The Imperfect Samaritan

The camcorder’s flip-out screen is small, but the image still captivates. A young black kid, who can’t be more than 13, sits on a rundown porch in the depressed neighborhood between Beauregard Town and the north gates of LSU, known for generations as The Bottom. A deep, but inviting voice asks the child if he’s carrying. Without hesitation, the kid lifts his long shirttail up and pulls a handgun, big and flashing in the sunlight, out from under his waistband.

His eyes narrow as he holds the Glock up for the camera the way a kid across town might show off a new baseball mitt. He wields it with the casual defiance of Dirty Harry.

Local rapper Silky Slim, 35, has hours and hours of footage just like this, most of it revealing the shock and awe of teens who arm themselves for protection, or worse. He also has too much footage from too many funerals for his friends. The compact digital video camera remains charged and ready on the backseat of his sleek black Hummer, an astonishing vehicle on any street, but particularly so in The Bottom.

He plans on compiling these real life clips into a documentary about what’s really going on in the ’hood. He wants the movie to entertain, to appall and to initiate positive change. Whatever it ends up being, the documentary should serve as a wake-up call to those who have no idea what the daily lives of so many low-income Baton Rougeans are like.

“This junk over here is rough,” Silky tells me on the first of many trips with him into the neighborhood. “It ain’t even worth livin’ in. It’s for people who ain’t got no place to go.”

Two blocks in, Silky warns me that policemen will probably stop us because I’m white, and they’ll just assume I’m in the area to score crack. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s hard to escape this right here.”

But in a sense, Silky has escaped, although not without the scars—and bullet wounds—that serve as proof of just how hard it can be.

And so Silky finds himself caught between a newfound desire to help strangers and the streetwise instincts still lingering from his days spent on the wrong side of the law. He has pending a felony accessory after the fact charge stemming from an incident in the fall. According to the official police report, a member of a tree-trimming service was fuming on his cell phone about the theft of three chainsaws when Silky approached him and “offered to get the saws back for $150.” When something is stolen in the ’hood, people often ask Silky to look into it. Believing Silky to be in league with those responsible, the man called the police and reported the theft. Silky remained at the scene and told the officer he was not intending to keep the $150, but only meant that it would cost money to buy information leading to the recovery of the chainsaws.

“You call the police, and you’ll never see those saws again,” Silky told the complainant, who could not be reached for comment. The charge is under review with the district attorney, but Silky is confident it won’t even reach a preliminary hearing. The rapper calls it $250,000 of free publicity, referring to how many times the story ran on local news along with a plug for his anti-violence activism.

“The guy did the right thing,” Silky says. “He called the police. My instinct, coming from my neighborhood, is to look into things myself. Is this whole situation going to keep me from helping people? Of course not. If it does, then I’m not too sincere about it.”

Silky grew up Arthur Reed in a poor home in The Bottom. As a teen dropout, he quickly gravitated to a life of drug dealing, intimidation and crime. “The way I grew up, and (the way) these kids grow up is if somebody take your shoes, you go kick their ass,” he says. “If you’re teaching a kid to be a soldier, he’s going to go out and find a war.”

Silky found his war in the 1980s as a founding member of the 4Down and Southside Wrecking Crews, which are credit with launching the gang violence that still poisons depressed pockets of Baton Rouge, and giving the 6 o’clock news plenty of fodder for crime reports. “There’s no glorification in being a gangsta,” he says of his own crime-addled teens and twenties. “I know, I lived that life. And all I was anticipating was death.”

Silky was just 14 when he first entered the Louisiana penal system for attempted murder and aggravated assault. He spent the next 12 years bouncing between gang life and prison. He won’t talk about what happened or why he was arrested. That was another person, and it was so long ago.

We asked a veteran cop if he could remember Silky the criminal; the detective didn’t know him personally, but thought he remembered Silky being killed.

Back then Derrick Wisham, a former north Baton Rouge gangster who used to sell drugs under the call-sign Cadillac Red, knew Silky only by reputation. He was a violent gang leader from The Bottom. “I knew he represented the south and he would ‘get busy,’ as they say,” Wisham explains. “Street people respect violence, and Silky was well-respected.”

But then something happened. In 2003 Silky and a Tahoe full of friends were driving from California back to Baton Rouge when their SUV struck another vehicle and flipped four times. The violent crash killed everyone save for the one person wearing a seatbelt: Silky Slim. He had to push a dead friend off his chest in order to escape the wreckage. “As soon as my feet hit the ground I felt God say ‘I brought you out of this, now what are you going to do?’”

Though raised in a Baptist church, Silky gravitated toward Islam after the accident. He says his violent past bred in him a beast-like mentality, and the disciplined strictures of the Muslim faith best help him stay out of trouble. Silky does not namedrop Allah or Muhammad, or refer himself as a Muslim, but he says he studies the faith, and he prays five times a day.

