Can I tell you about an inspiring man overcoming our broken prison system?
A lawbreaker becomes a lawmaker
Hi, Ari here — my new piece is all about going from a lawbreaker to a lawmaker.
To sign up for my entire newsletter, or share this with anyone who might be interested, click here now:
If you had even mild awareness of pop culture in the 90s, you may recall that J-Lo dated Diddy. They were a big couple in the culture and the tabloids.
You may not recall a prosecution linked to one of their nights on the town, when there was a shooting at a New York nightclub.
Diddy, who went on to even more business success and now mingles with Presidents and billionaires, faced a turning point. There was scant evidence directly linking him to a felony, but prosecutors were trying to pin the incident on him. He potentially faced up to 15 years in prison.
Diddy beat the case. One of the young artists on his label, a 21-year-old immigrant from Belize named Shyne, did not. He was convicted — on a legal theory that many found far-fetched — and got hit with a ten year prison sentence.
In America, a young Black man taking the fall in court is not a new story.
Shyne’s story could end there, with prison cutting off whatever better prospects he had in music, business or life. But it did not. Shyne continued to work on music; he focused on renewal over bitterness; he converted to Orthodox Judaism; and he planned for a different life when he got out. The U.S. deported him upon release, and he embarked on a pilgrimage to Israel, deepening his faith and broadening his horizons beyond life in a country that imprisoned and rejected him and the memories of his birth country.
Have you ever heard a story like this?
How many rappers from Belize do you know who moved to the U.S., made it on a major record label, did a (questionable) bid, and then followed their faith to Israel? It’s quite a story.
And that’s not even the end.
Shyne returned to Belize, got married, and decided to follow his family’s history in politics, despite how some might view his history. In the past year, he won his first election to Belize’s House of Representatives.
It’s a truly unusual and amazing story of growth, perseverance and a thirst for life… which brought this man through adversity across three countries to achieve new heights.
What can we learn from it?
Shyne knows his specific path was unusual, but he believes the lessons are universal.
Unusual but not unique
“I really believe that I'm an example that is not necessarily unique of what could be,” he says. “All human beings have an indomitable soul, indomitable spirit -- especially young people!”
Shyne told me that when we talked recently. This is one of the most fascinating parts of journalism—you can hear about someone, practically anywhere, and call them up to talk to them. Given his experience, I asked him about his views about criminal justice:
As far as justice reform is concerned, I really think that I am the epitome of redemption. I made the choice, though.
I'd definitely like to say to anyone out there who has made a mistake -- any of the young people out there who are subscribing to a life that they see in entertainment, or a life that they see very much real around them, and they may want to change -- they may feel, ‘Well, you know what? I'm feeling a lot of pressure. How could I change?’
I changed. I completely changed my life from the youth I was 20 years ago! I always wanted to be what I am today. But I had the courage to change.
I didn't listen to the people who are going to say, ‘No, you can't change, you're a criminal, you're deportee, you're a convict.’
You can't listen to the noise. I think evolution is real.
Shyne sounds pretty humble about it.
The reality is that other people are held back or broken by incarceration. And his background may have helped him transcend his prison experience — he came from an established family that offered more opportunities when he was released; his immigrant experience may have made it more logical to ‘cut off’ the U.S. experience and move on; his artistic talent and prominence offered some ‘proof’ and validation of what he was capable of once out.
Still, the experience reinforces why progress and rehabilitation is as vital as punishment for justice reform. And Shyne has the kind of story that can put a lot in perspective.
Does his story remind you of anyone you know? Do you think he has more to bring to the table as a lawmaker now? Reply in the comments and I’ll answer some of you, as I like to do with newsletter readers!
P.S. As a sidenote, Shyne did a new interview with a rap outlet and ended up bringing up our interview, which took me by surprise. Here’s some of what he told HipHopDX:
It’s up to me to blaze that trail. They call me a ‘convict,’ they call me a ‘deportee,’ they call me ‘criminal’ -- that I shouldn’t be in the House of Representatives. I’ve shattered those [claims] more [through my election] than any foreign minister in the history of Belize.
I want to take the Belizeans to the U.S. state of mind, so they could see an Ari Melber who is free to be a Hip Hop enthusiast, and a political commentator, and not miss a beat, and people love it. He’s the first one. Or maybe there’s others, but he’s the most famous one that has done that type of hybrid.
I definitely appreciate the shoutout, and if I understand him correctly, I agree. Many people have laid the groundwork for (some) Americans to have the kind of opportunities and freedom that we use today. Ensuring the opportunities, in law and culture, are available and equal for all is the larger challenge.
Wow! I needed this story today. Thanks… I actually know of a few people with stories like his. I feel blessed to call them friends. A lot of people come back after hitting rock bottom. You see it with addiction. I myself will be celebrating 16 years sober in November. There is hope! There is always HOPE. ✌️( feel good newsletter❣️)
Jarrett Adam's piece tonight. He lived it. What an inspiration and beacon of hope.