The HNIC Report

Month: October, 2010

Altruism, Autism and Cynicism: 50 Tyson and the Exploitation of a Youtube Sensation

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Two weeks ago I was having a drink with my buddy Vic when he asked me if I’d heard of 50Tyson.

“I haven’t,” I said. “Who is he?”

Vic nodded, pulled out his Mac, placed it on the bar and jumped on Youtube. Once the video finished loading, he pressed play and went back to eating.  “Watch,” he said. “Just watch.”

Even living in an age of stunningly delusional American Idol contestants and  shamelessly clueless reality show stars hadn’t prepared me for the twenty car pile up that is Antonio Henderson-Davis AKA 50 Tyson. Had it been a highway accident I would’ve been the rubber necker causing the mile-long back up. The last viral video to grab me like this was the two-year old cigarette addict, and even that didn’t seem as reprehensible. After all, it wasn’t like the two-year old was calling attention to himself. And he certainly didn’t think what he was up to was cool.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I was experiencing  that rare moment that only a service like Youtube can produce. In exchange for the effort it took to type the words “50 Tyson Youtube” into a search box and the  2 minutes and 11 seconds it took to watch, I got a  free, unedited glimpse into the fantasy world of a young man whose unflinching grandiosity, utter lack of self-awareness and mind-bogglingly atrocious lyrical skills  are only matched by his bizarro resemblance to two of pop culture’s most controversial, fascinating, and unpredictable characters — Iron Mike and Fiddy. In fact, I’m willing to bet that at least part of the 50 Tyson sensation stems from the rich, sordid and comical material that the real Mike Tyson and 50  Cent provide us with on a regular basis. Which would make him a parody of a parody.

As I watched 50Tyson’s video I found myself doing the only thing I could. Laugh. And laugh. And laugh some more. All the while I was keenly aware that this wasn’t “ha, ha” laughter; this was the laughter of  disorientation and discomfort, the awkward laughter that accompanies an awkward moment.

I turned to Vic. “This is a joke, right? I mean, he’s not serious.”

I really did hope it was a joke and I hoped he was in on it.  In that moment I wanted it to be yet another attention seeking parody devised to poke fun at the dumbed-down quality of contemporary rap. Why else would he name himself 50 Tyson, right? Why else would no one stop him?

Vic was equivocal, though. “We’ve only just begun,” he said. Then he clicked on another video. This time a shirtless 5o Tyson was standing in his yard  singing — and, yes, I’m using the term loosely —  a medley of R&B ballads, in falsetto no less.

I didn’t laugh this go round. But I still couldn’t stop watching. And judging by the two plus million views this video had, I wasn’t alone.

Then Vic showed me the big one: 50 Tyson’s official music video. A director by the name of Jordan Tower flew to Minnesota to, in his words, “show an example of how one won’t let a disability get in the way of their dreams coming true.”

50, it turns out, is autistic.

This is where things got weird. An otherwise innocent Youtube moment that, left alone, would’ve eventually faded into internet oblivion had instead snowballed into a cause celebre.  All of a sudden, 50 Tyson was … a voice for a cause?! An inspirational story? Really? Watching the music video was unsettling for several reasons. Now that I knew he had a disability,  how I was supposed to respond? Was I supposed to feel bad for laughing? Was I supposed to pity him? Admire him? Buy one of his t-shirts?

For his part, the “star” is characterized in the video as a teenage sensation. He walks through a mall with his entourage. He takes photos with fans. He raps in front of a shiny car, a school,  his yard, and in a recording studio. He also engages in an uncoordinated dance that looks like a remixed version of hopscotch.

In the accompanying documentary Henderson-Davis rides around in a limo, brags about his plans of moving out of his house (presumably into a mansion) and wistfully recounts his life before fame  as if he’s  already an accomplished artist returning to his humble roots. I could see the clueless teenager’s ego expanding with every false compliment his bogus interviewer lobbed his way. He wasn’t that delusional kid in his bathroom with a camera anymore; he had people around him actively participating in the delusion, people feeding his ego for their own gain, people who knew full well the 50 Tyson phenomenon would eventually fade but who nonetheless planned to make a quick buck or name at his expense before that day came. It all seemed so cruel, so mean, so cynical, so exploitative. And it was all being clumsily couched beneath this phony veneer of altruism. It made me sick.

