The rap competition was held last fall on the south side of the Iron Triangle, a poor, often violent neighborhood in Richmond, near San Francisco. The grass was brown and patchy. The stage was made up of four paint-stained metal folding tables. Three plywood steps covered with dirty carpet stood in front of it. Across the street was an abandoned lot turned refrigerator graveyard.
Michael Harper was one of the many kids who dream of becoming rap stars whom I have met in the Triangle through my work as reporter. I was attending the competition for background for a newspaper story I was working on. Michael was there determined to win it. First prize was four hours of studio time to cut a demo tape.
Michael was about to turn 24 and had just gotten out of prison. He had been in the California Rehabilitation Center outside Los Angeles for 14 months for selling crack cocaine. He wore a black do-rag, black baggy jeans and a plaid shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his chest. He was about 6 feet tall, gangly, with narrow eyes and a big smile. The rap he was to perform was scrawled in a spiral notebook with a green cover. He had written it in prison and he called it his "thesis."
We started talking as we waited for the contest to begin. He told me he was determined to change his life but it was hard in Richmond, where gang violence is rampant. Last year there were 38 homicides in the city of 100,000, the majority of the dead young black men like him. He was scared walking around at night because he wasn't carrying a weapon anymore. He hated taking the bus because he was afraid of getting jumped, but he didn't have any other transportation.
Without prompting, Michael started telling me about prison. He spoke about his shared, 8-by-8-foot cell with a steel sink and one dim light bulb. He told me about the time he melted a razor blade into a shaving cream can to make a weapon to defend himself against another inmate. He said it was a shock to put on an orange jumpsuit and become a faceless number to the guards. He said he never wanted to wear orange again.
Abruptly, Michael stopped talking. His mind was on the competition, and he told me politely that he had to go practice. He walked away to a side street and paced back and forth, rehearsing out loud. His hands moved up and down as he spoke. Nothing distracted him from his focus.
As I waited, I started talking to another rapper named Dwight. He was around 5-foot-8, mid-30s, about 300 pounds, friendly and loquacious. He has his own rapping ministry called God's Generation, but said he used to be one of the biggest drug dealers in Oakland. He was known then as Boss Hog.
"It just felt like my soul was telling me to change the way that I was thinking," he said, about his transformation from criminal to agent of God. "You know how sometimes you're talking to yourself but it's your conscience? It just felt like my brain was having problems with myself! It was two different conversations!"
Now Dwight goes back into the neighborhoods where he used to deal to preach. "I used to be the devil's lieutenant," Dwight said. "I am not afraid of whence I came."
Meanwhile, the competition was starting and Michael was the first of a handful of contestants. "OK," said the emcee, "we got Michael from the south side right now. He's cool, I think he's been rapping for a lot of years, and the little brother looks like he's been doing his push-ups! He's gonna go a cappella. OK now, Michael!"
Michael walked up to the stage slowly. His head was down, and he didn't lift his eyes to the crowd. "One, two, one, two," he said, testing the mike. "Can everybody hear me?"
"Yeah, we hear you, we hear you!" the crowd yelled back. He wrapped his hands around the mike. Then he took a couple of breaths and began reading from his notebook.
See, Richmond got me so traumatized
I'm starting to think it's cool for me to be institutionalized
But see I'm stronger than that
Even though sometimes I feel bitter.
I'm the pick of the litter
Pops didn't raise me to be a quitter ...
Why my homies keep dying?
Why the government keep lying?
And why these bullets steady flying?
Taking mothers away from sons
Sisters away from brothers ...
See I borrow my courage from my Father up in heaven
No longer need to carry a gun
I got His love for my protection
So my advice to you is:
You don't want to be where I been
Because I've been where grown men dress like women
State pen where they make the hardest man look soft
When they tell you take your clothes off
And bend over and cough
You can make it
I'm talking to the mothers out there struggling
You can make it
I'm talking to the kids out there hustling
'Cause we all know the government ain't playing fair
Because if they was why would they cut welfare?"
He stopped, and it was quiet for a moment before the crowd of about 30 teenagers and adults cheered and whooped. The emcee came back up to the stage. "I don't know, I don't know. We got Michael here. I don't know if we can do better than that."
After Michael, Dwight stepped up to the stage and began a smooth melodic rap with another guy in his 20s and a little boy about 8 years old. They danced and spun in perfectly timed circles. Then came a rapper named Don Juan with a harder edge. His flow was even, and he wasn't a bit nervous. I had to leave before it was all over but I found out later from a friend that Michael had won.
