A Jackson rap star talks frankly about young criminals and crime hysteria in Jackson.
Rapper David Banner is likely about to put Mississippi on the map again, but in a way we have not yet seen. His new CD, "Mississippi: The Album," his first with the backing of Universal/SRC, hits the stores May 20, and is expected to catapult the man formerly known as Lavell Crump to rap superstardom. But there's a little more to this story, as I've learned the last several days after spending a great deal of time with Banner during a press junket he hosted here in his hometown and in Vicksburg for national journalists. On the road to fame, Banner is writing lyrics that mix the requisite hardcore street language with coded messages—pleas, almost—about his state, poverty, voting and civil rights. His new video for his current hit, "Like a Pimp," is an unsettling mixture of happy dancing and rapping in Jackson's Battlefield Park intercut with images of Banner running from angry white supremacists. He is a Mississippian, like so many, straddled with the burden of re-tilling his home soil even as he celebrates it, of looking for fame to help bolster his efforts back home. In the laid-back song, "Cadillac on 22s" on the new album, he voices the confusion: "God I know that we pimp, God I know that we wrong, God I know I should talk about more in all of my songs, I know these kids are listening, I know I'm here for a mission, but it's so hard to get 'em when 22 rims are glistening."
During the press junket, Banner stole a few minutes every chance he could to talk to me about his obsession: the challenges facing young black Mississippians. I watched as he appeared at the Boys and Girls' Club on West Capitol to tell kids to stay in school and to start thinking about voting. Then during a sizzling performance at a packed Freelon's, he stopped the music long enough to warn his audience about a long, hot summer ahead with a lot of attention from people calling for "zero tolerance" aimed directly at them. "Either we take responsibility, or we reap repercussions," a shirtless Banner warned the frenzied crowd.
The day after the national media cleared out, Banner and his mother came by my office to answer tough questions about the crossroads our community is at, and what needs to happen next in the battle for a safe, inviting and inclusive city.
JFP: Police have just arrested a 16-year-old for a series of armed robberies in Fondren, and announced that he would be tried as an adult. What do you think of all the hysteria surrounding crime in Jackson right now?
Banner: Perception is the key. I learned in one of my psychology classes that in most cases with human beings, it's not really about what's right or wrong. If a person perceives the fact that the person is caught,that satisfies their psyche. It's something like the Medieval sacrifices; all they really want is a sacrificial lamb. They don't think that it affects somebody's life forever; once a kid goes to jail, life will never be the same. Even if he gets out, because of things he went through in jail, he'll never get a job that's worth anything. He'll probably have to resort to crime to live a mediocre life. It's a vicious cycle. That's what bothers me the most, not only about local government but about American government. They don't want to deal with what makes things happen; they just really want to convict and deal with the aftermath of the situation.
JFP: What makes kids rob and steal?
Banner: They don't have nothing to do in Jackson. They don't have any recreation. On top of that, when you do have events, the police patrol a little bit different than when white kids have events. It's like that's what they expect and what they want. That makes us upset; it's almost like a challenge. This weekend, I was driving my Dodge Viper, a $90,000 car, and I stopped at the mall. I had to run back to my car because I left something; I got there, and Narcotics was running my license plate. They're telling me subliminally that they don't want us to be successful. That pressures kids. If kids have nothing, they're not scared of jail. You have to give them some type of positive enforcement. Negativity is all they know.
JFP: What do you think of the "zero tolerance" policing approach that hard-liners are calling for?
Banner: I look at zero tolerance as similar to gun laws. It only affects those middle-class people who might commit situational crimes, the once-in-a-lifetime thieves. You have to think about it: Those people who want to do crimes; they're ready for the repercussions or they wouldn't do them in the first place. Those who want to do it have nothing to lose. If you're breaking into somebody's house, you're risking your life in the first place; you might get shot, so your mind is already set for whatever. The best way to deter this is give them options because the first rule of not being a human, but an animal period, is survival. In our neighborhoods, with the way they're sectioned off, what do we have? What other options? I'd like to see the people writing these types of negative articles give some positive options.
