Many people were appalled that Yo Gotti, a local guy who made good by purveying profanity and misogyny into a successful hip-hop career, was briefly glorified as a role model on a billboard. I say that his success, one that doesn't happen for many people who grow up surrounded by poverty and gangs, is an example of him making lemonade from lemons. The community's challenge is to cultivate fewer lemons. Here's my take in The Commercial Appeal...
Recently, some Freedom Preparatory Academy students talked to me about the role models in their lives.
Tieranee Carr, 18, said she admired Creshunda Miller, owner of Bodacious Bodywear, for developing a business to make oft-maligned, full-figured women feel beautiful. Wazairean Harris, 17, said he admired the school’s basketball coach, Bwerani Johnson, for making students feel proud and confident.
And Jaquinsia Armstrong, 17, said her role model was her uncle, Christopher Johnson.
“He’s very inspirational,” Jaquinsia said. “He’s been through a lot of trials and tribulations through his lifetime, and I’ve seen how he’s bounced back through prayer."
None of them, however, named Yo Gotti — a rapper known more for his feuds with Young Dolph and his lyrics that glorify cooking cocaine and tossing money to strippers than his businesses and charity work — as someone to look up to.
But then again, these three students didn’t have to. They already are exposed to a variety of role models.
The youths who admire Yo Gotti probably aren’t.
Which is why worrying about whether the rapper is an ideal role model for a billboard touting him as a product of Shelby County Schools — a billboard that has since been removed because of the controversy it generated — misses the point.
What everyone should be worried about is how to create social and economic environments in African-American communities that spawn more role models like Miller and Johnson; people who don’t have to exploit black pathology to carve a path to success.
Even Yo Gotti seems to realize that isn’t quite how this is supposed to work.
Since he became successful, the Trezevant High School graduate whose real name is Mario Mims has been using his wealth to start businesses to employ Memphians, and he’s given back to the city in many ways.
That’s one reason why Yo Gotti was given a key to the city last June. And quite frankly, once you give someone the key to the city, it’s kind of tough to argue that he’s unfit for a billboard in that same city.
The students, however, said the problem is that many youths their age won’t emulate the charity work and the entrepreneurialism that Yo Gotti now pursues as much as they will his glorification of the violent drug culture that made those pursuits possible.
“Sure, he advocates against teen violence, and he’s given us jobs, but then he raps about how you never had to punch a clock because you were cooking (cocaine) in a kitchen,” Wazairean said. “I feel it then becomes hypocritical.”
“I do understand that he has his own restaurant and his own record label, and he’s given back to the community,” Tieranee said. “But he’s not a good role model because of the kind of music he produces.”
Said Jaquinsia: “When we look at him, and the music he puts out, we want to be like that, and it doesn’t put us in the best situation. He puts those lyrics out, but he’s at a more successful place in his life.”
Thing is, Yo Gotti grew up in the gang-dominated Ridgecrest Apartments in Frayser. He didn’t grow up in an environment dominated by role models such as the ones that are influencing Tieranee, Wazairean and Jaquinsia.
And, chances are few of the youths who admire his lyrics are exposed to other role models who may be making an honest, if not necessarily a lucrative, living.
That’s the challenge here.
Many youths in Memphis, especially those who are raising themselves in environments ruled by the drug trade, which comes with its own culture and rules and ruthlessness, are going to look up to Yo Gotti.
They’re going to admire him because he transformed aspects of an environment that they can relate to, and ones that could have doomed him, into something lucrative.
The problem is that if most youths choose the lifestyle that Yo Gotti raps about instead of the one he is trying to create now that he has access to capital, most will wind up in prison or dead.
So, what’s needed are economic and social environments that nurture more of the role models that Tieranee, Wazairean and Jaquinsia look up to. People who thrive and survive by doing the right thing.
And if nothing else, it seems that Yo Gotti is using his money to try and create that economic environment for some Memphians. For that, he deserves credit.
Even if he doesn’t get a billboard.