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Welcome to Nineveh: The Second Coming of Sonny Spoon

Welcome to Nineveh: The Second Coming of Sonny Spoon

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“Know anything about the Bible?”

Before he goes any further, Isaac Lightfoot wants to make sure we’re on the same page. A retired marketing teacher at Central High School and the namesake of Lightfoot Records, he’s quick to point out that he isn’t a preacher, but that the story fits. I confirm my familiarity with the Good Book and he continues.

“It’s just like the Biblical thing about Jonah and the Whale,” he says—it being the last few years in the life of Sonny Spoon, a Macon street hero who stood on the threshold of fame back when the Dirty South was just reaching its peak. Instead, he watched as the same artists he’d recorded with—Young Jeezy, TI, Cee-Lo, 8Ball & MJG—topped charts and crossed over, a couple even making movies, all while Spoon sat in a Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, merely a few miles from the epicenter of the rap world.

“God wanted Jonah to go somewhere he didn’t want to go so the whale came and took him anyway,” Lightfoot says, drawing a parallel to the young man he mentored. “I told Sonny, ‘Your incarceration took you like the whale took Jonah.’”

Born James Maxwell—but “Sonny since birth,” he says—Spoon’s arrest knocked the wind out of many in the black community. Macon had been thirty years without a musical champion, all its greats long gone and buried in history somewhere, the whole town taking on the nostalgic demeanor of a once glorious high school quarterback still trading on his sepia-toned exploits.

Sonny Spoon was supposed to change that.

Believe me, this life ain’t one you want to lead/There’s more to this than sippin’ Henn daily and blowin’ trees/Ain’t shit lame about being smart; Nigga, go to school/Become a doctor or lawyer, don’t be no fuckin’ fool/These streets a bitch; don’t get caught up in the glamour and glitter/Without realizing all the problems that go right along with ‘em. – Sonny Spoon, “The Game” (feat. Young Jeezy & Lil’ C)

By day, Spoon works as the event coordinator for the Riverview Ballroom, a stucco-glazed cube that stands guard like a protective older brother in front of the empty Len Berg’s building. The old folks remember it as an S&S Cafeteria, which explains the layout: a horseshoe of iron railing and wood countertops overlooking a dancefloor that once was the dining room. Like hip-hop itself, the Ballroom is a practice in repurposing found objects.

Here he’s started an open mic series, Hustle and Flow. It’s a venue for new MCs and a chance to gauge the scene. It’s also a clever way to announce his return.

“As soon as they heard he done touched down, they started talking—‘Sonny this, Sonny that.’ Everybody wants to do music with him. Everybody started chatterboxing,” Daryl “Iceman” Jackson says. “He’s a Macktown legend. If it weren’t for Sonny Spoon, there wouldn’t even be no Young Jeezy.”

Jackson is here as the head of Brothers of Struggle Entertainment (BOS), parked at the edge of the bar with a couple friends. One of his groups, Southern Kaos, just cut a remix with Spoon—“Get It, Shawty”. They’ve covered the town with glossy postcards touting the song on one side and pushing their community-minded agenda on the other. Macon A Difference it screams, promising straight talk about staying in school, drug awareness, teen pregnancy, stopping the violence and a half dozen other pressing issues.

He and his business partner, Alan Davis, who manages Southern Kaos, say they want to make their mark by putting the community first. Their stable of rappers, which includes Hillside Geez, perform free of charge for organizations like The Mentor’s Project.

It’s an approach Spoon pioneered, even before his incarceration, using his music to urge kids away from the lifestyle that got him locked up.

“How will the whole community of Macon receive him?” Jackson wonders. “Will they keep bringing up the past to hold him back?”

The streets already seem to view him as the one who could bring the promise of a city’s latent talent pool to fruition—either with attention from his “inevitable” fame, or by giving younger heads a leg up.

Wanna know the secret?/I work hard/Forgot the hand I was dealt/and played cards…I ain’t on the bullshit that these haters on/Steppin’ out the S-Class with some gators on/Can’t handle me man-to-man; best to play the zone/And you still gonna be the one that I’m dunkin’ on.– Sonny Spoon, “True Player (feat. TI)”

D-Cater is pressing flesh and talking up his next release, but he isn’t going to perform at Hustle and Flow. “I’m just here to support Spoon,” he says, watching a new contestant take the stage.

This evening, 15 have signed up to perform, which we’re told is more than normal—but they don’t like turning anyone away. In an hour, the room fills. Most fan out, grabbing drinks and hanging back. The DJ puts his head down and spins club hits to conjure dancers like a shaman recites spells, like a hunter uses a call, like an MC rhymes about money, cars and women.

