Recently, hip hop superstar Tip “T.I.” Harris penned letters to President Obama, which appeared in The New York Times and to incoming President Donald Trump, which appeared in Rolling Stone. But this time, he decided he needed to talk to the people he calls “US.”
Harris has been more outspoken since the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of police last summer. His latest album, “US or Else: Letter to the System,” released in December, is a marked departure from his “Rubber Band Man” days, displaying an artist more aware of oppression and his role in ending it. EBONY.com caught up with the Atlanta rapper and actor turned activist to talk coalition building, taking a stand and why we can’t “throw away” celebrities that meet with Donald Trump, followed by an “Open Letter to US.”
EBONY.com: What made you want to conclude your open letters with one to US and who makes up US?
T.I.: The Black community, the hip hop community or whoever is against the oppressive communities that have historically tried to bring us down. Right now, I don’t necessarily think it’s a race thing. There are some White people riding with us just like it was in the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a community of people and it’s a cause that transcends race, gender, sexual orientation, social status. Its people who are fighters for what’s right.
EBONY.com: We have this huge potential coalition, but we have people within that aren’t comfortable with gay people, or having women lead. How do we get past those differences?
T.I.: It has to be understood that the world doesn’t exist with people who are exactly like us. Whatever column you fall in — Christian, gay, straight, Black, White — there is no world where people exist that are exactly like you. No one group of people can righteously rule the world. There will be people who differ in opinion, and even in that difference of opinion, we must respect each other. The one thing we all have in common is that we’re human. Why pay more attention to the things that make us different over the things that bring us together?
EBONY.com: One of the things you mention is that you’re guilty of doing some of the things you want to fix. Can you elaborate on that?
T.I.: I’m by no means a perfect human being. I experience more than half of my life perpetuating darkness. That was because I was dropped in a place of darkness and expected to find a way out. I existed in darkness for so long, I had nothing to offer but that. Once I found my place in the light, then I could say the shit I was doing wasn’t all the way right.
Me experiencing that and going through the consequences and being the example let’s other people know it doesn’t have to go down like that. If you want to take what I’ve learned and use it to your advantage, just listen and you won’t have to go through it.
EBONY.com: You have a lot of fame and fortune. Were you worried about losing fans, sponsors or other deals?
T.I.: Sponsors weren’t something I had to consider after my situation in 2010. As far as fans are concerned: If you are a true fan, you’re a fan for one of two reasons. You either support what I do or you support me as a person. If you support what I do, the quality of work speaks for itself. If you support me as a person, my personal and political views won’t alienate you. If you find a way to be turned off, that means you were never a fan in the first place. You were just riding the wave.
EBONY.com: You made headlines recently when you commented on celebrities meeting with President-Elect Trump. Is there anything you want to clarify?
T.I.: I wasn’t as critical about them as I was [critical] about their ability to peep game. I think they had honest intentions but they weren’t dealing with the most sincere person. When Trump sat down with them, he had an agenda. He met his agenda. What happened as far as their agenda? I don’t know.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sitting down with people as long as you understand that there are needs to be met and purposes to be served. Interviews, pictures, saying, “This is a good man,” that serves his purpose. Just because they didn’t peep game, doesn’t mean you throw them away. We have to address people within our community and say, “That wasn’t all the way right.” After we correct them, we have to move on. I don’t think my statement or DL [Hughley’s] statement should be used as ammunition to cast anyone aside. We all need each other and it’s going to take unity to get over this.
An Open Letter to US
As I write this letter, I can’t help but express my frustration and concern for US. I also can’t help but question my contribution to the status of where we are. I understand that I too have been guilty of doing the very things that put us here. Even still, right now the state of our community is more alarming than ever. And while I know this letter may be misunderstood by many, unduly dissected and misconstrued by most others, I still need to write and speak about these things that deeply concern me.
You see, all of US sometimes feel that one of the most difficult things in the world is to talk to US about US in an effort to help US. However, we cannot dismiss the fact that we can’t fix what we do not address. You see we’ve somehow allowed ourselves to think it’s okay to neglect and abandon our responsibility to ourselves and to our community. Everything cannot be blamed on THE SYSTEM.
We can no longer afford to be entertained beyond the point of accountability. We can’t keep selling each other out and be willing to do anything to be seen, to be famous or to be rich.
Our obsession with material things and lack of self-worth is evident in our need for an abundance of momentary luxuries and must-have amenities that have no true value for real, man. And I mean, we do it just to impress people that could care less if your children or your children’s children have anything left to show for your life after you gone. You see somewhere along the way, we’ve allowed the pursuit of fame and things to blind us to the issues that prevent us from moving upward. So, we cannot continue to get caught up in having material abundance and yet be fundamentally and spiritually broke.
Every one of us must do something to contribute to transforming our community for the better. We have been underserved, underprivileged and unfortunate for far too long. There are no more excuses. It’s not enough to have limited progress and allow our expectations and sense of purpose to evaporate. So, if that means we must sacrifice some nights at the club and give up buying the latest designer handbags and sneakers…well then damn, so be it. I can only hope that one day soon we’ll understand our true economic buying power by investing in our own communities and putting our money into businesses that keep our dollars in our community.
It is imperative for US to parent our children and educate them outside of the school systems, as our education system was not designed to lift US out of oppression. If we know that the pipelines to prisons are multiplying, well we must ask ourselves what can we do to end it? We must keep ourselves busy with finding ways to generate wealth for generations to come and work to pass down things to our children for them to pass down to their children. You see man, who wants to fight who on Instagram should not be as important as fighting for equality…and who’s f**king who should never be as important as creating a strategy to help break the cycle [of] oppression.
You see, if we don’t acknowledge and accept where we are failing, then we’ll never do the work that it takes to make it right for US. See, we are the benefactors of too much sacrifice and blood, sweat and tears to allow petty differences and trivial discrepancies to continue to separate and divide US, while we are being used, exploited and conquered. We should not live one more day ignoring the sh** that suffocates and strangles US keeping US imprisoned in our own communities. We cannot afford to not stick and work together for the betterment of our community.
As we look to the future for US, there could not be a better time to assess where we go from here. And while there’s currently great turmoil, there is even greater opportunity for US to work together to transform our community. Far too many of our children are fatherless, far too many of our mothers are standing in the prison waiting rooms and far too many of our young people feel hopeless.
We must work to reshape the need for our children to want to live so fast even if it means dying too young. Now, I am not here to demonize or vilify, but to pledge my commitment to help US do what needs to be done. You see if we continue to devalue ourselves we cannot realistically expect respect from others.
Now, how can I sit here in a place of privilege and say such things and make such suggestions you ask? Well, I answer simply because I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to not know where you’re going or how to get there. I know what it’s like to have no one around you who can teach you how to be what you hope to become.
I know what it’s like to be so distracted by your surroundings and in the moment that it’s seemingly impossible to not get caught up in ‘em. I know what it’s like to feel so much smaller than the activities of your environment that you can’t see how not to succumb to ‘em. I know what it’s like to not be able to focus in class due to real life hunger pangs. I know what it’s like to be disruptive just to pass the time and take your mind off what’s lacking at home. I know what it’s like to be laughed at by your teacher when you tell them what you hope to be in life.
I also know what it’s like to be told by your teacher that you’ll never amount to anything.
I know what it’s like to feel hopeless and to feel like you’re not good enough just because of where you’re from. I know what it’s like to be profiled and to be abused by the police. I know what it’s like to be racially profiled, treated unjustly and abused by the police just because of how you look.
But even more importantly than knowing all these things, I know what it’s like to overcome ‘em. Now, I know it’s not easy…but all of US can do something.