I decided to do some homework on this Jordan Tower character. Turns out he makes his living filming low-budget, cookie-cutter hip-hop videos featuring lackluster rappers with limited lyrical skills and and even narrower world views. I watched several of his “films” online. They’re easily some of the most unimaginative things I’ve ever seen. Easily. In Souljah Boy’s Gettin Money”  the rapper stands on the roof of a building blowing smoke into the camera while counting counterfeit money. In Yo Gotti’s “Shoot Off,” the rapper pulls semi-automatic weapons out of his trunk and wields them menacingly. In Juicy J’s “Let’s Get High” the rapper freebases on camera while glorifying prescription drugs.

On what planet is any of this still cool much less creative?

Tower’s Youtube page consists of 72 video uploads.  They’ve been viewed a combined eight million times over the last four years. By way of comparison, it took all of 72 hours for 50 Tyson’s “I Ain’t Gonna Lie” video to reach a whopping twelve million views. My point: I’d believe the New Jersey Nets have a legit shot at making the playoffs before I’d believe this Jordan Tower guy all of a sudden grew a conscience and decided to film 50 Tyson’s first video on his own dime in order to bring attention to Autism.

The cynicism didn’t stop with the music video, though. On October 4th Hudson Records announced it had signed 50 Tyson to a deal. The press release  announcing the agreement — which is riddled with typos and grammatical errors —  reeked of insincere goodwill:

When living with autism it’s quite an amazing feat to be able to create hooks, write lyrics and perform raps but 50 Tyson’s is not an ordinary kid with autism.

50 Tyson’s popularity grew tremendously after comedian Kevin Hart posted a YouTube spoof and interpretation of 50 Tyson rapping … This activity drew the heartfelt attention of music executives Troy Hudson and Attorney James Wm. Morrison which led to a record deal with Hudson Records… Wow!

Both Hudson and Attorney Morrison have overcome life altering issues of their own and feel that, “… Autism only makes 50 Tyson special rather than handicapped or disabled”. Morrison says, “This young man has the heart of a champion. Hudson Records is dedicated to assuring that he succeeds in all levels of life. This is a long term commitment.” For 50 Tyson, this is just the beginning of a new career as an entertainer and as a spokesperson for Autism.

Troy Hudson is a former NBA player. Back in 2007 he released an album under the moniker T-Hud entitled Undrafted. According to his Wikipedia page the album sold a whopping 78 copies in its first week. Since the massive success of that album he’s turned his efforts to managing and promoting “top performing” independent artists like …

Such as …

Let’s be honest, 50 Tyson IS Hudson Records. Henderson-Davis’ upcoming performances in North Carolina and Indiana are the only shows listed on the site’s events page. Along with one of his cronies, 50-T hosts a daily u-stream show on the site. And the site’s premier product offerings are all attached to the 50 Tyson  “brand”: fans can cop the single a $1.oo,  “I Ain’t Gonna Lie” t-shirts  for $15, hoodies (for girls and guys) for between $35-$45, hats for $30 and the exclusive 50 Tyson football jersey can be yours for just $19.95.

