With all the questions swirling around Clifford “T.I.” Harris Jr. since his arrest on federal weapons charges, perhaps the most pointed came from the judge who is hearing the superstar rapper’s case.
“Mr. Harris is an exceptionally gifted and talented musician. He is exceptionally generous and has reached out to the community,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Alan J. Baverman said during a bail hearing last week, with the defendant sitting before him in a navy pinstriped suit. “Somebody who has so many gifts to do good and do well ... risks it all by showing up at a gun deal.”
That dichotomy has been on the minds of many in Harris’s Atlanta hometown and beyond: How could a man at the top of his career risk it all in such a public, foolish act — just blocks from a stage that would only increase his fame? Or does this drug dealer made good, who recently watched his best friend die after a highway gun battle, actually need illegal machine guns for protection?
“When you grow up in an environment that’s rough, you deal with different things than the average person,” said Chi Dibiase, 27, of Atlanta. “These street laws that we try to abide by ... it’s more real to us than damn near anything else, and respect is the number one thing.”
A decade ago, Harris was hustling crack on the streets of northwest Atlanta, looking for his big rap break. He was first arrested at 17 and sentenced to seven years’ probation. More arrests followed, even as his rap career took off, and soon Harris found himself in jail for violating his probation as the spoils of music royalty lay just beyond his grasp.
At 27, Harris is years and, seemingly, a world away from the criminal life, having grown into his self-proclaimed title of “King of the South.” But authorities say that on Oct. 13, about an hour before a scheduled performance at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, Harris showed up to buy unregistered machine guns and silencers. He already had three guns in his car — one of them loaded — when he was arrested, authorities say.
‘It’s a battle with himself’Harris has been straddling the street life and success for several years, said Khao, a producer who has worked with him since 2004.
“It’s a battle within himself,” Khao said. “When you turn nothing into something, you’ll protect it at all costs. ... This wasn’t a gimmick. This is this man’s life. This is what he deals with.”
Harris is charged with possession of unregistered machine guns and silencers, as well as possession of firearms by a convicted felon. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Baverman was scheduled to decide Friday whether Harris could be released on bond. To persuade the judge, his lawyers have proposed a $2.2 million bond, and offered to augment the GPS electronic monitoring with a live-in monitor while Harris awaits trial.
Harris spent much of his youth in the Bowen Homes public housing project, which was rife with unemployment, gang activity and drugs. Conspicuously absent were fathers, jobs, or positive influences.
Not much has changed since 1980, the year Harris was born, said Atlanta Police Department Maj. Joseph Dallas, who has worked the city for almost three decades.
“It’s a very tough and challenging community for anyone, not only to grow up in, but to succeed,” Dallas said.
Those who do make it out don’t always leave their old friends or habits behind.
“The culture ... of the upbringing in a tough neighborhood screams very loudly, ‘If I have been wronged, then the appropriate course is to retaliate in order to maintain my stature in that tough community,”’ Dallas explained. “Based on the allegations (against Harris) he has still not completely dissociated himself from the type of culture, environment, or associates that one needs in order to complete that rise to success.”
Harris reaches outDwight Thomas — who first met Harris as his lawyer in a 2003 case and is one of three lawyers representing him in federal court — said that unlike many entertainers his age, Harris has already reached out to give back to his community. Harris bought a house from the junkie owner to whom he used to sell crack, renovated it, and put a family in it. He partnered with his uncle, an ex-inmate, to start a construction company that builds low-cost homes in his old neighborhood.
“When you come from the background that we come from, one thing that you realize is that to whom much is given, much is expected,” said Thomas.
Harris’ career had been on a steady climb in recent years, with chart-topping albums, Grammy awards, movie roles (including an appearance in the upcoming “American Gangster” with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe) and Chevy commercials. But last year the party was tragically cut short when Harris’ best friend, Philant Johnson, was killed outside Cincinnati after a fight in an after-hours club.
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Dibiase, who grew up in a violent, impoverished neighborhood in east Atlanta, said in places like where he and Harris are from, calling the police to resolve such issues is not an option.
“Our thing is, ‘Handle it yourself,”’ he said. “You call the police, and you’re looked at as weak. Your respect is gone.
“The higher profile you get, the more money you get, the more eyes is on you. So the more you try to handle things yourself, the more heat you’re going to draw to yourself. It’s a rock and a hard place sometimes trying to be a real dude out here ... and live by the code and make money in a legal industry.”