By Johnny Jackson
Atlanta rapper T.I. is working to leave a positive impression on at least a few area youth who may view gang-related activity as glamorous.
The 27-year-old, whose real name is Clifford Harris Jr., has joined a grassroots effort of sorts to educate at-risk youth on the ills of gangs and gang-related activity.
On March 29, Harris met with various leaders within the Henry and Clayton county area to discuss the effort, a youth initiative. The meeting was spear-headed by Henry County Branch of the NAACP President Rev. Daniel Edwards, who was involved in creating the initiative with Harris and others.
Harris, who pleaded guilty on March 27 to federal weapons possession charges, plans to take part in the youth initiative, called "The NAACP Youth Development and Empowerment Tour to Educate, Encourage & Empower."
The initiative has been described as a metro Atlanta youth summit of sorts to educate youth on how to make decisions on social aspects of their lives.
"This is about the youth," Edwards said. "Everyone here is going to play a major part in what we are doing..."
Harris was arrested Oct. 13, just blocks away and hours before he was to headline the BET Hip-Hop Awards in Atlanta.
He was subsequently charged with and pleaded guilty to possession of unregistered machine guns and silencers, unlawful possession of machine guns, and possession of firearms by a convicted felon. Each of the charges carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.
His plea agreement, however, stipulates that he must complete at least 1,000 hours of 1,500 total hours of community service within a year, speaking to youth groups about the pitfalls of guns, gangs, and drugs.
Harris, who must also pay a $100,000 fine, is schedule to receive sentencing on March 27, 2009. Then, he could face a year in prison or receive a reduced sentenced, contingent on whether the terms of his plea agreement are met in full. Otherwise, he could face up to 57 months in prison.
"I want to do as much as I can in the amount of time we have left," Harris said. "This would never work - it would only have a slight, slight margin of success, if I were only doing this because the courts said so. But I want to do this."
Harris says he believes his influence and ability to relate to young people will help make the initiative's message clearer to at-risk youth.
"One passion of mine is speaking out against gangs," he said. "There is a lot of glamour associated with gang activity."
Harris admits rap music accounts for a hefty part of that glamorization but adds that his music is more so reflection than reality.
"A lot of young people don't realize the difference between reflection and glorification," he said. "I'm nothing like I used to be. And I'm nothing like the music I'm associated with."
Through the initiative, Harris said he believes he will be able to attract and help more young people, who have become fans of his music, to make good life decisions.
"My music has to have an edge to get [young people]," he said. "When I get them, I got them. If I can get some sign of a change - I know I'm not going to reach everybody - but if I can get six or seven of these kids, I'll be pleased."
Youth mentor Latavius Powell plans to affect many more youth through the initiative than he already has in area mentoring programs.
The 25-year-old financial advisor in the Global Wealth Management Division of Merrill Lynch, plans to provide the initiative with his financial expertise teaching young people how to manage their finances and become financially responsible - a life-long education, he said, could help curtail crime and poverty.
"We've heard all the stats before," he said. "But the issue becomes, 'well, what are you going to do about it?'"
Joseph Wheeler, the first vice president of the Clayton County Branch of the NAACP, also attended the meeting.
Wheeler said he believed the initiative stands to empower communities to have a say in their leaders and how young people are raised to adulthood.
"When we read history today, we hear about the young teenagers that did sit-ins," he said. "(But now), we are surrendering our power to run the place where we live. We're fighting for a bigger cause than we can see. And I see something big."
The initiative, according to Rev. Daniel Edwards, would include various programs to address drugs, gangs, violence, sex, and alcoholism among other issues.
"Everybody is not going to receive this," Edwards said. "There will be some negativity. But hopefully we're starting a movement to get things turned around."
The initiative's target audience would include youth, ages 12-19, living in metro Atlanta's public schools, detention centers, and community churches.
The plan, Edwards says, is to officially kick-off the initiative on April 4, the 40th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination. He said details in the metro Atlanta-wide initiative will be released in coming days.