For Hudson Records to suggest that it signed 50 Tyson because he has the “heart of a champion” and that they are dedicated to his success “in all levels of life” is as insulting (to my intelligence, at least) as it is cynical. Record labels aren’t charities. They aren’t in the altruism business. Which isn’t to say benefiting financially from a good deed necessarily negates the basic good intent behind the act. Moreover, I don’t think harboring multiple motivations is problematic per se. What is suspicious is the lengths to which those who’ve become involved in the 50 Tyson sensation are going to suppress the appearance that they are exploiting him for their own self interest. It’s as if they know what they’re up to is malicious so they’re overcompensating for it by promoting the Autism angle. For instance, next month Tyson will be headlining his first New York performance. The evening will also feature an artist showcase but he’s clearly the main draw for the label players, magazines, radio reps and industry wannabes expected to be in attendance.  According to the flyer, a “portion of the proceeds” from the $15 tickets will go to Autism Speaks. Although the exact “portion” is unspecified (and could therefore be anything), the event promoters carved out significant space for the autism organization’s logo and mission on the flyer. My question is this: If he’s really talented, why not promote him as an artist like anyone else? Alternatively, if he’s a legitimate rap act and his song is really a hit, why highlight his disability? The answer is simple. 50 Tyson is a spectacle, a one-off curiosity, and the scoundrels behind him are putting him on display for public amusement in furtherance of their own careers. Also, assuming he really is 17 and mentally disabled, how is he able to sign any of these contracts in the first place? Minors and the mentally disabled can’t legally enter contracts on their own. Did his parents sign? Did they hire their own lawyers? Who’s looking out for this kid’s interests? Sooner than later the ride he’s on is going to come to a screeching halt.

And then what happens?

What’s really sad is that he’s not in on the joke. He really believes people are watching his videos because he’s good, thinks all of the attention he’s receiving means he’s an accomplished artist.  Truth is he’s nothing more than an extreme example of what the Youtube era has spawned. The ultra-easy access to millions of viewers has led all too many of us to believe that we too can make a viral video. People see Antoine Dodson on the BET Awards and think that could be them next year. Forget paying dues. Forget dedication. Who needs talent when you can buy swagger at the mall?  Who needs substance when you can just copy what you see on the screen? Confidence has replaced competence. Positive thinking is the new national religion. Hard work is anathema. Everyone’s equal. Everyone’s got a voice. Everyone’s a blogger and a Tweeter. And why not? If the cast of Jersey Shore can draw millions of viewers every week, then why shouldn’t 50 Tyson think he has an album’s worth of material in him at the ripe old age of 17?

Oddly enough, the only decent player in all of this may be person who sparked the 50 Tyson sensation. Comedian Kevin Hart’s spoof might appear cruel in retrospect, but at least it’s honest. He saw what many of us saw when we encountered 50 Tyson the first time — an unscripted catastrophe of epic proportions — and he did what comedians and social commentators are charged with doing: he made fun of an awkward moment and in so doing normalized it so the rest of us could have a guilt-free chuckle. But  he also made an important point: Everybody isn’t born to be a ballplayer or a rapper, a model or an actress. There are some things we can do and some things we can’t. And that’s okay.

Sports fans may remember Jason McElwain. Like 50 Tyson, he was (and is) a young man living with Autism. Four years ago “J-Mac” scored 20 points in four minutes of a high school basketball game, including six three-point shots in a row. Six. There are players in the NBA who couldn’t hit six threes in a row if they were all alone in a gym.  What people may or may not know is that McElwain’s success in that moment was the result of years of hard work and preparation. He didn’t just walk in the a gym one day and let ’em rip. He practiced. He joined the team as a manager. He stuck with it. He earned a spot on the squad. He rode the bench.  He continued to stick with it. And then he got his chance. After the video of his performance aired on Sportscenter he became an instant hero to millions. He met with President Bush, won an ESPY, published a book, became a spokesperson for Autism, appeared in a Gatorade ad and even signed a movie deal. What he didn’t sign was a letter of intent to a college basketball program much less a deal with a professional team. What he didn’t become was a spectacle.

Four years after the fact Jason has his GED and a steady job in his hometown. He still loves basketball but going pro isn’t in his plans. College is.

Four years from now what will have become of 50 Tyson.

Will any of us even care?


