11Alive Uninterrupted is a series focused on in-depth conversations on Atlanta's culture. In our first edition, journalist Neima Abdulahi sits down with rapper T.I. who opens up about everything from the music to the movements that inspire him.
THE VISION BEHIND THE TRAP MUSIC MUSEUM:
NEIMA: How does it feel to sit here today and just to see the curation that came from your imagination?
T.I.: For one, it feels like a collective effort. This is the culmination of thoughts, ideas, visions and contributions of so many, of a community of artists. Not to mention the contributions that came from the most significant contributors to the culture of trap music.
NEIMA: How does this space (Atlanta's Trap Music Museum) really preserve the history of trap music versus how it may be told in the mainstream? Like, what dots does it connect that kind of adds texture to that narrative?
T.I.: I think, for one, what we do is we want to educate as much as entertain. We want to make sure that people know where trap music came from and why it is so relatable worldwide. If there was no crack epidemic, if there was no war on drugs, then there wouldn't be so many people that could relate to trap music.
The underserved areas of our communities were plagued with drugs and guns and discriminatory laws that sent our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and uncles and aunts and cousins to jail and prison for so long, which left a generation on the street looking for what? For leadership. Looking for guidance. So hip-hop steps in and saves the day yet again. And you can express that through music. And because so many people have the same story, that music becomes prominent. The reason my album ‘Trap Musik’ was so successful was because so many people heard their stories in my songs.
NEIMA: Off of relatability?
T.I.: Absolutely. So many people heard parts of themselves, parts of their childhood, parts of their present circumstances in my songs. That's the reason Young Jeezy's albums were so successful. That's the reason people relate to Gucci Mane. And if you’re rapping about those things, they relate to it because of their conditions. As long as those things still exist, trap music will still be prominent.
NEIMA: Considering all those systemic and societal issues that we oftentimes face in marginalized communities, how were you able to create from that pain and not let it shackle you down where it could have done that to someone else?
T.I.: I give a lot of credit to the ancestors because, you know, historically, our people have been resilient, you know? I think trap music is no different. I think everybody who grew up in desperate times, they were motivated by it. It spread and blossomed and grew and bloomed into, you know, something similar to what you see around you here.
HIP-HOP MUSIC UNDER ATTACK:
NEIMA: When I look around the Trap Music Museum, I see so much Black art. And right now, we're in the midst of the movement to #ProtectBlackArt. When you hear that, what comes to your mind?
T.I.: Well, first of all, I think what we have to do is - we have to question why are these the only lyrics that are being brought into question? We have to ask ourselves, why is this the only art form that is spoken of being brought into court? I think that we have to kind of put ourselves in the minds of artists. And that's the problem, because most people in a legal setting, they can't fathom the way an artist's mind works.
And a lot of times people can't separate reality from fiction. However, it's very easily done when we're talking about films. Very easily done when we're talking about video games. The people who created Grand Theft Auto, they're not being brought up on charges.
I think it's an attack on culture more than anything.
NEIMA: Why does hip-hop oftentimes feel like public enemy number one in courtrooms?
T.I.: Well, for one, because it's honest. Because it tells the truth that a lot of people who probably don't live in these conditions would like to believe don't exist. You know, they don't want to see themselves as being part of the problem. They don't want to see themselves as, you know, ignoring a community that needs help when they have an opportunity and an ability to help them. It holds the mirror up to society. These are the forgotten ones. The forgotten voices. I believe it's that notion that causes hip-hop to be under attack time and time again.
NEIMA: What is it like to chase your dream in Atlanta? To start off with nothing; start off in Jonesboro South; start off in Zone Three; start off in Sylvan Hills with nothing - and you find a way to reach the American Dream. Tell us about that come-up story, what you were able to witness with his (Young Thug's) success.
T.I.: Well, it would be likened to the idea and similar to the thought of walking in a store and buying a lottery ticket that hit the mega millions - you know what I'm saying? Like, to be honest with you, that's kind of what you are looking at, because, and if I compare his story to mine, I came up Center Hill right up on Bankhead.
I didn't know where a studio was - I had no idea. Outside of the cafeteria table or freestyling with my partners on the corner. I didn't know how to find my way to success. And it was just a series of steps and introductions and capitalizing off of meeting one person and impressing him and then being introduced to another person and impressing them. And over a course of a period of time, I found myself in the light.
And I feel that it had to have been that difficult or even more for Thugger. He didn't come from, you know, a family that knew how to get him in front of people so he could display his talent. So he kind of had to work a Rubik's Cube through a maze of obstacles to find himself in a position not only where he could present his art to people, to where the people he was presenting to could actually understand the art he was presenting.
NEIMA: ‘Cause he was ahead of his time?
T.I.: Completely ahead of it, and is still ahead of his time today. Not only that, but once he found himself in a position to offer and reach back and pull people like Gunna [out]. Man, these kids were running the streets lost. Their parents had no true means of creating any or establishing any kind of wealth or sustainability for themselves. And, through the vision, through the art and execution of that art - of Young Thug - all of that was made possible.
NEIMA: But why isn't this story being told?
T.I.: Why isn't this story being told? Why is that story being told so much? What I have seen is a young man bringing himself, his family and the people around him up from nothing. And he's been selfless in doing so. That's what I saw. We must go on what we have been shown.
