A funny thing happened to Clifford “T.I.” Harris in the year leading up to his March 27 sentencing on federal firearms charges: The 27-year-old Atlanta rapper appeared to have turned his life around — and, in the process, other lives as well.
T.I. declared it so. Unsurprisingly, his team of defense attorneys agreed. Even former Ambassador Andrew Young and mega-church leader Bishop Eddie Long said they recognized the change in him when they addressed the court on his behalf.
But perhaps the metamorphosis was best summarized by U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr., who told T.I., “I congratulate you on the work you’ve done so far. If you had failed, I would’ve sent you to prison, [and] I would’ve probably held Mr. Nahmias out the window of the 23rd floor.”
Everyone in the courtroom laughed, including David E. Nahmias, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia. Without his belief that society could be better served by sticking T.I. with 1,500 hours of community service rather than four to six years of hard time, the mood in the courtroom — located on the 23rd floor of the Richard B. Russell Federal Building — would’ve been quite different.
Of course, T.I. isn’t getting off scot-free. He received a lenient sentence of a year and a day in prison, in addition to a year of house arrest — of which he’s already served 305 days. The judge has requested that T.I. be incarcerated in or near the state of Georgia. His sentence will begin sometime after May 19.
Not everyone in T.I.’s situation gets such a short prison stay. Surely, his celebrity contributed in large part to his punishment. But it was also the rapper’s willingness to make a public about-face — to go from advocating violence, drug peddling and a by-any-means-necessary ethos to offering himself up as an example of what not to do — that was attractive to the judge and prosecutor. That’s certainly not something a rapper of T.I.’s background is inclined to do, even with prison time staring him in the face. (Disagree? There are plenty of rappers with extensive rap sheets who would prove otherwise.)
Some might expect to see such a rapper go through the motions simply for the sake of getting a reduced sentence. But if T.I. is acting (a feat he’s become quite accomplished at, having starred in such films as ATL and American Gangster), he’s got a lot of people fooled — and not just the U.S. attorney and the judge.
In addition to the 1,030 hours of community service T.I. has completed, he’s intervened in the lives of a handful of young people who appeared headed down a one-way road to jail or death. That mentoring was boiled down into eight episodes of the MTV reality show, “T.I.’s Road to Redemption.” Though critics can argue that televising T.I.’s efforts to contribute to society is little more than well-connected pandering, there’s an undeniable upshot to his efforts. In addition to his impact on the eight young subjects of the show, millions more watched every week as T.I. faced off with the disillusioned young adults, cut through the bullshit, and showed them windows of opportunity they’d been too blind to see.
It turns out T.I. was giving them a dose of the mentoring he says he received from former Ambassador Young.
“Most kids don’t listen to their parents, but all kids listen to their grandparents,” Young told the judge, describing his recently formed relationship with T.I.
In what might be a bit of a stretch, Young compared the judge’s action on the bench to the efforts of attorneys and judges during the Civil Rights era. “The Civil Rights Movement was in many ways a [struggle] against white violence in America, and we get a lot of credit for having won that battle. But that was a battle won by judges,” Young said.
He then switched focus to the violence perpetrated by blacks that has overshadowed African-American communities, including the Bankhead Highway neighborhood that T.I. grew up in. “Black violence comes from the same roots in frustration, poverty and hopelessness that white violence comes from.”
By serving T.I. with an experimental sentence that’s enabled him to reach at-risk youth, Young argued, the judge helped stem violence in the same fashion as controversial court rulings that ushered in a new South half a century ago.
Moments later, T.I. described the series of events that led to him illegally purchasing a small arsenal of machine guns in the months leading up to his October 2007 arrest — including a purchase he made minutes before he was arrested and hours before he was scheduled to perform at the BET Awards here in Atlanta. Because he’s a convicted felon, T.I. is prohibited from possessing firearms of any kind.
“I am a man of morals and principles,” he told Pannell. “I know it’s hard to imagine that, looking at my criminal history. Although it was wrong, it was done out of my own ignorance.”
T.I. then said he felt a need to arm himself.
“After your best friend has died in your arms, your judgment is jaded,” he said, referring to his friend and personal assistant Philant Johnson, who was murdered in 2006 after a Cincinnati nightclub altercation led to shots being fired at the vehicle carrying T.I. and his entourage.
After the sentencing, T.I. stood in the lobby of the downtown federal building before a host of outstretched arms holding pens and notepads, tape recorders and TV cameras. When asked why he believes so many people flocked to his defense, he admitted he was clueless.
“I don’t know why they’ve come to my aid so much,” he told the crowd. “Andy Young said that he felt I could help do the work that he’s been trying to do for so long. If they trust me with that responsibility, I just want to make them proud.”
U.S. Attorney Nahmias added: “We didn’t do anything in this case for Mr. Harris; we did it because we believed that this case would benefit the community. And we think that it has. The side effect is that it appears he’s turned his life around.”