By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
One night in October 1999, as Barrow showed up in front of Daddy's House, the Combs-owned, state-of-the-art studio on West 44th Street where Barrow was laying down tracks for his debut album Shyne, he was accosted by a hip-hop gadfly and several of his henchmen. The man, the confidant remembers Barrow telling him, may have been angered by stories that Barrow was imitating the gangsta-rappin' style of slain MC Biggie Smalls, and was sounding too much like him. "I was dealing with the Biggie comparisons," Barrow told the confidant. "I couldn't wait to prove to the world that I really had talent, who I was, and how eager I was to speak for all the people that I've known growing up in the street."
The hangers-on appeared to be drunk. "They were all out there drinking," according to the story Barrow recounted for his friend. "One guy said, 'Fuck you!' and punched me. The rest of his guys just jumped on me and beat me. As I got away and ran, they shot at me. I just didn't understand that. I never bothered anyone, man. It's not like I was with all my guys from Brooklyn and I used to come through, and I was frontin.' That wasn't me. I was just trying to learn how to make music."
For Barrow, the attack was a bitter reminder that in trying to get out of the ghetto, no one completely leaves the mean streets of Brooklyn behind. "I totally forgot about the battlefields that I came from," the rapper told his friend. "I totally forgot about the war ground. I just thought I'd arrived and I was just gonna make my music, and hopefully have my dream realized. When the incident happened, I didn't know you had to have a gun in this business of glamorous TV stars. Why should I have a gun, and be rolling with five people to defend me? I was just devastated because I don't remember even thinking that I was in any danger. It just caught me off guard. I couldn't believe it." (The attack may have inspired this fantasy face-off with the Biggie Smalls loyalists: "I look into ma enemy's eye, let them know, 'You play fly, you go out Kennedy style, bitch!' ")
After Barrow was arrested and charged with shooting up Club New York, he feared that all of his hard work had been lost. "I was like, 'Oh, my God! My dream is about to be taken away from me,' " he told Old Girl. But his grandmother encouraged him not to despair because the God she knows is not a playa hater. The album, a commercial success, silenced the Biggie Smalls loyalists, winning Barrow critical acclaim in the hip-hop world.
"I chuckled for a minute because I had met about a thousand young brothers who portray themselves as tough but when they get in a jam instinctively they know that God is their only salvation."
But support for Jamaal Barrow in his uphill fight for justice pales before the army of celebrities who storm the courtroom daily to rub shoulders with Sean Combs and assert his innocence before the media throng. Last week, a top music-industry executive who is a close friend of Barrow's family reached out to Conrad Muhammad, the former Nation of Islam cleric now known as the "hip-hop minister" for his efforts to promote "nation-conscious rap." The executive implored Muhammad to rally to Barrow's side.
The appeal conjured memories of Muhammad's 10-year battle to rid rap music of lyrics that demean women and glorify violence. After the release of Barrow's album, critics like Muhammad began to urge him to stop claiming in his raps that "crime pays nigga, 999 ways," and instead gravitate toward what Muhammad calls "faith-based hip hop" to uplift his young fans. "I was very reluctant to intervene because I am in the midst of organizing a campaign for dignity in rap music," says Muhammad, the founder of CHHANGE (Conscious Hip Hop Activism Necessary for Global Empowerment). "Some of the negative rappers I have been pointing fingers at have been sending emissaries to me and my initial concern was that someone was trying to derail my efforts."
But last Friday, Muhammad had a change of heart. He showed up at the trial along with the model Tyson and famed old-school rapper Doug E. Fresh. After testimony in the case, Muhammad, Barrow, his mother, and grandmother walked out of the Supreme Court building in solidarity. At the outset of a three-hour meeting with Barrow, Muhammad recalls him opening and closing his Bible, and referring to several spiritual books and tracts. "I chuckled for a minute because I had met about a thousand young brothers who portray themselves as tough but when they get in a jam instinctively they know that God is their only salvation," the minister says. "And I thought, 'That's all right, because God comes when all else fails.' "
Muhammad says he told Barrow he won't be "a patsy or an apologist" but that he would do everything he could to help portray Barrow in a different light. "I was very impressed with his intelligence and was able to see beyond the Bad-Boy image," Muhammad says. "I realized that this is a 21-year-old brother with an extraordinary amount of influence and power who wants to be somebody. Our meeting helped me to let people see that he is more than a one-dimensional gangsta rap figure. I told him I would help him if he promised to help others avoid the pitfall of negativity."