Donald Trump Pardoning Rappers Is Some Weird Shit
There is precedent. In 2008, outgoing president George W. Bush granted a presidential pardon to John Forté, a rapper who’d once been part of the Fugees’ inner circle. In 1998, Forté released Poly Sci, a pretty-good debut album. It had a DMX feature and a single with a “99 Luftballons” sample. The album didn’t sell, and Forté lost his contract with Sony. Two years later, Forté was arrested at Newark International Airport with a briefcase that held more than a million dollars’ worth of liquid cocaine. Forté was sentenced to 14 years in prison, the mandatory minimum. He served seven. When Forté was first arrested, I was shocked. When Bush pardoned him, I was even more shocked. None of it seemed to make any sense.
The story came out later. Forté had been a student at Phillips Exeter, the elite prep school. There, he’d become friends with the son of Carly Simon and James Taylor. Simon and Forté eventually became friends, as well, and she appeared on I, John, the 2001 sophomore album that Forté recorded while awaiting trial. During Forté’s imprisonment, Carly Simon lobbied for his pardon. More mysteriously, the ghoulish Utah senator Orrin Hatch also pushed for Forté’s freedom. In a letter to Bush, Hatch wrote that “the best interest of our society would be served, in this case, by allowing John his freedom — a gift which he has vowed to use in the pursuit of helping at-risk youth abstain from drugs and drug activity.” Also: “John Forté is a very special individual with uniquely outstanding talent… And frankly, he’s a genius.” I like to imagine Orrin Hatch hearing John Forté rapping about eating mangoes in Trinidad with attorneys on Wyclef’s “We Trying To Stay Alive” remix and just losing his mind.
After his release, Forté wrote, “Senator Hatch is a superhero of a mentor to me. I am looking forward to putting our creative minds together in the studio, sooner rather than later.” (Hatch is a songwriter; he co-wrote a track called “Heal Our Land” that was played at Bush’s 2005 inauguration.) If John Forté and Orrin Hatch ever recorded any music together, it didn’t come out. But Forté is out there in the world, walking free and making music. He’s on Moor Mother and billy woods’ new album, and he sounds great. (Coincidentally, billy woods is one half of Armand Hammer, a duo named after the Occidental Petroleum Company CEO. Hammer, convicted of making illegal campaign contributions, got a presidential pardon from George W. Bush’s father.) I’m glad Forté is not in prison, even if his freedom was granted by one of the worst presidents in American history.
The presidential pardon is one of those strange quirks of the American Constitution. The country can imprison vast swaths of its population, but if the person in the White House decides to wipe someone’s record clean, then boom, it’s done. Over the years, a few presidents have shown that kindness to a few musicians. In 1961, John F. Kennedy pardoned Hampton Hawes, a jazz pianist in prison on heroin charges. In 1980, Jimmy Carter did the same thing for Peter Yarrow from Peter, Paul And Mary; a decade earlier, Yarrow had done three months in prison for molesting a 14-year-old girl. If those presidential pardons seem random and scattershot, it’s because they are. The pardon is a presidential power that lends itself to weird, ugly nonsense.
Last night, with a few hours left in his presidency, Donald J. Trump, another of the worst presidents in American history, granted pardons to two of our most famous rappers. Lil Wayne and Kodak Black had both been convicted on gun charges, and both of them are now free and in the clear. A few days ago, The New York Times reported that a number of Trump’s allies were collecting huge fees from people who were trying to lobby for pardons. Last night, Trump went on a pardon spree, handing out clemency to boosters and cronies and corrupt politicians of all stripes. Wayne and Kodak were part of that.
Wayne’s photo op makes sense now. In late October, a few days before the election, Lil Wayne tweeted a photo of himself with Trump, praising Trump’s efforts in “criminal reform.” That tweet was greeted with widespread derision, but it came less than a year after Wayne had been caught with a loaded gun on a private plane in Miami. He was looking at 10 years in prison. He did what he had to do. I would’ve done the same thing in Wayne’s position. You probably would, too.
Lil Wayne had rich people pushing for his release. So did Kodak Black. (During the lobbying, Kodak also tweeted that he’d donate a million dollars to charity if Trump pardoned him. That tweet has since been deleted.) Kodak and Wayne are both people who could potentially generate a whole lot of income. Kodak, in particular, was in the prime of his career before he went to prison a few years ago. He’s a lucrative investment.
The day after Trump’s election, I wrote about Trump’s history with rap music. As a famous-for-being-famous rich New York doofus, Trump had lived adjacent to rap for decades. He was friends with Diddy. He’d been in a skit on a Method Man album. He’d had Lil Jon on Celebrity Apprentice twice. I wondered if there was some glimmer of hope in those little intersections — if maybe those tiny points of overlap showed that Trump wasn’t really the racist gasbag that he was portraying in his campaign. No such luck. The last four years have been an absolute fucking disaster, and it never mattered that Trump had Jay-Z’s number in his phone.
Today, Trump reenters private life as an absolute pariah, a stain on the world. After the past few weeks, most of Trump’s closest allies have dropped him. His pardons presumably represent his best efforts to get back in the good graces of some powerful people. To that end, he also pardoned a couple of people who aren’t rappers but who live within that world. Death Row Records co-founder Michael “Harry-O” Harris served 32 years in prison for attempted murder, drug trafficking, and kidnapping. He’s been in prison since before his money helped Suge Knight launch Death Row. Trump pardoned him. (Snoop Dogg, a guy who once roasted Trump on Comedy Central, was reportedly one of the people lobbying for that one.) Roc Nation CEO Desiree Perez was arrested a couple of times more than 20 years ago. Trump pardoned her, too. These are powerful people who had more powerful people looking out for them. These are the people who get the pardons.
Honestly, I wish Trump pardoned more rappers. I wish he pardoned every rapper. I wish Trump pardoned 03 Greedo and Bobby Shmurda and Max B and G-Dep and BG and Casanova and Rio Da Yung OG. I also wish Trump pardoned millions of people whose names I will never know. America’s justice system is a monstrous institution that grinds people up with no true regard for societal well-being. It doesn’t work. As it is, the only people who can hope to be above this anti-human morass are people with money and connections. Lil Wayne and Kodak Black are people with money and connections. It’s that simple.
1. The Plug – “Fashion” (Feat. M24 & Fivio Foreign)
UK drill has a great capacity to feel sad and contemplative without losing its rowdiness. I love that. Also, it’s fun to hear Fivio Foreign on a song where he actually is foreign.
2. EST Gee & 42 Dugg – “Members Only”
EST Gee gets credit for starting to rap before the drums even kick in. 42 Dugg gets credit for changing up his whistle to the “bomb falling from the sky” variant. I also like how, in the video, 42 Dugg looks like a little kid even though he’s by far the most famous person in the room. This is mostly just a cool Detroit rap song, but, you know, it’s the little things.
3. Smoke DZA – “Lavish” (Feat. Conway The Machine)
Before the news of those Trump pardons, I was planning on writing this week’s column about Griselda’s new hood movie Conflicted. Maybe I’ll do that next week. I would really like to talk about Michael Rapaport showing up for literally two minutes of seemingly-improvised screentime and still getting his name on the poster. Anyway, the beat on this song, from frequent Griselda collaborator 38 Spesh, is real pretty.
4. Sancho Saucy – “Busy Bee”
Sancho Saucy has this great worn-in creak in his voice. He should only rap on beats that sound like they’re drunk. Like this one.
5. Payroll Giovanni – “Can’t Be Taught”
Payroll Giovanni remains one of our finest sources of bored grown-man real talk. He sounds like he can’t believe he has to explain all this shit to you again.