NEIMA: When it's Black men in America, is it often guilty until found innocent?
NEIMA: Tell me about that.
T.I.: I think that Black men have always been the criminals or the villains that society could hang their hat on. Any time there's a crime being committed, if someone says a Black person did it, they stop looking for any other options. There's already a picture of a suspect in everyone's mind - and that person is usually Black.
FROM THE MUSIC TO THE MOVEMENT:
NEIMA: From (being) an artist, to movies, to comedy, you're always pushing the envelope and telling that story on so many different fronts and it may surprise people like ‘Oh, what's something new he’s doing now?’ You know, keeping people on edge. Tell us about the importance of you always pushing the envelope of your brand into so many different spaces.
T.I.: It's important for me to keep myself engaged. In order for me to continue to be engaged, I have to start at the bottom with something. Take comedy for an example. Just the looks on people's faces when they see me up there is a look that I can't get from rap anymore because people already expect me to do well. It's like, 'okay, yeah, okay. We have every example, every indication that you're going to do a good job.' There is no surprise in there. There's no wow in there.
NEIMA: Is there anything you haven't done yet that you're like, 'okay, I got to do this?'
T.I.: We need to get a supermarket in the Bankhead community because right now it doesn't exist, you know, it just is too far and few in between for the amount of people that we have in the area. We need more afterschool programs, we need recreational centers, we need more community gardens. We need more programming.
NEIMA: We talked earlier about the cycle. What you're mentioning now is how we break that cycle, right?
T.I.: Right. I hear a lot of conversation around violence and gang violence. And, everyone in the city agrees, whether you just moved here yesterday or you've been here as long as I have, everyone agrees this is not the way we want to live in our communities. This is not the city we want to raise our children in. Everyone can agree that something needs to be done. Now, where we kind of fall apart in that agreement is what we should do about it.
Most people think very surface level. Crime comes from a lack of opportunities. When there are more opportunities available to the people, there's less crime. Nobody wants to address the issue. They just want to address the outcome.
We create that culture. We create that vibe, that energy, that intangible thing that brings corporations here, that makes Microsoft or whomever else want to come and put their dollars here. That is because of the groundwork and the fundamental structure that we have laid collectively. So we have to continue to encourage and support that.
NEIMA: I think the leadership that comes from the music, right, the leadership comes from the hip-hop community, really puts a megaphone from a space of a generation that will directly hear it in a way that they may never hear from a politician when it comes to that relatability.
T.I.: We are the translators.
NEIMA: What do you mean by that?
T.I.: We're the translators. Okay. So, the kids in high school don't speak the language of the politicians and the politicians don't speak the language of the kids.
But we're right there in the middle telling the politicians what the kids are thinking and feeling and telling the kids what's on the minds of the politicians. Each of us take different roles and responsibilities in that translation, but we are the translators. We are the people who speak directly to the ones who need to hear it and directly to the ones who have to say it.
NEIMA: Connecting the dots.
T.I.: That's what we do: bridging the gap.
NEIMA: If we're not dissecting it from a space of art form and culture, who is dissecting it for us?
T.I.: We have to dig beneath the surface. It's very easy to be a surface-level thinker and only deal with the things as they present themselves. That seems to be a lot more reactive than proactive. I think we have to dig beneath the surface and find out the nucleus, the origin, like where does the problem begin, you know what I mean? If you can attack the issue at the start of it, you can follow it all the way back to where it begins.
NEIMA: Getting back to the first domino, before it fell.
BUYING BACK THE BLOCK:
NEIMA: Did you ever envision you in this space of advocacy where it's reaching so many other spaces?
T.I.: Hmm. I never thought about it, even up until now, I haven't thought about it. I just try to move with purpose.
NEIMA: Maybe that's your humbleness.
T.I.: I try to allow my steps to be guided by a higher power. I just try to do what I feel is right and speak up on things that I feel deserve to be heard, especially when it involves people that I know don't have a voice, but should, but can't speak for themselves.
NEIMA: What message do you have for a young kid who may be falling victim to those same potholes and those same circumstances?
T.I.: I would just say that your future is going to be here far longer than your present. You're going to be older way longer than you're going to be younger. So, don't make a momentary decision that could disrupt your future; that could disrupt your forever.
NEIMA: You as an entrepreneur, when I look at the Trap Music Museum, and what you've been able to do with Bankhead Seafood, you're really big on buying back the block. Atlanta's changing. Let's consider this space and all the other spaces of investment you have throughout metro Atlanta. How important is it to you for Black ownership in a city that has been Black-led for so many years?
T.I.: For the shoulders of the giants that I stand on, that is the blueprint they laid.
NEIMA: The Andy Youngs.
T.I.: Andy Youngs.
NEIMA: Ralph Abernathy.
T.I.: John Lewis, Dr. King, Daddy King, Herman Russell, Alonzo Herndon.
NEIMA: Lowery. Mays.
T.I.: Maynard Jackson.
All of these people laid the groundwork for me to come here and continue the legacy of leadership, of entrepreneurship, of Black excellence for the next generation and the generation after them to do the same. All I can do is play my part, come in and do what I can to make sure that it's strengthened, to make sure that it remains intact and to pass it on to the next generation.