JFP: Do you give the people calling for "zero tolerance" credit for meaning well?
Banner: Honestly, they don't care about black people in the first place, or people of any culture outside their culture because I honestly believe that, if any way it affected their kids, it wouldn't be zero tolerance they want. And even if one of their kids were to be convicted, there would be a loophole. One of their friends would probably be a judge or something like that.
JFP: You grew up in West Jackson and went to Provine. How did you avoid the pitfalls of the streets?
Banner: Good parenting, a mother, a father. I went back and studied my life, and looked at my two best friends growing up. One is on drugs bad; the other is shot up and can barely walk. In both situations, there wasn't a father in the home. The government tries to make families more dependent on the system, and less dependent on individual family structure. But what's strange is that the system doesn't embrace them.
JFP: Many people like to blame the black community for crime. What do you say to that?
Banner: Look at guns and drugs. In most situations, black people are the ones being convicted for these crimes, but we don't have the natural resources to make the guns, the boats to bring the cocaine and the rest of the drugs into America. [Here his mother is saying, "Alright now!" in agreement.] But we are convicted. We're in ghettoes. It goes back to survival, and when your options are working at McDonalds or selling drugs [for more money], what would you pick?
JFP: What about the schools? Are they the key?
Banner: A lot of teachers don't want to be at these high schools in the ghettoes in the first place and just do whatever it takes to get through the day and get the day over with. Some are bold enough to tell you they're there only for a paycheck or their two years' mandatory, then they're moving out. In a lot of cases, kids are not being educated. Then they get put into the [jail] system. Even when they go into the jail system, people are trying to shut down any program to rehabilitate kids, and it becomes a vicious cycle. As I said in one of my rhymes, one of my songs, if we are blind when we come out, we're going right back in. If they didn't learn, and they're only caged, that will only sharpen animalistic qualities. Then it becomes codependency.
JFP: At the Boys & Girls Club Friday, you talked to the kids about the importance of education and doing well in school. Yet, rappers sometimes promote anything but a good education, the glamour of bling-bling and a gangsta lifestyle over becoming a college student. How do you jibe the two? Why should young people believe your education message?
Banner: It's hard because you have to walk a fine line. People don't understand that kids have to first of all trust you, to understand you've been through same thing they've been through. Kids say, "You went to school, had a father, never shot at nobody, never robbed, your mother was never on crack, you weren't in a gang. What do you know about my lifestyle?" With me, I've experienced—I don't know if I should say this around my mama—a lot of stuff growing up. I'm able to relay these messages, not glorifying them but putting them out. Snoop [the rapper] said something that changed my thoughts: People like clergyman and preachers criticize rap. Snoop said: "What if I don't know anything else? This is all I know? You haven't come to me to speak to me one-on-one, and said, hey baby, what's the problem? What's on my mind? Why am I so angry?" People don't want to remedy black problems; they just want to control our communities. Honestly, if black kids, the entire urban community, are not on drugs or not in jail, they'll have more time to think about what's really going on. Not only that, we would have more voting power. The hate groups pushing zero tolerance see that if people are not on drugs, or convicted for crimes, then we will have power, voting power. Being that Mississippi is one of the few states with such a large black population, that would give us more voting power, more control. It would be cute.
JFP: I met your mentor, Charlie Braxton, at Hal & Mal's. How did that come about? How did Charlie change your life?
Banner: He was doing a story for a magazine about me, when I was 22 or 23. I guess like a lot of people, he was surprised with my knowledge of black history. He collects books also. Charlie noticed I was at a crossroads, picking what path to go down. Either I was totally going to the streets, or I could keep things as positive as I possibly could. So we just stayed in touch. The thing is, I'm similar to these kids now; it's hard to trust somebody who has not been through things I've been through. What people try to do when they gain your trust is control you. I worked this hard to get this far without much assistance; I don't trust too many people. I could tell Charlie had a genuine interest in not only me, but people of culture all over the world. I listened. Sometimes you need another person outside yourself to filter your thoughts. In most cases, young black males don't have another male figure to filter their thoughts to or be an example. Tupac said before he died something that's monumental in my life: "If I was raised by a woman and a woman's thoughts were the only thoughts given to me, I couldn't help but be like one." It's impossible for a woman to teach a man to be a man. And that's what we need more of in our community. Men.
