The road to Grammy-winning rap star Clifford "T.I." Harris, Jr.'s positive outcome may be paved with good intentions, but self-interest fuels the journey.
If you've watched any portion of T.I.'s Road to Redemption on MTV, it's easy to get sidetracked and lose sight of what's important. The usual point of departure is the question of whether T.I.'s mission to steer kids away from violence and heartache is truly motivated by altruism or merely a public relations ploy. I think this "either-or" assessment is the wrong way to look at it.
In my opinion, T.I. comes across as sincere, but even the probability of his self-interest operates as the show's main asset. It's the do-what-I-gotta-do attitude reflected in many a hip-hop record that animates and moves not only this show's premise but the youngsters who appear on it as well.
But, first, let's back up and get a sense of what we're talking about. In 2007, Grammy-winning rap star Clifford "T.I." Harris, Jr. was arrested hours before his scheduled performance at the BET Hip-Hop Awards. US Federal agents apprehended him for attempting to purchase machine guns and silencers. T.I., as a convicted felon, could not legally bankroll such a transaction and could not own firearms. When this story broke, the topic of digression was whether T.I.'s bodyguard had "snitched" or had been working for the feds all along. The more relevant question was, "Why is this apparently successful guy buying guns and silencers?"
T.I. discussed this on Road to Redemption but before that, he entered a guilty plea on these weapons charges. Had he gone to trial and lost, he could have faced a mountain of years behind bars. When he pled guilty, however, the judge agreed to try an "experiment", wherein T.I. could receive a prison term of 366 days if he would successfully complete 1,000 hours of community service. He'd also have to pay a $100,000 fine, along with supervised release and another batch of community service hours following his jail time.
T.I. went into lockdown, on house arrest, and recorded the suggestively titled Paper Trail. The title reportedly referred to T.I.'s return to writing his lyrics, but it sounds like a play on his legal troubles. Interestingly, and here's what I'd call a "relevant digression", the movie American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, was also released in 2007. In it, Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a real life criminal-slash-entrepreneur who makes a fortune in Harlem smuggling super-potent heroin into the United States. Lucas gets his stashes directly from sources in Southeast Asia, thereby cutting out the mid-level players and increasing his profits.
Rappers Common, T.I., and the RZA had roles in the film, too. T.I. plays Lucas's nephew, Stevie Lucas, a youngster on the cusp of a professional baseball career. There's a scene in which Denzel/Lucas is chillin' outside, enjoying a nice sunny day at his gigantic mansion. He sees his nephew Stevie and asks him why he hasn't made any moves toward turning pro. Stevie answers that he'd rather roll like his Uncle Frank, become a big man in the streets, and be a boss. "I want what you got, Uncle Frank. I wanna be you."
Lucas's response intrigues me. He stares at Stevie for awhile, clearly bothered by the idea of his nephew joining his criminal enterprise, despite the fact that he regularly hires his family members. But a pressing matter has arisen and he opts to take care of it instead of capitalizing on a chance to set Stevie along the "right" path. He doesn't say, "Dude, this crime stuff is harder than you think. Maybe you should rethink this." He says absolutely nothing, and Stevie ends up getting killed when Russell Crowe's Detective Richie Roberts and the authorities raid one of Lucas's New Jack City-like drug operations. So, to me, the pertinent question is: would Stevie's fate have been different if someone had given him a good talking to? If someone he admired -- like, oh, I don't know, Frank Lucas! -- had told him to stick with things that are legal and legitimate, would he have listened?
When we fast-forward to February 2009, we find T.I. grappling with this very issue. As he complies with his court-mandated community service, he also chooses to get personally involved with seven teenagers "who are heading down self-destructive paths". He talks to youngsters about his plight and about the dangers of violence and drugs. More specifically, we see him mentoring kids who are dealing with financial, familial, and legal dilemmas. In a situation of life revising art, T.I. gives kids in trouble the serious heart-to-heart his character Stevie never got. By his own admission, he's offering the kind of advice he himself had received before but often chose to ignore.