The Most Important Race No One (Outside of Dallas)Knows About

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Danny Clancy and Dallas D.A. Craig Watkins

If the Dallas County District Attorney contest hasn’t registered on your radar yet, then it should. In the past month the race between Democratic incumbent Craig Watkins and his Republican challenger Danny Clancy has morphed from perfunctory formality to a hotly-contested school yard brawl replete with all of the finger pointing and name-calling one would expect from a local election. Clancy has repeatedly called Watkins a “celebrity politician” with a taste for the high life. In response to a question about he and his adversary’s fundamental differences at a recent debate, Watkins bluntly said, “I have a backbone, and I have a brain.” Don’t be fooled by the seemingly pedestrian dispute, though. This isn’t your typical local Democrat vs. Republican dog fight. On one level it can’t help but be about race. After all, Clancy is white, Watkins is black and Dallas is still the Deep South. As Lebron James astutely noted this week, “It’s always, you know, a race factor.”  These two particular candidates couldn’t be more diametrically opposed. Clancy is as non-threatening as they come–a pudgy, middle-aged family man without any clear political virtues other than the tried and true “experience and integrity” rigmarole.  Watkins is a large, dark outspoken black man with a massive chip on his shoulder and unapologetic ax to grind.

But race, I submit, is just a subtext, a side show, a secondary issue. This is one local election that has national policy implications.

Four years ago then 38 year-old Craig Watkins became the state’s first ever African-American District Attorney. He was part of a class of fresh-faced, post-civil rights era politicians that included then Senator Barack Obama, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Almost as soon as he took office, Watkins established the nation’s first Criminal Integrity Unit in conjunction with the Innocent Project of Texas. In the past four years the unit has overseen more DNA-based exonerations — 20 — than any other county in the nation. He’s become a celebrity, a prominent face in the justice reform movement, and an inspiration to frustrated lawyers and lay people alike. He’s received numerous awards from a range of organizations. He’s been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on “60 Minutes.” In 2009 Investigation Discovery launched “Dallas DNA,” a weekly show featuring Watkins and his team of ADAs working in the Conviction Integrity Unit.

Additionally, Watkins has leveraged his so -called “celebrity” status to secure more than $8,000,000 in grants to the county. His efforts in Dallas County have also instigated systemic reforms. The Texas Criminal Appeals Court established the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit a year after Dallas rolled out its integrity unit and this year newly elected Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance launched  a comprehensive Conviction Integrity Unit in order to “re-examine closed cases where claims of innocence have been made and to establish standard procedures for new cases to prevent wrongful convictions.”  Most importantly, perhaps, the unit’s success has opened the door for the review of non-DNA cases, three of which have resulted in exonerations, the latest of which, made headlines this past week.

This past summer I had the chance to sit down with Watkins for a candid, off-the-record interview about his work. It became clear to me during our conversation that his vision extended well beyond merely freeing those who have been wrongfully convicted. Exonerations are the tip of the iceberg. As I interpret it, his mission is to combat the culture of hyper-incarceration that have disrupted countless families and destroyed millions of lives. While his mission is by no means racially exclusive, he did readily acknowledge his concern about the state of black families and black males.

The spike in incarceration rates correlates with the War on Drugs. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, drug offenses account for roughly 2/3 of the increase in federal prisons and 1/2 of the increase in state prisons.

Michelle Alexander’s research has also yielded the following:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.  The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life.  (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status.  They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

After 1990 crime fell dramatically and yet the number of prisons and prisoners continued to climb at alarming rates

Even as drug prices fell, suggesting more availability and an abject failure of the War on Drugs, rates of incarceration of drug offenders escalated precipitously, suggesting a limitless supply of street-level drug dealers ripe for imprisonment. Special note of thanks to Dr. Glenn Loury, whose Tanner Lectures I plucked these stats from.

The challenge is convincing Americans whose only contact with courts is through voyeuristic, sensationalized television shows and movies and who honestly believe justice is meted out fairly and equitably that our  system is fundamentally fractured at its core. The dismantling of the mindset that acquiesces to and the institutions that support the furtherance of mass imprisonment is delicate work. I equate it to an intricate surgical procedure to remove a degenerative tumor deeply embedded in our national psyche.  In order for the tumor to be successfully exorcised, the anesthesia has to be administered appropriately and the surgical team has to work together seamlessly. Any disruptions in the surgical process can result in disaster. Likewise, any disruptions in the justice  reform movement opens the door for its critics to cast doubt, which in turn threatens the legitimacy of the movement itself.

