A Gangstas Prayer
The Lord is my shepherd
Let's get this coat measured
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the
shadows of gangstas I fears nuthin'. . . .
Niggas waiting for me to break.
Shit! Ain't nuthin' foldin' but ma money
Shyne, "Gangsta Prayer"
Several months ago, when rapper Jamaal "Shyne" Barrow swore by that gangsta's psalmand lived by ithe had a careless, vicious tongue. "You!" the gloating Barrow imagines bumrushing one of his victims, a street thug, in a Bad Boys-produced rhyme. "Who you see stand over your coffin? Hey, you tell the devil I'm comin'. Keep it hot!" But these days, hell must wait, since Barrow, the accused gunman in the Club New York shooting trial, has found God.
"I've seen God! I've witnessed him," Barrow, who is under a judge's gag order, confided to a friend who spoke to the Voice on condition of anonymity. "He's revealed Himself to me just by showing me what to tell my lawyers to ask the witnesses and what to expect. I get up every morning at 8 o'clock and pray so that I won't be confused and paranoid. I'm a warrior so I accept suffering. I never say, 'Oh, God, don't give me pain.' I just ask Him to help me endure it."
Every morning, after ambling into Judge Charles H. Solomon's Manhattan courtroom, Barrow, 21, unbuttons the jacket of his gray business suit, settles himself in a chair facing a jury of seven blacks and five whites, and whips out a rumpled, leather-bound white Bible. He looks over in the spectators gallery, searching for the Belize-born mother he nicknamed "Stress" and the 77-year-old grandmother he calls "Old Girl." According to the confidant, it was Old Girl who first "threw the book" at Barrow.
Religion can ease the trauma of a prison sentence and hasten the adjustment to a life in confinement, but that's not the life Old Girl envisions for the brat who brags in a rhyme that he "never had hope until I sold dope." In court, Old Girl smiles and gives Barrow the eye, a coded message reminding her grandson to turn to passages she's carefully chosen for him in the Book of Psalms.
In Barrow's Bible, a bookmark with a picture of King Solomon cuts at Psalm 86for afflicted souls longing to be delivered "from the lowest hell." Barrow also reads Psalm 27, especially verse 12, pleading with God, "Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies for false witnesses are risen up against me." In Psalm 35, verse four, Barrow asks that these false witnesses "be confounded and put to shame that seek after my soul: Let them be turned back and brought to confusion."
Old Girl, who says she can almost hear Barrow praying, often intercedes on behalf of the novice Bible reader. "I ask God to give him power and strength to fight these devils that are fighting against him, to allow him to be fearless and humble, to have mercy on him," says the matriarch. "I know that he didn't try to kill anyone."
Barrow, a protégé of hip-hop mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs, is charged with three counts of attempted murder for allegedly shooting three people inside Club New York on December 27, 1999. He faces life in prison. Combs, 31, and bodyguard Anthony "Wolf" Jones, 34, are charged with two counts of weapons possession and one count of bribery. Prosecutors say one gun was found in Combs's Lincoln Navigator, while a second was thrown from its window as Combs fled the club.
Last Friday, the day after Combs left the witness stand, David Cubillette, a defense witness, testified that he saw Barrow and another man pointing their guns toward the ceiling of the trendy nightspot. Cubillette was the first witness called by Barrow's attorney, Murray Richman, after lawyers for Combs and Jones rested their cases. While other witnesses have testified they saw Combs and Barrow with guns inside the club, Cubillette, 28, was the first witness to testify that another clubgoer was armed that night. Cubillette was standing at a circular bar just before the shooting started in the early morning hours. He saw a man at the bar toss money at Combs, and then another man at the bar pull a handgun.
A few seconds later, gunfire erupted and chaos ensued. "The girl I was talking to pulled me down," Cubillette said. "Everybody was running. I got loose from her. I saw Shyne with a gun in his hand." Under questioning from Richman, Cubillette insisted that Barrow's weapon was pointing toward the ceiling, and he never saw Barrow level the gun or fire it. He added that he lost sight of Combs when the shooting began.
Like Sean Combs, who once beat down a record producer for nailing him to the cross in a music video, and who now comes to court armed with his own biblical swords, Jamaal Barrow takes religion seriously. He told a confidant that two months before the shooting at Club New York, God saved his life.
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.
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."
In his future rhymes, Muhammad says, Barrow will target young drug users who never thought that their offenses could lead to a prison term and who are shocked at the stiff sentences meted out to them.
Barrow told Muhammad that he used gangsta rap as a strategy to attract the 700,000 kids "who now wear their hats like me and speak like me." Barrow calls it "the infiltration theory," similar to a tactic the militant rapper Tupac Shakur was moving to adopt when he was gunned down execution-style in 1996. "I felt that in order to change the people in the kingdom you have to become king first," Muhammad quoted Barrow as saying. "In my album, I talk about the things that I've lived and seen to become their king. I can make rehabilitation and progressive songs, but first I had to show that I experienced the same pains that these young guys experienced. Only then I can tell them, 'You know what, even though we experienced these hardships, these new rhymes, these new messages, is what we need to prevent the rest of our people from experiencing our pain.' That was my plan all along. I had to get their attention first."
Jamaal Barrow's attention right now is focused on the rumpled family Bible Old Girl gave him. Gone is the scoff on his face when he recites the "Gangsta Prayer." Gone is the hatred he once heaped on the drunk "niggas" who, he maintains, tried to kill him outside Daddy's House. He sits rigidly upright at the defense table, as if in a trance, flipping the worn pages of the Bible by rote, seemingly oblivious to the horrible things being said about him. He goes from Psalm 27 to 35 to 86. These texts have become Barrow's first line of defense. His prayers, it seems, are being answered.
After the court recessed last Friday, a young woman who had been waiting with her mother for several hours threw herself at Barrow. She hugged him, wished him well, and asked for his autograph. "God works in mysterious ways," Barrow reminded Conrad Muhammad as they left the Supreme Court. "When I leave the courtroom every day, I hear people shout, 'Shyne! Not guilty!' and I just get in my car and I pray."
Additional Puff Daddy coverage by Peter Noel: Big Bad Wolf Puff! Goes the Weasel O.J. Simpson Meets Puff Daddy Bad Boy Shyne Taking the Rap Daddy Under the Gun Guns, Bribes, and Benjamins
Anthony Jones Upholds the Legend of Puff Daddys Bodyguard
An Impersonator Witness and Alleged Testilying Redefine Rap Moguls Trial
Scapegoating Sean Combs to Get Back at Johnnie Cochran
The Gangsta Life and Times of Jamal Barrow
Are Civil Rights Leaders Frontin for Hip Hop Gangstas?
Publicly, Rap Mogul Wont Beg; Quietly, He Pleads
Can Sean Puffy Combs Purchase Respectability and Buy His Way Out of the Club New York Shooting Trial?
Big Bad Wolf
Puff! Goes the Weasel
O.J. Simpson Meets Puff Daddy
Bad Boy Shyne
Taking the Rap
Daddy Under the Gun
Guns, Bribes, and Benjamins
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.