Early in the series, T.I. explains his legal predicament, including how he ended up in a parking lot surrounded by the feds. He is calm, reflective, and self-possessed. Most of all, he appears remorseful and forthcoming, as he should, whether he's looking for good press or trying to exhibit good behavior. "No amount of jail time [was] gonna teach me the lesson I learned in that moment," T.I. says. "Oh (bleep). You done (bleep)ed up." When he's speaking directly to the MTV cameras, he sits amid an all-white dimensionless background, stationed casually in a comfortable looking lounge chair, like Morpheus in The Matrix when he's explaining the difference between reality and computer-generated imagery.
T.I.'s version of the story is straightforward, and helped along with images, sound effects, and captions. While on tour in 2006 and promoting his album King, "an incident occurred that would change his life forever". T.I. and his crew were hanging out at an after-party, when a fight broke out. T.I.'s road manager insisted that they (T.I. and crew) hit the road and stay away from the fight. While they were stopped at a traffic light, a car pulled up beside them. Shots rang out ("wet the whole van up"), and T.I. discovered that one of his longtime friends had been shot.
The case was never solved, and those responsible were (and are) still at large. T.I. said, "All the times I got arrested for having firearms illegally. For that reason, I decided [I'm] not gonna carry no more firearms illegally. And the one time I needed one was the one time I didn't have one." Believing the culprits would come after him, T.I. blamed his anger and paranoia for his decision to purchase the guns. "Is it right?" He asks the cameras. "No. Do I regret it? Yes. Did it make sense at the time? Absolutely."
The show, then, chronicles T.I.'s efforts (his "road") to keep a series of young people from imitating his decision-making skills and rationalizations. As the show begins, he's got 45 days before his sentencing date (his "official day of reckoning"), and the clock is ticking. I suppose there's some off-camera suspense in wondering what would happen on Sentencing Day. Would T.I. get the 366 days and other incidentals as the judge originally indicated? (He did). Or would the judge decide T.I. deserved more time? (He didn't).
So of course, it's possible that T.I. is only playing the Good Samaritan because the court ordered him to. T.I. explains in a montage, "They weren't going to give me a lighter sentence before I showed and proved that I could impact kids in a positive way." Later in the series, he talks about not wanting to go to jail leaving a negative impression, and noting that people tend to remember the last thing you do, "good" or "bad".
So yeah, T.I.'s got personal reasons for doing this. But so what? His songs are also playing in the background of the show. Is he supposed to let MTV play Weezy, Jeezy, and Kanyeezy during the show too? Of course not. Even so, T.I.'s self-interest fuels the show, and makes his actions and mentoring all the more believable. It's in T.I.'s best interests, at least theoretically, to strengthen his commitment to his community service work, to motivate the youth, and attempt to inspire the audience as a whole.
His work on the MTV show itself wouldn't count for his community service hours, but doing the show could help people -- himself included! Considering the difficult living conditions faced by the kids he mentors, it seems a daunting task to persuade them to change their perceptions, modify their behaviors and, further, to convince them that they are capable of reaching new goals. This is not a job for Super Nanny or Dr. Phil. This is a little more complex than "I can't get my kids to stop hitting each other and eat their supper on time." I can see how this type of work might help him earn some points, karmic or legal-related.
T.I. employs a three-step process for impacting the young people on his show. Let's talk about it:
Step One: Surprise
First, he uses the element of surprise, sneaking up on his quarry. The MTV crew might be interviewing the kid T.I. will be helping, with the crew telling the kid that MTV is doing a documentary about gangs or "inner city life" or some other topic that I wouldn't have wanted to talk about on television. I'd be like, "What? I'm not auditioning for Making the Band? Really?" And I'm just going to put this out there: if a crew from the channel that airs Parental Control and Paris Hilton's New BFF can get you to believe they are interviewing you to gather information about "hustling" or "gang life", and you actually agree to talk candidly about your actions in "the streets" with the cameras rolling, then you probably shouldn't be "hustling" or participating in "gang life" in the first place.
T.I. watches the mockumentary interview from a separate but nearby location, waiting for the opportune moment to intervene. When that moment arrives, T.I. struts in like, "What up?" And the teenager is like, "Oh, snap, it's T.I.," and then he or she tries to look cool and act natural because they know the cameras are rolling. The element of surprise works because T.I. is a relatively big star to folks even mildly familiar with hip-hop. Plus, if the MTV crew had asked me, "What do you think of T.I.'s legal problems?" and I had said, "Who? T.I.? Oh, that fool got caught slippin', dude straight up got punked, and I'd tell him that to his face," and then T.I. walked into the room -- I'd probably keep my mouth shut for the rest of the show. I don't think I'd be afraid of him (he wouldn't want to screw up his sentencing by cracking me in the jaw). I just think it would catch me off guard.
