Monday, July 9, 2007

New Album, New Inspiration

We all know who Cliff Huxtable is, but did you know Clifford Harris is the name of a "gangsta rapper"? Atlanta-based rapper T.I. a.k.a. Clifford "Tip" Harris recently released his fifth studio album, T.I. vs. T.I.P. For the last five days, I've done nothing but listen to this album and write. Music is a major source of inspiration for me.

Some may wonder how a rap album can inspire me to write, especially when I'm working on a book that sets out to inspire African-American youths to pursue careers outside of the glam and fame they see on TV (and music videos). Let me say this: T.I. is more inspiring to me than the Huxtables.

Now don't get me wrong, T.I. was a drug dealer for many years before he found fame as a rapper and now actor (he starred in last year's ATL). However, what his story - and his predecessor Jay-Z's story - demonstrates is that opportunities are there to be had by historically and socio-economically disadvantaged youths.

Where the Huxtables and their stories were fictional (although perhaps based on happenings in real, affluent African-American households), T.I.'s story is very real. This is not to say that his lyrics aren't controversial nor are they worthy of a Pulitzer, but I don't think I'm the only under-25 African-American male who looks at T.I. and sees progress. And inspiration.

He rose from the streets through crime, but has now turned his focus to (legal) fields that utilize all of his talents. He's a highly-skilled rapper (been called "Jay-Z of the South"), a budding actor (next appears in American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe), a businessman (he is co-CEO of his label, Grand Hustle, and owns a real estate company), philanthropist (has helped rebuild dilapidated homes in his hometown), and pitchman (Chevy ads with NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt, Jr.).

T.I.'s story isn't quite Oprah Winfrey's story, but you can believe there are thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of young black students across the country who connect more with his adolescent experiences. Just look at his Billboard ranking come Wednesday vs. Oprah's ratings (and who her target audience is) this week.

And this brings me to his new album, T.I. vs. T.I.P. It's his fifth album, and each of his previous albums have brought him more money and fame, but this is his first concept album. The concept behind the album is that "T.I." is the camera-ready, professional side of his personality and "T.I.P." is the street-taught, hustler-inspired side of him.

The inspiration in this is simple: you can be both. Too often, young black children see rappers as "real" and professionals as "sellouts". T.I.'s album is about the inner-struggle between those two. In that, I realize the fine line Louis and I must achieve with this book in order to connect with our target audience, which is young African-American students.

These students, especially those in inner-cities and impoverished areas, know more about T.I.'s experiences than those of the Huxtables. But through it all, we must showcase how people from T.I.'s neighborhood can succeed like people living like Cliff and Claire.

T.I. is still struggling to toe that line, but I am inspired by his attempt.

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