“This be jail, n***a,” the young man intones, jokingly. “Not no a spiritual retreat or your recording studio.”
Such was the assessment of one my African-American Georgetown students, Derek Bowen, age 20, before he moved on to something more important to him: celebrating the the Georgetown Hoyas’ Big East Tournament victory over Syracuse. “But seriously,” Derek says, adopting his usual tone and suburbanized accent. “Wayne’s a master artist and innovator, like Chopin, or crazy-ass Van Gogh. But what he did was stupid.” I ask if jail is the appropriate punishment. Derek shakes his head. “Rikers [Rikers Island] isn’t the punishment, man. The reality of Rikers is the punishment.”
Compare this statement to that of one of Wayne’s peers, Houston’s own Bun B. B. said recently in an MTV interview, “I don’t think it will be smart for him to go to general population…[a] person like Lil Wayne doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody in general population exposing themselves to that yard. It’s not about being real. It’s too many people who have way too much to gain, and [there is] so much he could lose by trying to prove something. … That’s not a good look. … It’s a little bit different when a person like Lil Wayne goes to jail. All we can do is pray for him. Pray for his spirit.”
Yes, pray for him, don’t laud him. Indeed, From Diddy to LeBron, the sentiment is more “Via con dios, be strong, and we’ll miss you,” not “f**k the police!” or “Wayne was set-up!” Comments from fans are more piquant. Check out these from MTV’s blog: “One year? Try ten, then talk to me.” Or, “Who’s paying for his prison time? LW [Lil Wayne]- Show us all that “cash money” you talk about. NY State is flat broke. You going to make the rest of us pay for YOUR stupidity.” And Wayne himself isn’t disputing his foolishness. “I look at things as ‘everything is meant to be,’” Wayne said last week. “I know it’s an experience that I need to have if God’s putting me through it.
Whether from fans or celebs, perhaps these sentiments are a function of hip-hop’s maturity; an art form that has finally shed the ancient, dangerous and fallacious concept of “street cred.” Perhaps we’ve witnessed a newly minted sense of responsibility and realism about crime and behavior. Or maybe there’s something else afoot, and my student Derek, rather than Wayne’s celebrity well-wishers, put his finger right on it.
Media critic and writer Donnell Alexander opined, “Where going to jail once represented part of a rapper’s persona, for Wayne it’s part of a business plan…his label has made every effort to make it seem like he isn’t gone while he’s actually gone. When he gets out, he may be bigger than he was when he left.”
That’s the rub. Treating incarceration as if it’s Tiger Woods in sex rehab, or a spiritual retreat, or even a marketing ploy is just as dangerous as the old street cred paradigm.
Here’s a word on race. Of course things would be different where Wayne a white rocker or pop star. A year in prison for white celebs means an end to a career—ask Tom Sizemore. At best you become a running gag on TMZ.com. If a white artist is at the cusp of a meteoric rise and indeed uses the jail time to retool, then perhaps there’s a chance at redemption—ask Robert Downey, Jr. That much fits Wayne’s business plan: most fans and his parent label will be much more forgiving to him in comparison to a white performer.
Nevertheless, Wayne appears to be utterly misguided as to the essence of Riker’s Island. He said he’d have an iPod so he could continue noodling over beats. iPods, and any devices like it, are contraband. Correction officers stripped him of those items on Tuesday. He will have to work. This is, in part, due to the $150 charge against an account for his jumpsuit and other incidentals, just like any other inmate. Yes, you pay for your prison togs and shower sandals. He won’t spend the year in the bleak pinwheels of “gen-pop” barracks-like dorms his agent, lawyers, accounts and record label wonks see as they jet up from La Guardia.
That’s a good thing, right? Not really. As of this weekend his home will be a dank 10 by 10 cell in the Eric M. Taylor Center, smack in the middle of the Island. Still, he’s not far from sounds and smells of gen-pop. And he’s a brisk walk from the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, called “The Bing” by the prisoners. That’s were the incorrigibles and the lifer sociopaths dwell. As with gen-pop, Taylor Center inmates have been dragged screaming to the Bing if they mess up; they have no celeb pass.
Moreover, Wayne’s cellblock-mates in the Taylor Center answer to “the Island’s” profile just like gen-pop prisoners: mentally ill or homeless, some using jail as a drug rehab center of last resort. 92 percent are Hispanic or black. There are plenty of violent men sharing space with Wayne, yet few are criminals. Riker’s consists of ten prisons, two of which are floating jail barges and one unit just for gay prisoners. Over 17,000 inmates are there on that spit and island at any one time. Even in the Taylor Center, inmates will occasionally “gas” the correctional officers, e.g., spray them with fermented urine or feces. Weapons from the stereotypical toothbrush shiv to .22s and .380s turn up monthly. Prisoners assault one another, guards assault prisoners; there was even a guard-sanctioned “fight club” that was discovered. Correctional officers were themselves arrested, an inmate died in these modern gladiatorial games.
Can a man find his lost moral compass in such a place? Most can’t, some do. Clearly, Lil Wayne himself has dumped the old “street cred” nonsense. Good. But if he thinks this is business as usual, if he regards his cell as an extension of his studio or his label’s offices, if he feels this is a Spartan retreat, then he will suffer. He won’t, as Donnell Alexander surmised, come out “bigger than when he left.”
Simply put, the idea should be to come out better, not bigger. Hopefully Wayne will learn that. Fans like my student Derek seem to understand that concept already.