"When it was announced," she said, "a big smile spread across his face, he threw his hands in the air and said, 'Thank you!' He was so happy. And then he said, 'I just feel so good about myself right now!'"
After Michael and I met, I thought I might do a story on rap dreamers in the Iron Triangle so we stayed in touch. We talked on the phone and he would tell me how different his current life was from his childhood when he used to watch Smurf cartoons on the living room couch, and play basketball and football with his little brother and other neighborhood kids. How he had lost more friends than he could count to "drive-bys, walk-bys, you name it." How he had been hired once to kill someone in Miami for $10,000 but chickened out. And how much he missed his grandfather -- "Pops" -- a family man who drove a forklift at Safeway and who died when Michael was in sixth grade.
When I saw Michael a few weeks after the competition, the glow of victory had faded. I was giving him a ride to the train station so he could meet a girl. He was grungy and smelled like liquor. He wore a black denim jacket with a picture of Fat Albert on the back. He hadn't used his studio time yet and he was having trouble finding a job.
"I want to sell weed hella bad," he admitted, as we got into the car. "I miss the entertainment of the streets; it's better than Jerry Springer. Watch women offer sexual favors for drugs, guys push cans 1,000 miles (to the recycling center) to pay for a drink. Watch a dealer tell a junkie, 'You can't have that rock for less than $20,' and watch the junkie beg and say, 'But all I have is $17.' Watch the dealers tease."
Then he mused about the downside. "But it's entertainment without reward," he said. "A few hundred in your pocket, a quarter-ounce of green, $100 bottle of Hennessy. I feel like I can do anything, like P. Diddy or something. But it's a temporary feeling. Unless you market yourself right, you go broke."
Michael asked me if we could swing by his house so he could change before he met his date.
"I sold drugs for eight years without going to jail. I was making about $200 a day. I was doing it so I could smoke weed, buy clothes, stuff like that. I felt that I fit in. It felt easier to look at my situation and not cry. It felt easier not to look at the rejection I felt from my mother."
He told me his mother had abandoned him after he was born, that he didn't know who his father was, and his grandparents had raised him. His grandmother took over after the death of his grandfather, whose initials, H.L., are tattooed on Michael's left forearm in thick, midnight-blue script. When his grandfather died, "That sent me in the whirlwind I've been in for the last 14 years," Michael said.
"He always took the initiative to get what we needed. He did what every black man -- what every man -- should do. He was the provider. He'd walk two miles in the rain to get us food. He was always there, always very dependable. He made sure he took care of the home front first. I think about him all the time."
But his mom was a different story, a stranger he both hated and loved: "This one time, my mom came by the house, I must have been 13, no actually I must have been 14, 15, right. She started having problems with her stomach. Gall bladder, something like that. So she wanted to go to the hospital. She was walking really, really slow, so I left her behind -- about four or five blocks. So, once I got to Brookside Hospital, I was waiting on her, and she said, 'You don't have to stay if you don't want to.' So I left. In my mind, I was thinking, you know, I'm doing to you what you did to me. I'm walking away from you like you walked away from me."
Michael said he felt like his grandmother had given up on him since he'd gone to prison, but was staying connected to him now out of obligation. He lived in a trailer park with a friend but visited her periodically. "I don't feel -- what's the word? -- embraced by her," he said. "People forgive, but they don't forget." We'd reached the trailer park, and he ran inside to change while I waited in the car. He came back out carrying a backpack. He pulled a CD out of it -- "Break the Cycle" by Staind.
"Do you know this?" I didn't. He told me they were alternative rock. "I can't stop listening to it. I love it. It reminds me of myself." He loved the lyrics from the song "It's Been Awhile": "It's been awhile/ Since I could hold my head up high/ And it's been awhile since I said / I'm sorry."
I dropped him off at the train and told him to let me know how he was doing. But I never heard from him. Nearly three months went by, and I thought he had been drawn back to the streets. But when I called his grandmother's house the other day, he was there. He said he'd been busy -- but he was still clean.
"The temptation is always there, very, very strong, you feel me?" he said. "I'm not accustomed to how I'm living right now, the square life, trying to get a full-time job. I'd be more relaxed if I was on a dope track. But there's this whole other person I'm trying to figure out. This old person, I knew to a T. This new person, the suit is not fitting that well. In the worst-case scenario, I can go back to the streets. That's how I feel right now. I always know I can depend on the streets for something."