills of manhood are bigger than skills of the mic. All props to T.I. for recognizing that.
Image credits: T.I. top: Promotional still. T.I. lower: Still from TheDeeCez.com video.

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