A conversation with Ice-T about ‘race, rap and the possibility of redemption.’

There is a laptop with two people on the screen.
Ice-T provides an introspective look into his life in a recent conversation with USC Professor Jody Armour. (Gina Nguyen | Daily Trojan)

If you are not an avid watcher of the television series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” which stars Tracy Lauren Marrow — formally known as Ice-T — then it has likely been a while since you’ve heard of the rapper. This is not because he is not worthy of discussion, in fact, he is quite the opposite. 

Still, as Ice-T’s 63rd birthday was celebrated during the livestream Q&A held by Visions and Voices on Feb. 16, it is clear that this artist became a legend far before current USC students were born.

The boundless talent, experience and wisdom of Ice-T cannot be understated. Having sold around 10 million records, Ice-T exemplifies the rhythmic magnetism and profound nature of rap. The journey he traveled during his wildly successful career is a staple in Los Angeles history and the USC community had the honor to hear his story firsthand.

For a generation that more often than not feels removed from older generations, this conversation was evidence that being open to the stories of those who have walked the earth a lot longer than we have can be incredibly rewarding. 

Moderated by the Gould School of Law Professor Jody Armour, the two men spoke about LA hip-hop, the corrupt American prison system and much else in between. 

Executive director of Visions and Voices DariaYudacufski started the evening by interrupting the very active and excited participant chat box. She thanked Armour for moderating the discussion and extended credit to their co-sponsors The Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, the Black Student Assembly, Brothers Breaking Bread and La Casa for helping create the event. 

She then thanked and introduced Ice-T after a short summary of his career. Yudacufski touched lightly on Ice-T’s childhood hardships, but mainly highlighted his reputation as an example of “turning obstacles into opportunities.” 

Already, the audience could tell that this would be more than just a conversation about music and television. It was when Armour virtually took the microphone that the Band-Aid was ripped off and the gritty themes shone through, simply yet vividly stated as “race, rap and the possibility of redemption.” 

After Ice-T’s parents both died of heart attacks before he finished middle school, he was sent to live with his aunt in downtown LA. From there, his life became overrun with gang mentalities and a merciless environment. Surrounded by friends who were hypnotized into a toxic mentality, he was “poisoned by that train of thought” or, as he quotes Iceberg Slim, “street poisoned.” 

At that time, Ice-T was committing numerous felonies a day, and this was not because he was inherently immoral with intentions of causing harm, but because he had no other choice and no hope for anything better. 

“Poverty is a dangerous place to be,” Ice-T said. “I don’t care if it’s white poverty, Black poverty, when people don’t have hope they’re making bad decisions.”

The two then tackled the question: If Ice-T did not live long enough to escape this oppressive system and achieve a sustainable living, if Ice-T found himself with a life-long prison sentence instead, how would the general public view him then? Would he still have a Zoom chat full of idolizing fans or would he have a jury justifying his sentence to a cell forever? 

“People call me a role model,” Ice-T said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I transformed into a role model. But in one of my rhymes, I say ‘I’m not your role model, my road’s too dirty to follow. Try to model yourself after the new Ice-T, not the old Ice-T,” he laughed. “He was trying to find himself.”

Ice-T was one of the first rappers to talk about the horrors of life within the prison system. In “The Tower,” which was released in 1991, Ice-T brings to life this taboo reality, speaking as a person learning about the obscurely complex institution from behind the cell walls.

“They call me a lifer, cause I’m good as dead / I live in the hole, so the floor’s my bed / And I ask myself again / Who has the power / The Whites? The Blacks? / Or just the gun tower?”

“There is the ability for people to redeem themselves and change their ways,” Ice-T said. 

Especially when, as Armour pointed out, “Over the last 10-20 years, they found that a lot of our brains aren’t really fully developed even until we’re 25, and so we’ve been locking kids up for life without parole for things they’ve been doing at 14 and 13 and 15.” 

The adult that Ice-T grew into that we now know and love was ultimately shaped by the struggles he endured as a teenager, which also influenced his hip-hop career. Many of his lyrics recount the violent lifestyle he was forced to live, such as the song “Cop Killer,” which tells the story of an imaginary character who is so fed up with police brutality that he becomes the aggressor himself. 

Armour brought up the issue of rap lyrics being introduced as incriminating material in court. 

“You got to be aware of everything you do and how it paints the picture of you,” Ice-T said. 

He reflected that the legal system will find ways to include seemingly irrelevant personal details into the court of law, including threatening rap lyrics. After playing Fin Tutuola, a New York Police Departmentsergeant, for 20 years on “Law & Order: SVU” which televises a fictional courtroom hundreds of times, he is substantially familiar with the court system.

“Real gangsta rap is apolitical,” Ice-T said. “It’s negative because that’s the mindset of the person. He’s negative. So when you’re listening to rappers that are 17, 18 years old, they don’t have knowledge yet. They don’t have the ability to know what’s right or wrong.” 

In this statement, Ice-T’s extensive experience and maturity with rap is extremely valuable, a topic that is so unfamiliar to most adults. The legal system is not, however, full of professionals who share this particular insight. “Stay out of court,” he seriously joked.

Armour then bridged the conversation into the flip-side of the coin and commented on the egregious dialogue of the Los Angeles Police Department, which is much less debated than the words of Black rappers. 

On Valentine’s Day, an image of George Floyd was circulated by and throughout the police department with the caption, “you take my breath away.” Remember the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death? Because the LAPD evidently did. 

Words are powerful, whether they are used for good or for evil. Ice-T used his words to “put some wisdom into the game,” and “put some knowledge in [rap] versus just the wildness of it,” he said. 

At the same time, words cannot be used as a cop-out for real progress, especially among white people during the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“See, this is where I got hope,” Ice-T said. “When I saw these last protests, they were so diverse. There was so many different people, races, religions, everyone was out there together. So these people can’t just do that BLM shit, they gotta live it, and they gotta come back and say ‘you know what? I’m gonna make a change.’” 

Fortunately, as he stands today to demonstrate, change can occur. Young activists can learn from his passionate sincerity and his patience to continue holding hope during painful times. 

Sadly, they will still never be as fly as Ice-T.