Rap artist 50 Cent wowed a roomful of high school students Friday as he talked about drugs, life on the streets and perseverance, but it was as much how he said it as what he said that made the biggest impression.Soft-spoken, wearing a gray sweater, matching ball cap and enough bling to hypnotize the more than 50 young people grouped around a conference table in Mayor John M. Fabrizi‘s office, Curtis James Jackson III told them to look past the lyrics of his raps to the man he has become. “I say in one of my songs I hate cops. I don’t hate cops,” he said, nodding to Chief Bryan T. Norwood. “But I am expressing the feelings of a young boy who sees the cops take his brother away, and hates them for it.”
Another place where the words on his platinum-selling CDs don’t match the artist’s life is the emphasis on drugs. “I don’t do drugs,” he said. “That was who I was, but I changed direction. My music reflects the early part of my life.”
Growing up in Queens, the 32-year-old sold drugs with his grandparents’ encouragement, after his mother died. “I got shot five times. But everybody has pain, whether it is from losing a parent or being in a bad relationship. God fits our pain to each person.”
The juniors and seniors from Harding, Central and Bassick high schools were invited to the mayor’s office in the City Hall Annex for what they were told was a discussion with city and education officials on how services for young people can be improved.
“We chose the leaders, the ones who could take a message back,” Supt. of Schools John Ramos said.
But if the banner stretched over a walnut cabinet in the back of the room proclaiming Friday “50 Cent Curtis Jackson Day” in Bridgeport didn’t give the surprise away, the presence of so many reporters and photographers indicated something was up. Most of the students had guessed who was coming before Jackson and a few assistants slipped into the room after a 20-minute wait. They all had their cell phone cameras at the ready.
The rapper was accommodating to the girls who wanted hugs and the boy who just wanted to shake his hand. He spoke earnestly, extending his arms for emphasis, to make his points and he seemed in no hurry to leave.
Harding senior Jackie Charleston asked Jackson where his stage name came from. “50 Cent is a metaphor. It means change,” he told her.
So why do the angry rap lyrics that are so at odds with the successful performer’s real feelings continue? “Rap is very competitive,” he told the students. “You can’t show your vulnerabilities, or another artist will use that against you in their content. Also, you don’t paint the whole picture at one time, with one color. I want to show more of my character, but it has to come out over time.”
Jackson presented a $25,000 check from his G-Unity Foundation to the Hall Neighborhood House, an early childhood education program that is expanding its performing arts offerings. Director Reggie Walker accepted a large cardboard facsimile check while Fabrizi joked, “If you add a zero, Reggie, I don’t think Curtis will miss it.”
The rap artist and film star is in Bridgeport shooting a movie, “Righteous Kill” that will be released next year. “I’m spending a lot of time here and I wanted to get involved,” he told Walker and Fabrizi.
Jackson suggested that his feud with recording artist Kanye West is a marketing ploy: “His label and my label are both owned by Universal Music Group,” he said, admitting that a rapper can keep up the angry act too long.
Juan Ortiz, a Harding senior who plans to study guitar at the Berklee College of Music in Boston next year, said Jackson’s albums, particularly his early ones, are very good. “I haven’t heard much of the new one yet,” Ortiz said.
Deneshia Cooper, a Central High senior who got a hug from Jackson, said the rap artist “was who I expected him to be. He’s nice and what he’s doing is good for the community. As a young person who has also made mistakes, it’s good to see that people can turn their life around.”
Jackson told the group that the birth of his son Martin 10 years ago was the impetus he needed to change his life.
“Martin’s nickname is 25 Cent,” Fabrizi chimed in.