Danny Clancy has a fighting chance to unseat D.A. Watkins in part because the Democratic Party has stumbled, in part because Americans have cooled on the  idea of post-racial politics and in part because the chip on Watkins’ shoulder can at times block his ability to make decisions that will preserve and extend his important work. Just a few days ago the Dallas GOP launched the The site is nothing more than a bare bones anti-Craig Watkins clearing house. And while many of the most damning claims being made — “soft on crime,” “hardly working,” “unethical behavior,” and “questionable character” — 1) are being levied by the Fox affiliate in Dallas and 2) steeped in hackneyed racist stereotypes ( ie. shiftless, lazy, and untrustworthy), they are hardly baseless.

These are a few of the more damaging charges:

1. Family members on his campaign payroll.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has paid family members or businesses they own more than $85,000 from his campaign funds, according to Unfair Park’s review of his campaign finance reports.

The Dallas  Observer

Is there anything illegal about hiring family members or paying them for services rendered? No. Given the social and political climate in Dallas, is it a good idea? No. It’s one thing if you’re an athlete or entertainer. You can hire whoever you want and the worst that’ll happen is people will call you a fool. Politics is different. Paying your brother’s company $25,000 for campaign sweat shirts and hats offers the opposition easy ammunition. Watkins may very well feel he should be entitled to hire  whoever he chooses, especially considering Texas’ history of political nepotism (Bush I and II for starters), but when you’re trying to transform an entrenched and systemic culture of mass imprisonment in the heart of the South, you don’t have ammunition to spare. Martin Luther King donated his Nobel Peace Prize earnings to the charity as did Barack Obama. They understood that they could not take the money and do with it what they wished, not when the world was watching and waiting for them to slip up. Watkins has to understand this as well, as does his family.

2. Conflict of Interest

In July of 2008 Fox’s Dallas affiliate reported that Watkins renewed his escrow officer’s license after taking office. Texas law forbids prosecuting attorneys from engaging in the private practice of law. Watkins contended that his wife continues to run the couple’s title business, however he was seen at the business on several occasions and sometimes remained there all day. Watkins’ critics argued that because his escrow license is dependent upon his law license he is, in fact, engaging in the private practice of law. Moreover, because his wife is not an attorney, her license is also dependent on his. Watkins countered by insisting that “owning a title business and closing real estate deals is not the practice of law, especially since he doesn’t represent anybody. No formal charges were ever brought against the D.A., but the brief scandal the allegation produced was bad enough. Again, an alternative would have been to either shut the business down or sign the business over to a third party.

3. Selling Access to his office

At the close of his first year in office, Watkins threw a birthday party for his staff that included donated elaborate door prizes from several corporations — American Airlines, Blockbuster and Coca-Cola among them —  and at least one criminal defense attorney. Again, Fox investigated the situation and alleged that the District Attorney’s solicitation of gifts in exchange for “face  to face” interaction with him was tantamount to a public servant asking for or accepting gifts from someone subject to an investigation. Even though none of the corporations listed in the reports was actually “subject to an investigation” at the time, critics suggested that they may be in the future and therefore the gifts could create a conflict of interest. Watkins refused to admit any wrongdoing pursuant to the receipt of the gifts and proceeded to point to an exemption that allows staff members to solicit and receive gifts so long as they are given “because of a relationship independent of the official status of the recipient.” Again, the allegation eventually died down and no formal charges were brought against the D.A., but the stain  remained. Rather than have to rely on a specious exemption, Watkins could have avoided the entire scandal by simply throwing a modest shindig.