Off and on, one real skinny guy obliges. He’s wearing shades, dreads and a long, red shirt covered with small doves and two big hands folded in prayer. His dance is subtle, tuned for snap music, the light and bouncy stuff of a guy who isn’t worried about anything.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for the rappers. They’re leaning over beer bottles and ash trays, peering down at the stage, which stands before a wall of mirror and is bare except for a ragged area rug. They watch and wait. Some have managers, or friends claiming to be. They play the part, handing out business cards and CDs labeled with phone contacts, web addresses and PO Box numbers. They all represent an “amazing new talent,” an “incredible artist” who will “change the game”.

“You aren’t A&R, are you?” One guy asks me. He produces a flyer for the country musician he represents. If a record deal walked in, the battle for it would last all night.

This is what Sonny Spoon has accomplished already: a venue, an opportunity, a shot to get started. And he isn’t even here to see it. Curfew at the halfway house is at 8:30pm and he won’t check out until 9:30am for work. It’ll be like this until he’s released on December 23rd.

“When we have the party on December 25th,” Spoon says, “It’ll be standing room only.”

Life is. All about. Choices.

He stands up in front of a room of middle-schoolers, kids far too young to remember Sonny Spoon.

“How many of you like rap music?” He asks. They all raise their hands. “Okay, how many of you know Young Jeezy?” And the crowd goes wild. “Did you know that Young Jeezy was actually my protégé prior to me being incarcerated?”

Assistant US Attorney Michael Solis and Warren Selby of Crimestoppers have brought him here because they know that what he has to say will actually reach these kids. From their mouths, the words would cut a fast path between the ears.

Spoon tells the kids repeat after him: Life is. (Life is.) All about. (All about.) Choices. (Choices.) This call and response punctuates his speech.

“A year and a half after I went into the system, Young Jeezy blew up. You know what it was like sitting in the prison system thinking that could’ve been you? That because of a choice that you made you were going to spend several years of your life in prison.” He calls for the chorus again: “Life is. All about. Choices.”

According to a 2008 Pew Center study, 1 in 13 Georgians are under some form of “correctional control”—the highest ratio in the country. The state spends more than twice as much on corrections as Alabama and South Carolina, and almost four times as much as Mississippi. As of this publication, according to the Georgia Department of Correction, of the state’s 54,067 inmates, 17,516 are blacks between the ages of 18 and 34. Though blacks make up only 30% of the population in Georgia, they constitute 62% of the prison population. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates a black person’s lifetime chance of going to prison are six times higher than a white person’s.

In other words, if you’re black and male, prison can seem like fate, so the path to it is often embraced like it’s a foregone conclusion. Choice sounds like a lie. That’s why Spoon repeats it.

He brings out an inmate’s jumpsuit and a body bag, and asks what they want to be one day. Would-be doctors, lawyers, soldiers and teachers pipe up.

So he asks, “How many of you woke up and said you want to go to prison?”

No one raises their hand.

“How many of you think that was a dumb question?”

Everybody raises their hand.

“There are several people in prison that never said they wanted to be an inmate but because of the choices that they made that’s where they are. Depending on what you want to be, you’ll have a uniform. If you decide to be a criminal,” he holds up the jumpsuit, “if you decide to break the law, this is your uniform.”

My soul has been chosen/to open the minds of those who’ve been broken/and given up on hoping/let ‘em know the time’s approachin’/when we’ve got to conspire/tell the devil he’s a liar/control basic desires/or prepare to face the fire/they’re tapping the wire/conversations gettin’ recorded/we’re being extorted/buyin shit and can’t afford it/and credit is like a sedative/life is so competitive/but it’s imperative/that you live better than your relative/Caucasian culture has got us livin’ like vultures/I came to coach ya/back the people like we’re supposed to. – Sonny Spoon, “Armageddon (feat. Cee-Lo)”

A gun and $6600 worth of weed, ecstasy and crack threatened to take 13 years of Sonny’s life. Even reduced to six years, it seems excessive by comparison. When TI tried to buy an army’s worth of guns, he got a year and a show on MTV. Lil’ Wayne didn’t fare much worse when he pled guilty to gun charges and got a year in the same city that put NFL star Plaxico Burress away for two years for shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub. But no excuses.

Dwayne Banks is the CEO of Dollyhood Records and one of Spoon’s closest partners. When the Atlanta Falcons made their surprise run to the Super Bowl in 1999, it was Banks who suggested Spoon record “Dirty Bird,” which they parlayed into more attention. They’d built that momentum together.

“He disappointed me,” Banks says, “And he knows he disappointed me. We had an agreement as men: stay away from crack.”

Spoon doesn’t back away from it. He made a choice, and it was the wrong one.

