In the early days of 2011, Snoop Dogg and E-40 set Young Jeezy up.
In the middle of shooting Snoop's new video, "My Fucn House," the two California hip-hop veterans casually sat down the Atlanta trap rapper, who was in the midst of a career lull.
All three men rap about dealing dope -- in fact, a drug heist was a plot point in the video. But Snoop and E-40 have earned reputations as elder statesmen of the genre. E-40, who is 47, once served as a mentor to Snoop, and went on to take the lead on peace treaties aimed at quashing the East coast-West coast beef in the late '90s.
See also: Tef Poe: Hip-Hop Is Failing Us
"It was a 30-minute break before the next shot," remembers Jeezy, who is 37 and has since dropped the "Young." "I almost feel like it was a setup." Snoop, 43, imparted that the pair had been talking privately about Jeezy, and had a stern message for him. "We feel like you started off rapping to be a rapper, and now you're a leader and you need to lead," Jeezy remembers them saying. "You need to be mindful of your words and the things you say."
Snoop added: "You need to get out there."
It was a powerful message that Jeezy took to heart, as exemplified by his leadership following the August shooting death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown. In a year that has seen massive, nationwide protests following the killings of unarmed African American men by police -- including Eric Garner's death by chokehold on Staten Island -- a big sidebar story has been the lack of support for the movement by rap's top names. While stars like Kanye West, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and Nicki Minaj have been quiet, Jeezy has been willing to risk his commercial viability to stand up for his principles.
Jeezy wasn't previously an apolitical rapper. An early Obama supporter, he encouraged voter turnout in the 2008 election. His album that year, The Recession, addressed trying economic times and featured the rousing single "My President": "My president is black, my Lambo's blue/And I'll be goddamned if my rims ain't too."
But it was often unclear where his heart lay, and if he was about something bigger than himself. A crack dealer by age eleven, he emerged in mid-Aughts Atlanta amid a beef with another breakout local MC, Gucci Mane, over a song they did together called "Icy." After Jeezy offered a $10,000 bounty for Gucci's diamond pendant, the latter had his home broken into by a rapper named Pookie Loc -- who was on the verge of signing with Jeezy's label -- and three other men. Gucci killed Pookie Loc during the break-in, and a judge found it to be self-defense.
Further, Jeezy, a.k.a. the "Snowman," was closely allied with a vast drug syndicate known as the Black Mafia Family, though unlike its ringleaders, he avoided indictment following a DEA investigation. Jeezy may have talked about funneling money back into the black community by "making it rain" at Atlanta strip clubs, but until this summer you would have had to squint to recognize him as a true populist.
That changed when he found himself in St. Louis on August 12, on tour with rapper Wiz Khalifa. Brown had been killed three days earlier. "That was the worst show in the tour, because you could tell people was on edge," says Jeezy. "Should they enjoy the show, or should they protest?" Following the performance he traveled twenty minutes east, from the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater to Ferguson, to join the protests on West Florissant Avenue. This led to the now iconic Instagram photo of Jeezy standing in front of the burned-down QuikTrip gas station.
I had to see it for myself!! The answer is not tearing down our own neighborhoods and communities, the answer is goin to the source of the problem in numbers. So many numbers that they know they don't have a chance. We want justice not chaos!! #ferguson #st.louis #saveourchildren #justiceformichaelbrown
Preaching both solidarity and calm, he asked protesters not to tear down their community, but rather to amass in support of a greater cause. "So many numbers that they know they don't have a chance," he wrote beneath the photo. "We want justice not chaos!!"
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This message he would hammer home in the following months, speaking with outlets great and small. This wasn't a mere academic exercise for him -- he knows young men personally who have been shot by police. "When you call home, you hear about similar situations," he says. "As a people, we got to really stand up for this. We're talking about kids, about innocent people, being killed by the same people taxpayers pay to protect us."
He joined a chorus of equally passionate rappers -- including J. Cole, Killer Mike, Lauryn Hill, Nelly, Tef Poe, and many others -- and continued advocating even after being arrested and charged with illegal assault weapon possession before an August 24 tour stop in Irvine, California. In December the charges were dropped. "I pray this had nothing to do with race, but it definitely had nothing to do with evidence," Jeezy told TMZ. See also: Tef Poe: How to Spot Violent Agitators at a Peaceful Protest
Born from poverty, hip-hop is inherently protest music; an anti-authority posture is in its DNA. A majority of rappers have said "fuck the police" in one form or another. But amid this grand wellspring of unrest and calls for change -- "It feels like the civil rights [era] again," Jeezy says -- many of rap's most popular and influential stars haven't lent strong support. Perhaps the most surprising member of this group is Kanye West, who isn't often silent about anything. "I haven't talked to him," Jeezy says of his sometime collaborator, "but I just know that Kanye's going through it in his own way. Everybody does."
"[Kanye], like many other celebrities, become disconnected to the struggle once they reach a certain tax bracket," said writer Andreas Hale in a Vibe roundtable discussion on the issue. Writer Kris Ex told me he believes diminished record sales and hip-hop's changing financial model require many rappers to rely heavily on corporate endorsements, providing a disincentive to rock the boat.
It may just be a coincidence that as Jeezy's political profile has risen, his bankability has fallen. After all, his latest album, September's Seen It All: The Autobiography, isn't a major thematic departure from previous works, but has sold substantially fewer copies than normal.
But that may be OK, as Jeezy is clearly no longer content to let his riches and earnings, his cars and his chains, define who he is. In an age of lucrative Beats by Dre endorsements, many rappers expect their fans will want to be like them simply because they're rich. Jeezy wants to be admired for something more. "Some rappers are aspirational, some are inspirational," he says. "I'll take the inspirational over the aspirational any day."
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