From Gangster to Rapper

From Gangster to Rapper

By Dominic Desmarais    Files  Rap, Street Gang

Général grew up inside a gangland family. Like many of his relatives from the Congo, Général was invited to become a member of the infamous Rouge (Red, or Bloods) gang of Montreal North. At age 9 he saw his cousin beaten badly before his eyes. He went after the attackers. His violence attracted the attention of the infamous street gang. He began to “represent” on the streets of Montreal North. As a teenager he waged war against his clan’s sworn enemies, the Bleus (Blues, or Crips). He was good at crime. Crime made him rich.

General rap street gangHe made his reputation through violence. Respected by his peers for serving time behind bars, he gradually became motivated to turn his life around.

This is the diary of a street gang member who wanted to get out of the game: “Général” was an active member of a street gang. He got out in time. The Social Eyes presents the story of a gang member’s street life through his own eyes. We pick up the story on his 18th birthday…

A Birthday Party Gone Wrong

Général planned to celebrate his 18th birthday in style. An established gangster, a made man with a bottomless wallet, he felt he deserved it. In a hotel room rented for the occasion, he and his friends planned to throw a party that no one would ever forget.

Some uninvited guests showed up at the party: a SWAT team.

“We heard the helicopters,” Général recalls. “Then we saw the lasers pointed at us.”

Outside the hotel Général met several curious onlookers: TV reporters, their cameras trained on the scene to record the moment. Général and his friend were instant media celebrities.

It was 2002. Général was arrested for armed robbery. He would spend 3 years behind bars. He was sent to Montreal’s ancient Bordeaux Prison to await trial. There, he was kept with criminals of every type. But people from his clan were rare.

He was in enemy territory: a Rouge (Red) among the Bleus (Blues, or Crips).

“I was always on edge,” he recalls. “I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t my world, and I had no control.” Général was lucky: his cousin, a Bleu, was there at the same time. Both hailed from African immigrant families. He took Général under his wing despite his enemy affiliation. “That saved me,” Général admits. “My cousin and the Africans in the Crips.”

Though scared, Général let is natural personality shine. Soon, among the 180 criminals in his sector of the prison, he exerted control. He made his presence known to the president of the inmate committee. “When I got there I proved myself to the president,” he says. “When I had a problem with other prisoners he had my back.”

A Chief in Jail

Général was elected to the inmate committee. He enjoyed all theGénéral rap street gang advantages that being a “chief” entailed. “Everything went good for me as long as I was on the committee. They gave me cigarettes, and I got served first at the cafeteria. If something happened, like a conflict, I got involved. Once I called a meeting. Everyone showed up: skinheads and blacks and bikers and Italians. I sang a disco song. In front of 180 cons!”

But things soon heated up for Général. One of his fellow gang members, a Blood, came to the jail. This time, his cousin and the other Africans didn’t want to protect him. “The Crips wanted to roll him. But he was a friend. I fought for him. It was the Bleus and the whites against me. The skinheads were happy to see blacks fighting blacks. They said so. The Italians didn’t care. Jail is jail. A criminal is a criminal.”

Général found himself all alone. His inner violent tendencies emerged. That earned him 5 days in an isolation cell – “the hole,” in prison terminology.

From there he was transferred to the maximum-security Rivière-des-Prairies jail. Here he was placed on a wing with 8 Bogars – his own clan. “I was with my own people, except that we were in jail. It was stressful. There were issues, but we were family, so we’d resolve our conflicts. When someone was put on our wing who wasn’t from our clan, he had problems. He had to clean up for us. If not we’d beat him up…”

Rules

Prison life is strict. There are rules on top of rules. Anyone breaking those rules is severely punished.

“Some people come to jail and don’t have the right mentality,” he says. “They think they can ignore how things are run. But if you’re alone and everyone else is a Bogar, you’re better off submitting. One guy who came to our wing was loaded with muscles, and he made it clear he wasn’t going to be intimidated. He wasn’t afraid of anyone. He jumped the smallest guy on the wing. But it was one of our guys! We all went after him for that. It’s nice to be strong, but in jail a lot of strong people lose out when they try to make their own rules.”

What was true for the Bogars was also true for the other gangs. “Even bikers got beat up,” he recalls. “Strength rules prison life. And whoever has the most people is the strongest.”

Général got to leave his prison world for short periods: 4 times a week, he received visits from his parents and his older sisters, as well as from his girlfriends. Visits lasted 1 hour each.

“I had a lot of girlfriends,” he remembers. “Women are there for you when you go to jail. I could count the number of guys who were there for me on the fingers of one hand. The visits got me out of the wing. I really appreciated that. But it was tough when my mom came to see me. She cried the whole time. She’d say: ‘Why did you do this to me?’”

After those painful visits from his mother, Général would return to his cell with a broken heart. He didn’t fully understand what impact his mother’s tears were having on his subconscious. He felt privileged to have a family that supported him. He felt lucky compared to other prisoners who received no visits.