“Narcotics was a way of substantiating my income while I was out here. (It provided) freedom and the ability to make this music happen,” he admits. “At that point, knowing that what you’re doing could lead to incarceration was worth the risk compared to being locked into mediocrity for the rest of your life.”

No one that’s known him for any length of time will say he’s changed. At most, they say, he’s more focused than before.

“I had six years without any distractions,” he says. “There were no fancy cars, no fly clothes, no pretty women to compete for—just the opportunity to be there with the Most High, and to see myself for who I was. I had to see myself for who I really am instead of the facade that we wear for others.”

That’s who he wanted to present when he was approached about doing public service announcements for Crimestoppers, which he insisted on scripting. At most, it seemed, this would be a way to speak to the kids, which has always been a passion of his. He hadn’t expected much else.

“Until I met Beth Dunwody, I didn’t really trust white people because of history and the personal experiences I’ve had as a young black man growing up in the South. But with Beth, you could look in her eyes and just everything about her was sincere. So I’ve had to learn to use discretion myself instead of just putting everybody in the same barrel.”

It was a catalytic experience for Dunwody as well. Co-founder of Bright Blue Sky Productions, the company hired to do the PSAs, she had significant anxiety over the job.

“Very intimidating,” she says of her first foray into the jail. But she took to Spoon almost instantly, drawn in by his demeanor. “His sense of calm, sense of self is extraordinary.”

Though her husband and business partner, Elliott—a former Sheriff’s Deputy who went in with great cynicism—was likewise convinced of Spoon’s genuineness, it was Beth who asked to provide testimony at his re-sentencing hearing.

Conceding that sometimes it takes a personal experience like that to open minds and change opinions, Spoon sees a role for music in the process.

He says. “Change the direction of the music and you change the consciousness of the people. I want them to get their money but—I see the Gucci Manes who sound like they’re hooked on phonics or something, talking about absolutely nothing. But yet they’re the number one artist out there? The powers-that-be are trying to keep the entertainment on a sixth grade level so people cannot see outside themselves.”

Puttin’ in work…

Ed Grant didn’t know it, but he and Sonny Spoon were competitors when they first met. Grant’s Lounge, which his father started, was up the block from Club Insatiables, which Spoon started when he was just 19. (Ironically, the same building is now the office of Bright Blue Sky.)  Regardless, “Mr. Grant”—as Sonny affectionately calls him—was impressed from the get-go.

When Spoon needed a job after his release, Mr. Grant was there to help. Now, Spoon is repaying it with a project called Music Business 101, which he hosts at the Ballroom. The objective is to educate local artists on how to navigate the music industry “so they can use their money to get their music to the next level of the game.”

As Banks puts it, “We’re out to teach our community what we know.”

Harold Hatcher is the ebullient director of the Boys & Girls Club. He’s known Spoon since he was a kid—even learning to play chopsticks on the club piano with him.

“He’s the kind of young man who I think the people will follow,” Hatcher says. “He has a million supporters out here ready to help because of who he is and what he stands for.”

It wasn’t always like that.

“We’d book shows in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida—and people were really feeling what we were doing. Then I’d come home and people’d say, ‘Oh, it’s just Sonny. I grew up with him.’”

This time around, he’s transcending his role as a local celebrity and the poster-boy for “Hard Time for Gun Crime.” By learning to harness both opportunities, he acts as a leader with a vision bigger than himself.

“Most guys that are in the streets don’t want to be in the streets,” Spoon says, “They’re doing that because they feel that there was not another opportunity for them to have the things in life that they want. It would be asinine to think that someone would want to stay out there in that lifestyle knowing that the only end result is either jail or a graveyard.”

His head turns as the backdoor of the Ballroom swings wide, cutting the darkness open with a blast of light. It’s lunchtime but the staff still outnumbers the patrons. Seemingly pained to be alive, an old white man—haggard like albino beef jerky—shuffles inside. He takes a seat but the room feels lonelier when he hunches over his elbows. Sonny finishes his train of thought, “The streets respect me because I am who I say I am.”

And nothing more, nothing less.

By nightfall, the club will pack out for another installment of Hustle and Flow. Sonny Spoon won’t be here, but it’ll seem like he is. The club will buzz with talk about him as hopefuls vie for his consideration for when the New Year comes and brings a new album with it and the seemingly inevitable happens: that dream deferred finally comes to pass.

Written by Chris Horne of The 11th Hour

New Music from Sonny Spoon
Click to Listen: Put In Work featuring Bun B

[wpaudio url=”audio/Put In Workl.mp3″ dl=”0″]

Hip Hop Encounters Exclusive Interview with Sonny Spoon:
(of course it’s unedited, you know we keep it real)



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