The rapper and actor Tip Harris, better known as T.I., has never hesitated to speak his mind or wade into controversy. But even by his standards, he has had something of an awakening in the past year, which has culminated in a planned series of open letters to President Barack Obama, President-elect Donald Trump and the United States as a whole.
Pained by the high-profile killings of African-Americans at the hands of the police, Harris began to think about taking action. The tipping point may have come last summer when, within a day of each other, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were fatally shot by police officers. He met with several activists, including Harry Belafonte and the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, to ask for advice.
“The main thing is educating ourselves on the issues and just remaining aware,” Harris said of the lessons from those meetings.
In addition to speaking on panels, marching in protests and sharing political views on late-night talk shows, Harris released an EP, “Us or Else,” followed by a full album, “Us or Else: Letter to the System,” that bluntly addresses police harassment. Before releasing his first letter, a reflection on Obama’s impact, on Jan. 6, he spoke about his hopes for his writing, and the next president. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
QUESTION: What do you hope to accomplish through these letters?
ANSWER: My first purpose is to communicate and share my thoughts and try to be a voice for the people who may be thinking of something to say but, for some reason, may not be able to say it or not have the platform to say it. Using my platform to be a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves.
Q: Do you think Obama’s impact was mostly symbolic, or were there tangible accomplishments, especially for black people?
A: First and foremost was the symbolic message, saying that whatever you are, whatever color your skin is, you don’t have to be a white man to be president. Obama opened the door to show it can happen, it can be done, your efforts can be paid off in a very, very large capacity as long as you continue to work and educate yourself and take the necessary steps. That’s immeasurable.
Q: Do you have any expectations of what life will be like under Trump?
A: It’s time for me to sit back and observe, see what it will be like. I already have my own opinions, information, what I think it will be like. But that isn’t as important as the reality. I don’t have to talk about or wonder what it will be like. I will have to live through it. I don’t want to be presumptuous, I don’t want to be premature in my criticism.
Q: It seems like Obama’s presidency spoke to hip-hop. Is there going to be a loss for rap without a president like Obama?
A: I don’t think at this present moment in time it’s possible for any president to assume a relevant position in the community, in the culture, without reaching out or having some knowledge of what’s going on in the world of hip-hop. You can’t be disconnected from the most impactful culture in this nation.
T.I.’S LETTER TO BARACK OBAMA
You entered humbly into our worlds from the streets of the south side of Chicago and galvanized a generation. You resonated from the barbershops to the airwaves to the streets of every hood across America. Many of US did not know your name, nor did we truly understand the impact you would have on the world in the years, months and days that followed.
As I reflect, I am filled with gratitude, outrage, grief, anger, humility and appreciation, both for the things you helped bring to light and the many things we still have yet to realize.
For years you fought to keep this nation from the very thing we have now become.
For years, many of US failed you because, as I’ve said before, we were not all ready for the change you wanted to bring about.
But rest assured that we heard you. Rest assured that we felt you and rest assured that your legacy will live on long after your presidency.
Not only did you impact a nation, but you defined a culture and you shook up and woke up a generation.
A generation that unfortunately fears more than ever being further wounded, overlooked, abused, neglected and having to fight for what we now understand is not such a basic right and that is the plight for equality and basic human dignity.
While many of US act like this is something new, those of US who have been fighting, marching and writing about it know that inequality, hatred and bigotry has crippled and silenced US for a very long time. Although we are wounded, don’t count US out of the fight.
We thank you for helping US face and focus on the very issues that plague our communities and diminishes US all. While I, too, responsibly admit to engaging in the behaviors that further perpetuates the negative stigma in our communities, I wanted to thank you for looking beyond our shortcomings.
As I reflect back on my teenage years when I heard my favorite rapper and person, Tupac Shakur, tell me we weren’t ready for a black president, leaving me nodding in agreement until you brought US the audacity of hope and reminded US that yes we can.
As you transition out of office, we continue to watch you carry out your final agenda with precision, integrity and purpose. That is what we will remember as signature Obama.
For every one of US who has been touched by you and tasked with a choice between finding a way or walking away, I say we can and must do more.
We cannot afford to live in a prolonged state of grief, but must remember that we have no choice but to dust ourselves off, wipe off our wounds and move beyond this barren state of shock.
We will forever be grateful to you and your family, the graceful intelligent compassionate first lady, Mrs. Obama, as well as your beautiful daughters Sasha and Malia for their collective sacrifices for US. WE will continue to stand with you and alongside those who make a personal investment in US. We will continue to remain committed to causes that are bigger than ourselves. We will continue to remind ourselves that, Yes, We still can!