When he was growing up, most of T.I.’s male role models were either selling drugs or locked up in jail; he ended up following in both of those paths. Even after T.I. started his rap career and became one of its biggest stars, he didn’t abandon a life of crime: He recently pleaded guilty to federal weapons charges and faces almost a year in jail.
So T.I. would be the last person one would expect to be espousing the beliefs of Martin Luther King Jr. and reading the words of Andrew Young, the longtime civil rights leader, King compatriot and former U.N. ambassador.
But these days, T.I. is thinking about social responsibility and leadership, thanks to an unlikely mentor in Young, who reached out to the rapper a few months ago.
“He’s bright enough, sensitive enough, vulnerable enough and intellectual enough that he might be able to help the society deal with the problem of violence,” said Young, also a former mayor of Atlanta.
It may seem odd that the 76-year-old Young, who marched and stood for nonviolence alongside King, would affiliate himself with someone caught purchasing machine guns and silencers.
But Young sees T.I. in a positive manner — especially after they met at Young’s home — saying the rapper has the potential to influence this hip-hop driven generation in a similar way King did during the civil rights movement.
“If you put him in jail for 20 years, that won’t do any good toward gun violence,” Young said. “The judge had the wisdom and courage to give him a chance and force him to think about the process.”
‘He’s a mentor of some sort to me’T.I., whose real name is Clifford Harris, was sentenced in March to serve about a year in prison after completing at least 1,000 hours of community service and three years of supervised home detention. He was also given a $100,000 fine. To avoid a lengthy sentence, he agreed to speak with youth about the pitfalls of guns, gangs and violence.
That’s where Young stepped in. He took T.I. to a rehabilitation hospital in New York to meet with people who were paralyzed from gang violence. He’s given T.I. books to read, including one written by Young and another on the genocide in Rwanda.
Young hopes to take T.I. on a trip to Africa before he starts his prison sentence in late March. He already took him to an exclusive birthday party for poet Maya Angelou in May.
“He’s a mentor of some sort to me,” the 27-year-old T.I. said of Young in a recent interview, shortly after lecturing almost 100 youths about the importance of education and entrepreneurship.
“Thing is, I didn’t really expect to be the spokesperson for positive decisions in kids lives,” he said. “That’s not necessarily what I saw for myself.”
It’s also not the kind of message he’s doled out in his music. Though his lyrics aren’t exceptionally violent or profane given rap’s often raw standard, his rhymes depict — some would say glorify — life on the street, whether it deals with gunplay or drugs. He would certainly never be called a conscious rapper.
Yet Young sees him doing great works. He welcomed T.I. to his home: They talked for almost three hours about King not initially wanting to lead the civil rights movement until he finally took ownership of the guiding role.
During their meeting, T.I. said Young compared the rapper to King.
“Once he saw that no one else wanted that responsibility, he was forced into it,” said T.I., recalling his conversation with Young about King. “People depended on him and pushed it on him. It wasn’t until (Young) said in Montgomery (Ala.) that King accepted the responsibility of being the leader of the civil rights movement. He compared that to my situation.”
When asked about the comment, Young neither denied or completely confirmed it.
T.I. turns role modelWhile Bishop Eddie Long, leader of megachurch New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, doesn’t speak of T.I. in King-like terms, he does believe the rapper — who has given himself the boastful title “King of the South” — has the drive and ability to reach a large mass of people even Long can’t reach.
“Here’s a man who has a past,” the pastor said. “Here’s a man who has gotten himself in some trouble because of decisions. Here’s a man that commands a great audience of young people, who maybe I may not be the prophet of the day.
“But he is someone who can say things and make people move in a generation we need to touch. So he is very valuable.”
From Atlanta to Los Angeles, T.I. has visited community centers, churches and schools, speaking to crowds of about 250 youths. On a short leave from house arrest in March, T.I. delivered a speech on overcoming life’s tribulations to almost 30,000 churchgoers for Long’s Easter service at the Georgia Dome.
T.I. is used to having an audience of millions. Last summer, his sixth album, “T.I.. vs T.I.P.,” debuted at No. 1 on the album charts. T.I., who also appeared in the Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe film “American Gangster,” was enjoying perhaps the biggest success of his career when he was arrested just blocks away and hours before he was to headline the BET Hip-Hop Awards last October.
Federal officials said he was trying to pick up machine guns and silencers his then-bodyguard bought for him.
Fear as a motivatorHis actions beg the question: Why T.I. would jeopardize his rising stardom?
Fear, according to T.I. His best friend Philant Johnson was killed and three were injured in a gun shootout following a post-performance party in Cincinnati in 2006. He worried that he could suffer the same fate.
“People would also love to say they, ‘Hey, I killed T.I.’” he said. “Let’s say if T.I. is out, didn’t have any weapons around and I got shot dead in the street. The first thing people are going to say is, ‘Why didn’t T.I. have something to protect himself?’”
But T.I. has a new train of thought after his arrest.
“No matter how much security you have, how many guns you got, no matter how much money you got, God’s will supersedes all of that,” T.I. said. “So, instead of walking with guns, I now have to walk with God. I now have to trust in God’s will.”
He’s currently on a 14-city concert tour to promote his upcoming album, “Paper Trail,” which is expected to released in September. Even though his first single “No Matter What” has no curse words, he says it doesn’t mean that the album will be profanity-free. And he won’t promise that violence or drugs won’t be mentioned in his lyrics.
But now, he plans to use those topics not to glorify, but to advise others about the consequences. He’s trying to not disappoint the many who believe in him — like Young.
“I don’t want to disgrace nobody who supported me who believed I pushed pass this situation,” T.I. said. “I won’t disgrace their good faith with another absolutely unnecessary situation.”