JFP: What are the dangers of hysteria about crime?
Banner: If you corner these kids, they're not going to do anything but fight back. All of us are still animals by nature. If you're in an oppressive situation with nothing else to lose, it can get bad. We're coming to be summertime, and it's getting hot, hot in the streets. The thing is, they (media) don't value our lives at all. I know how I'm treated. It's strange because I would honestly say that especially when it comes to cops, most black males who are on the police force, they know how they would be treated if they didn't have a badge on. Why would they condone zero tolerance? I don't know the exact statistics (on crime in Jackson), but I can't say it's too much worse than it was before. What it tells me is that something is going on. They're spending money on the downtown area; my personal theory is there's an underlying movement going on. Somebody is trying to paint a picture, and my community is going to be the sacrificial lamb. Whether they are trying to "clean up" Jackson to bring in a certain corporation, bring a certain type of money back to Jackson, or to shut down somebody's neighborhood to put something else there, it's crazy. Violence has always been a part of our community; it wasn't a big problem then when young black kids were getting killed and robbed. What's the problem now?
JFP: What is your message to young people in your community?
Banner: Honestly? I think the best thing is to just be careful right now. We're being used and manipulated, so this is just the time for sacrifice. Survival is key; there's something a whole lot bigger going on. We're almost to point where kids don't have nothing to do and then they're being policed. It's like they have a muzzle on.
JFP: Most serious crimes committed in Jackson are by high-school dropouts. How can you and I and the rest of Jackson keep these young people in school and motivated and, thus, out of prison?
Banner: It goes back to motivation, and I feel like we just have to give them a goal. It's hard for me to say to the kids because right now all they can see is what's in front of them. It's sort of hard for you to dream when you're hungry. It's easy to dream when your mind can be on other things. We must say to kids: There is something better. Knowledge is the best weapon to combat any war right now. Everything is moving toward being a mental war; you have to feed your mind and stockpile your ammo for this mental war. School is the start.
JFP: You are the only national celebrity I know of right now promoting Mississippi in such an aggressively positive way as you're doing. Yet, you burn Mississippi flags on stage, and you have angry Klansmen in your video on MTV and BET. Are you dwelling on the negative?
Banner: A flag is something that is supposed to embrace all cultures and represent us all. If Mississippi's state flag is supposed to represent Mississippi, it isn't supposed to be specifically depicting one group's lineage. I don't have a problem with the rebel flag itself; amongst your community do whatever you want. But it doesn't represent us all; especially a state that's so heavily black; it's a spit in the face. If you support the state's black culture, you have to embrace it holistically. That flag is a slap in the face every time I see it. I love Mississippi, but there are still problems I have with it. We're getting down to the point of right or wrong where there is no middle ground. The fact that people with that much influence would even push that [flag vote] off on us is really like a slap in the face. That goes back to what I was telling you about voting. I was told that in the Delta that kids who get in trouble in school don't go straight to detention hall. They go to jail. And a lot of kids think it's cool. What they're slowly doing is taking away our rights so they can do things like keep the flag. My grandparents (ancestors) died so that they could be free. That flag embraced things like slavery when (white) people of those times believed my people were one-third human. For us to be a nation that embraces all cultures and for that flag to fly means that they really don't support us. Mississippi is supposed to represent all of us.
JFP: Yet you say you love Mississippi. Why, with all the painful history here for your people, do you love it?
Banner: Love is almost a direct synonym for pain; the only reason you love something is that you're fearful of the fact that it might go away. If you don't love something, and it leaves or perishes, it wouldn't affect your life. My ancestors died for me to be here; my people were hung from trees. I deserve Mississippi; Mississippi deserves me. I love it the way I do because of all the pain my people went through for all those years.
David Banner will appear at Jubilee! Jam Sunday, May 18, at 7 p.m. on the Uptown Blues Stage.