Family

“A lot of people in the gang world have no family at all. That’s why it’s tough to stop gangs. Young people find the family they never had. In our group in Montreal North, at least 30 kids had no family, or had been rejected by their parents. They’d squat at friends’ places or sleep on the streets. They didn’t have a cent to their name. All they were looking for was a place to belong. They were the most dangerous guys out there, the first to fight, because they had nothing to lose. For them, prison was a holiday!”

Family visits were making Général think about the choices he’d made. But he still wasn’t ready to turn over a new leaf. In prison he was all business, just like on the street. “I was dealing drugs. I had girlfriends smuggle in stock. I once had a girl bring me in some shoes that had drugs hidden inside. She got caught – she didn’t know! She still hates me for that. I confessed everything to the guards. She wasn’t charged. The guards had seen it all before. It wasn’t the first time that had happened.”

His visitors were placed under surveillance. Général came up with another strategy to sneak in pot: “I’d go see prisoners with no money and nothing to eat. I’d get them to smuggle in stock. If they were caught, they’d owe me the value of what was seized!”

Général became a big man in jail. Other inmates appreciated the drugs and didn’t want to lose their connection. So they obeyed they young gang member’s orders. On the inside, drugs were usually paid for in cigarettes. A prisoner could also buy drugs by making a deposit in the Général’s outside bank account. “I smoked a lot, but I still made money! My whole wing got to smoke thanks to me!”

Living Large

The Général lived well, eating black-market food: rice, noodles and tuna. At night he and his friends would get together for a feast. They’d invite bikers to join them. “I made a lot of contacts, especially with full patch bikers,” he recalls. “We protected them in our wing. We became brothers. That helped me a lot when I left jail. When my people couldn’t find suppliers I’d go talk to my biker contacts. Spending time with someone in jail builds a bond.”

After 3 years behind bars the glorious day finally arrived that Général was freed. He was 21. He knew nothing but the street life. “I went right back to it,” he recalls. “Right when I left prison 10 of my guys were waiting for me. Boy did we celebrate! We were arrested for disturbing the peace.”

Général went back to his thug family. Deep inside, his imprisonment had changed him forever, in ways he did not yet understand. Looking back, he now sees that here was the point in his life where the idea of change began to insinuate itself into his thoughts. But it would take years for him to actually act on it.

Parole

For the next 2 years Général was on parole. He had to follow certain rules. He had to show up when his parole officer called on him. He was required to keep the peace, perform community service work, and find a job or go back to school. He was under curfew: he had to stay home from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

“I was 21,” he says. “I’d always been an outlaw. I didn’t respect my parole conditions. I worked for 3 months at an auto body shop, then I quit. But I gave my parole officer papers attesting to the fact that I still worked there. For the curfew, he’d phone my place between 11 p.m. and midnight. I’d wait for his call, then I’d head out. I’d go deal. Parole didn’t stop me.”

Général missed several of his parole officer’s calls, and had to explain to a judge why. He was placed under close observation for 6 months. “This time I couldn’t miss a call. I went back to school to finish high school. But I didn’t show up for class very often. I didn’t sleep nights. I was dealing.”

Général knew that if he were caught, he’d be sent right back to prison. He kept a low profile. As soon as his parole term expired he was arrested for extortion. He spent 6 months in jail awaiting trial. This time, he was found innocent, and released.

But this second brush with the law shook him more than his first. “I started to ask myself some hard questions,” he recalls. “I stayed at home. I didn’t want to go back to crime. When people contacted me to go out and do something serious I’d always say no. But I was still a Blood. I had to represent.”

Général was uneasy about his situation. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. He kept associating with his Rouge brothers. But when it came down to doing battle for his clan, he felt like it was no longer his world. He who had always been the first to show up for a fight could no longer recognize himself when he looked in the mirror.

Isolated

Inside, he felt increasingly alone – until another gang member shared his own misgivings with him. “I had a friend, an Arab, who had doubts too,” Général recalls. “We supported each other. We both had real jobs, so we stayed home a lot. We’d show up for gang meetings and parties. We weren’t around as much, and the gang thought it was because we had outside jobs. But we were still members.”

Général decided to distance himself from the situation and leave Montreal. He needed time to think things over. “I went to stay with my sister in Ottawa. I wanted to get away from things. But I still had a street mentality.”

In Ottawa, Général noted that the drug scene was a lot more polite and non-violent than in Montreal. “They didn’t play rough,” he recalls. “I was sure I could control the territory.”

He brought some of his fellow Montreal North gang members to Ottawa. He built his own Rouge gang – in the heart of the nation’s capital. But soon he left to go back to Montreal cutting ties with his Ottawa operation. This was the first time he’d ever walked cleanly away from a gang scene. It would help him later on when he left the thug life entirely.

When he walked away, he didn’t experience any major problems. “It’s not like in the biker world,” he says. “You have no accounts to settle. Nobody wanted to shoot me because I knew too much. When later I came back to Ottawa to visit, everyone was, ‘Yo, Général, what’s up?’ I did it gradually. First, I went to live with my sister in Ottawa, and they saw less and less of me. Then, I was gone.”