Step Two: Scare
As the show progresses, we learn about the kids' situations. They are in real serious trouble, either because of family problems, homelessness, teen pregnancy, legal woes, and/or their inability to access adequate resources.
At this point, we should notice the duality in some of our hip-hop music. Some songs describe the conditions experienced by the young people on T.I.'s show. There's a reality component there. At the same time, the song itself, even when rooted in non-fiction, has a creative side, so the reality can be embellished through beats, lyrical content, vocal delivery, production, and so forth. There are real people here whose lives and futures are at stake, which is why I keep referring to them as "kids", "youngsters", and "teenagers".
Too often, in articles about the show or in connection with youth-related socioeconomic issues, teenagers are described as "at-risk youth", "gang bangers", "confused young hooligans", "hardened hoodlums", "hood-reared hustlers", and more. I am not suggesting that a person who is committing crimes, with a gang no less, should be coddled or even that the labels we apply to them will influence their activity one way or another. Rather, I think our labels say more about us than them. Not always, but sometimes, such labels strike me as condescending, evincing a sense of distance between "us" and "them", as if the reality of their predicaments doesn't, and can't, hit home. Not only are we compartmentalizing these real-life experiences within a clever turn of phrase, we might be harboring the notion that we are immune to them.
Bad decisions aren't exclusively made by "hooligans" and "hoodlums" and it seems like people who don't know much about "the ghetto" use the term too freely. For me, one of the aspects I've enjoyed about hip-hop is its overall blurring of such divisions. Everybody claims to be the best, everybody raps with an ego, that's true. But being good looking or wealthy or whatever won't necessarily get you over in rap, while having skills as an emcee can (sometimes, if you work hard, slip your tape to the right deejay, maybe) get you some shine.
As for the scare tactics, we've seen most of them before. He takes his teenagers to morgues and graveyards to demonstrate death as a likely outcome of foul living. Nicky Katt's Harry Senate character did things like that to reach students with the most challenges on the TV drama Boston Public. T.I. also lets his teens learn about life as a paramedic, especially the ones who have experience with victims of violence. He takes them to homeless shelters to show young men where their girlfriends and children might tend up if these young men to go prison. Of course he takes them to an actual jail, and lets them talk to people who've been incarcerated. As you might suspect, the old don't-drop-the-soap imagery lingers as subtext, if not relayed directly. T.I. tries to get them to see the impact their actions will have on their friends and loved ones, to comprehend how a single decision can potentially affect an entire community.
Step Three: Inspire
Once the teenager is ready to formulate a new plan of action, T.I. seeks to inspire them toward something positive. They just have to figure out what that "something" is.
This is the part I like most because, rather than simply telling kids what not to do, T.I. asks them what they'd like to do with their lives. We are forever telling people to say "no" to something or steer clear of something, but we rarely offer ideas about what to say "yes" to. We are incredibly graphic about what "failure" looks like -- financial ruin, substance abuse, joblessness, somebody's gonna steal your identity -- but terribly vague about defining "success".
When T.I. asks them about their dreams and aspirations, I was surprised by some of the teenagers' responses. One wanted to be a chef. T.I. got him cooking lessons. Another aspired to be an actor, so T.I. read Romeo & Juliet with him and got him into an acting class. One teen wanted to be a recording artist, so T.I. booked expensive studio time with producer Polow Da Don and let him cut a record.
None of them were instant successes. All of them could use more work to improve their skills in their chosen endeavors. One of them couldn't resist the siren song of his old ways, and ended up getting shot. He survived his injuries, but his experience underscores an interesting lesson to be learned from T.I.'s career bumps and the TV show as a whole. The "road to redemption" isn't always a straight line, but it's better to have the courage to start walking, even when you're not quite sure of the destination, than not taking any steps at all. More than that, the search for your own path just might inspire someone else's journey.