Dubbing himself the “King of the South” at just 26 years old, Clifford “T.I.” Harris caused more than just a bit of controversy. On the latest episode of “Love & Respect with Killer Mike,” the husband, father, and rap star ruminates on how he got the title and why he turned to social activism.
It’s been 20 years since T.I. released the trap music classic “I’m Serious” and rather than take a backseat and let his legend speak for itself, he has not only continued to prove his royal title, but he’s added actor, producer, and entrepreneur to his resume. The rapper been in movies, written books, and even opened a restaurant. He learned the game, and then he became the lead player.
And T.I. isn’t afraid to share the knowledge. In 2020, he taught a special session called the “Business of Trap” to Clark Atlanta University students. He says on the show, “I was put here by the universe to inspire, encourage, enhance and support. If everything I’ve learned doesn’t get passed on to the next generation, then it just dies with me. That’s not a win.” The fact that it was an HBCU and in his hometown of Atlanta made the experience that much better.
It’s about time trap music got its dues. The often misunderstood music genre is criticized for being offensive or a lesser genre of music, but for T.I., it’s about something much more. He says, “[Trap music is] music in, around, involving telling the story of people affected by the war of drugs.” People, he adds, find trap music relatable because so many have been affected by the war. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, in 2020 alone, over 1.1 million people were arrested in the U.S. for drug policy violations, 24% of which were Black. Tip says, “When they hear songs like ‘Dope Boyz’ or ‘Mask Off’ or any of these other songs that people say ‘promote’ this kind of activity, it’s really therapy for them to let them know they aren’t going through it alone.”
Incarceration is often synonymous with the experience of living through and being affected by the war on drugs, and T.I. is also familiar with the prison system — having previously spent two separate stints inside for drugs and probation violations. The rapper doesn’t make excuses for his past behavior, but he’s candid about what the prison system is really used for: slave labor. He continues, “Prison is nothing more than a plantation for cheap, if not free labor. There are corporations that partner with prisons and they make their [products] for pennies on the dollars.” T.I. points out that this practice is perfectly legal as defined by the 13th constitutional amendment, which allows unpaid labor to be performed by incarcerated people. For the Atlanta native, seeing that the majority of his fellow inmates were Black was a blow to his psyche. He shares, “The problem felt too big for me…I didn’t have a solution for it.” At the tail end of a year of community service and his prison sentence, he made social activism a part of his brand.
Hailing from an economically downtrodden area of West Atlanta, the “Rubberband Man” rapper made it his mission to give back. He has two nonprofit organizations, Harris Community Works, and For The Love Of Our Fathers, in addition to donating for hurricane relief, youth, and entrepreneurship programs, as well as hosting an annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway in his city. The Grand Hustle boss has even been recognized by the Georgia State Senate for his philanthropy. He is candid about giving back to his community. He says, “In order to give back, you have to care enough. You have to have a genuine passion to do for those who need it most.”
This same ideology led T.I. to his place as a social activist. He’s often seen rallying for the city of Atlanta, a cause he took on, he says, after he realizes that just being an artist wasn’t enough. He adds, “How have you used your influence to impact society to benefit your children and grandchildren as they grow to inherit the world you’re leaving behind? A hit record ain’t gonna do that, a plaque can’t do that.” But the Atlanta native has done much more than that. Tip has helped people forge careers, he’s put his money where his mouth is, and he’s proven that a king doesn’t just sit on his throne, he gives and participates.
Despite describing his start as a young hotheaded rapper as “wild as the Taliban,” over the years, the “What You Know About That” rapper has evolved into a modern-day Renaissance man. The king of the south has solidified his legacy, and just wants people to remember him as an honest man. “ I want to be considered authentic, and honest and true to myself. I want to be my son’s first hero and my daughter’s first love. This other stuff doesn’t matter,” Tip admits.