4. Refusal to prosecute:

No one expects a police chief to be out chasing down criminals or conducting interrogations or school superintendent to be in the classroom teaching lessons, so why would we expect a D.A. who has no previous experience prosecuting felonies but does have a staff of 242 experienced prosecutors (not to mention 72 investigators and 128 support staff) to be in the court room prosecuting cases? By and large, the D.A.’s job is to ensure that his staff has the resources to carry out the mission. And arguably at least, Watkins’ work outside of Dallas benefits the county by highlighting the progress the county is making, supporting other counties in pursuing their own reform policies and generating money for the expansion of his programs, all of which he’s done admirably.

On their own these and other allegations appear nit-picky and racially motivated. However, taken together — and there are more — they begin to paint a less than stellar picture of a man who, on the whole, has done incredibly important work in a very short time. And while Watkins has always readily acknowledged his shortcomings, the concern I have now is that the mounting criticism and pressure to win re-election are conspiring  to turn a visionary into yet another politician:

1. Change in Death Penalty Stance

When Watkins took office in 2007 he stated that he was personally opposed to the death penalty on moral and religious grounds. Now he’s had a change of heart.

“I came in with a certain philosophical view. I don’t have that anymore,” Watkins told The Dallas Morning News recently. “From a religious standpoint, I think it’s an archaic way of doing justice. But in this job, I’ve seen people who cannot be rehabilitated.”

Frankly I don’t understand what he’s trying to say. It sounds equivocal, like he’s saying that he doesn’t agree with capital punishment but understands why it exists. But if he’s not implementing his values into his job, what’s he being guided by? What’s also troubling is that he uses the word “philosophical” when in fact he originally opposed capital punishment on moral and religious grounds. I’m willing to accept a change in heart, but when the change occurs in the midst of a heated campaign I have to wonder about its motivations and the sincerity of the candidate.

2. Failure to participate a televised debate

After initially agreeing to participate in the debate with his opponent, Watkins elected not to participate due to a “scheduling conflict.” I don’t know whose decision this was, but it only makes it appear as though the D.A. either has something to hide or is intimidated by his opponent.

3. Questionable indictments

Earlier this week Watkins was questioned about the timing of the Stephen Brodie exoneration. Now he’s being questioned about the timing of the indictments his office handed down to the officers involved in the beating of a motorcyclist that was caught on video:

Key lines from the story:

Usually it takes six to eight months for a grand jury to even hear a case. It’s unusual for indictments to be handed up so quickly.

There are other cases of officers facing serious charges that have yet to go to grand jury, so Watkins — who faces re-election next month — was asked if politics played a role.

“If politics played a part in this, then we wouldn’t pursue cases for the whole year,” he said. “This is an election year, but just because it’s an election year, we can’t stop the justice system.”

Watkins may be being honest and in all fairness, he’s doing the right thing in pursuing the indictments. But it’s hard to argue that at least a hint of political jockeying isn’t taking place, especially when earlier this year it was revealed that Watkins’ office delayed an investigation of two Democratic  county constables for two years. The constables allegedly used their positions inappropriately and maybe even illegally but Watkins, whose office had jurisdiction over the matter, dragged his feet on the investigation, leading his critics to wonder if he wasn’t looking out for his political mentor who,  happened to be representing one of the constables.  Watkins eventually handed the matter over to a special prosecutor.

Ultimately, perception can be more damaging than reality. Every single one of Watkins’ choices in recent weeks may be on the up and up. Believe me, I want to see the man succeed. I want him to continue to do his part to dismantle the culture of extreme punishment plaguing communities of color that we’ve grown so blithely accustomed to. But I want to challenge him to make better choices; to not fall back on the excuse that he’s being treated unfairly because of his race; to live up to the ideals that guided him to this point. As important as D.A. Watkins has been and should continue to be to the criminal justice reform movement, he is not indispensable. No one is. If he’ just going to devolve into another embattled politician who can’t get anything done because he owes too many favors and is more concerned with maintaining power than making the system work, then he may as well step aside now. (Robert Penn Warren already wrote the story of the idealist lawyer turned corrupt politician; we know how it ends.) At least he will have set a course that others can follow, nurture and advance.