Quitting

Général quit criminal life in stages. And he did it entirely on his own. “I didn’t tell my friends. When they asked me why I wasn’t around anymore, I just said I was kicking back. I didn’t say I wanted out. Some of them didn’t want to accept that I was changing, but they all saw it. If they had to intimidate someone or beat someone up, they called on me less and less… Some of them didn’t understand. They said, ‘Général’s snubbing us? Who does he think he is?’ In a gang, you’re supposed to be around all the time.”

Memories of his second incarceration forced Général to rethink the direction of his life. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life locked away. He didn’t want to do that to his family. “A lot of people close to me were suffering. I wanted better for my little brother. The older he got, the more he became invested in me. I had to set an example for him. Jail wasn’t going to give me an opportunity to do something with my life.”

But changing one’s criminal mentality is hard. “When I was in jail that second time, I was always afraid of being jumped. I got paranoid. I’d see death all around me. I’d throw up. I was paralyzed by fear of losing my girlfriend and my family.”

But he regained control of is thoughts and fears. “I woke up one morning and decided it was over. I willed it to stop. Like a smoker who decides to quit.”

Exile

Général decided that he had to leave Montreal to get away from bad influences. He joined his girlfriend who was moving to Sorel-Tracy, a smaller city up the Saint Lawrence River, to study.

“I changed my phone number. Only those closest to me had it. No members of my gang. My girlfriend went to school. I wanted a change of scenery. When she met me in Montreal I was loaded with drugs. In Sorel-Tracy I had nothing like that. I made moves to find a job and finish high school.”

But things got tough for Général. “My girlfriend saw that I was isolated. I was stressed. Cutting off cold turkey isn’t easy. People didn’t understand what I was going through. Some of my old gang felt abandoned. I didn’t go explain things to my friends because I knew it would end badly if I tried.”

Some of his old gang were happy he’d turned over a new leaf. And eventually, Général realized that he had no control over how others would react to his change of heart. It helped that he remained discreet about his past activities, he says. Living on less money was a tough adjustment, especially when he realized that he could be flush with cash in a heartbeat if he went back to his former ways. But reflecting on the deaths of close friends in the gang world helped him stay the course.

After a while, his paranoia ran its course. “I had to completely overhaul my life. My social priorities had to change. How was I going to make money? How was I going to pay my bills? That stressed me. Before this, money had come easy. If I needed money, easy, I dealt. I began channeling my efforts into music. I vented my anger. The energy I had used to succeed on the street, I poured into my rap. I made a music DVD to make some cash.”

Général quickly became part of Quebec’s vibrant hip-hop scene. “I know how to sell a product,” he says. “My DVD sold well. My dealer mentality helped me push my music.”

Emergence

Général had finally emerged from the shadows. The same pleasure he used to get from chilling with his gang he now got from hanging out with his fellow rappers. He created bonds with non-criminals. His street experiences enriched his music. “When you want to change, you attract good people,” he observes. “I wanted to change. I wanted to get a positive message out.”

But his past imposed limits. There were places he couldn’t go. “I was too well known in some areas,” he says. “I still had enemies. I’d just left my gang. Kids in my old neighborhoods wanted me to film rap videos with them.  I couldn’t. My name was still out there. I couldn’t go into enemy territory and tell them I’d changed. They wouldn’t have cared.”

He dreamed of making peace with the Bloods. But more importantly, Général had to make peace with his own past. “I wanted to say sorry, publicly. But I’d done too much harm to some people for them to ever accept an apology. I became a gang member when I was 9 when I saw my cousin beaten up before my own eyes. But I’d beaten up people myself in front of their little brothers. That’s the street. It’s a vicious circle. Violence causes violence. Not every gang kid’s street story is the same. Some of those who enter a gang and are serious have a reason for it. Others are just followers. I decided I had to mourn on my own. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean forgetting. But they knew I’d changed.”

Général knows you can’t remake your past. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. He often dreams of what he could have accomplished if he had never led the thug life. He has fewer friends than when he was rich, but the friends he has love him and are supportive of his efforts: “At places like Café Graffiti, nobody judges me. They listen to me. They support me. This is a better kind of gang to belong to.”

Back in Time

“If I could go back in time 15 years,” he says, “I would never have joined a gang. I want kids to get interested in entrepreneurship and music. I’d get kids out of gangs. I’d show them there are options. There are other was to express yourself. If I can do it, a lot of others can succeed, too.”

Général now enjoys talking with young people about his past. He is frequently asked about it, and he is a ready counselor to those who might all in the trap of criminality and easy money. “Hip-hop is popular among teens,” he says. “They listen to lyrics more than to anything you can tell them. A lot of kids join gangs to live the experiences they hear about in gangster rap. Providing positive lyrics is the best way to reach them.”

He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. But he has changed a lot of lives. And he is still an original, a unique personality, no matter what he does in life.

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