Now Silky is working to make The Bottom better by helping the elderly, setting an example for the youth. And he keeps filming his documentary. Silky has even convinced a couple teenagers to give up their guns.

For four years he has organized annual Stop The Killing rallies for the entire neighborhood to celebrate a day of non-violence. This year he plans to host a rally every three months. “My thing is,” Silky says confidently, “if we can do it on one day, we can do it every day.”

Still, there’s no denying his newfound purpose has to be motivated, at least in part, by overwhelming guilt.

He tells me that residents of The Bottom don’t call it that. No, here it’s called Southside, and all the young men born and raised in Southside know they have a sworn enemy in the gang from Eden Park. And anything can spark the violence. If a Southside hustler tries to sell drugs in Eden Park, or Eden Park gangsters are seen with some Southside girls, there is going to be trouble.

The goal in Southside, Silky says, is survival, and survival with “comforts”—nice cars, flashy jewelry and the latest clothes. All the material things the average young Southsider does not have become, in a lot of cases, all he tries to get.

One day I meet Mami, a wirey 92-year-old pistol, Silky tells me helped raise him since he was an infant. “Hey, baby boy,” she says, lifting her arms from the handles of her walker for a hug hello. Silky hands her a dish of homemade bread pudding he baked the night before. “Praise God,” she nearly shouts. “I was just thinking about some bread pudding, and you know, sometimes God give you just what you want.”

It’s amazing to see how many people smile and wave to him as we drive through the ’hood. Silky Slim is a superstar here. More than one person refers to him as the “Ghetto Messiah.” And not just to me for a good quote either, but also to others nearby.

Silky introduces me to Dan Collins, a two-time Vietnam veteran who tells me to keep my hand in God’s hand, and Imam Fahmee Sabree, a renovator and landscaper working on a burnt-out home in The Bottom. Then there’s Calvin Beal, a former Chicago Cub and director of the Leo S. Butler Community Center. Beal helped Silky give away books at a Halloween “treats and treasures” party. The books were the treasures.

“I seen you on the news,” one stranger tells Silky with a wide smile. “You doin’ good.”

At 17, Silky’s oldest daughter, Khatara, is nearly her father’s age when she was born. She’s going through what he calls the “headache years.” A boy at school picked on her today, and all she wants to do is talk to her dad.

Silky’s own father was sent to Angola for 24 years when Silky was 3. Now, Silky is unwed and has six kids of his own, aged 7 to 17. His youngest son Dexter wants to be a rapper like Dad. Silky doesn’t like this idea.

Weeks later Silky tells me we’re going to see someone special, someone he’s been meaning to visit for a while. He parks the Hummer and, to my surprise, leaves it running. A graying woman swings open her tattered screen door. We step over a hundred cigarette butts on the porch, and Silky swallows her with a hug. We walk into her dim, lonely home. Silky leaves the door open so he can keep one eye on his car. It feels and smells like death. And the feeling fits, I guess, because this poor lady, Mrs. Bates, has been in mourning since her son’s murder. She’s literally grieving herself to death. The man responsible only got 18 months time, and Mrs. Bates can’t make sense of any of it. Silky’s understanding eyes, his words of encouragement and pledge of support—“Anything you need,” he repeats—show her total empathy, not just that her son is gone, but in an unbelievable way that says ‘It should have been me instead.’

And Silky knows it may be him one day. All this peaceful give-up-your-guns rhetoric is likely to piss off the wrong street kid—one that thinks killing Silky will be the ultimate boost to his reputation.

“Sometimes, I’ll be at a funeral and wonder if this many people will come to mine,” Silky says. “If my life can save many others, then it’s cool. But I don’t want to be a trophy.”

Silky has seen too much death among friends and family not to consider his own fate on a daily basis. His 15-year-old nephew was shot to death on Thanksgiving Day last year.

If the elderly and his peers show excitement to see Silky, the school kids are near euphoric. One afternoon we stop by a dozen or so on their way home from Buchanan Elementary all uniformed in maroon shirts and navy pants. “Silky Slim!” they shout, eyes glazing over in the long shadows of the Hummer. “I like your car,” a young boy says. “Can I have a dollar?” Silky hands out a $20 bill and tells the kids to go to the corner store for a snack. As they dart off, a 9-year-old runs out of the house across the street. He tells Silky he needs some new shoes. “Okay,” Silky says smiling. “Go ask yo mama what size to make sure.” The kid returns seconds later and shouts “Size 2!” “All right, I’ll get you some size 2s.”

We pull away, and Silky finally plays for me some tracks from his latest album, Keep It Gutta, recorded with hot up-and-comer Lil Boosie for his own Formaldehyde Records. Months-old posters advertising the CD hang stapled to telephone poles on a half dozen street corners in The Bottom, and I’m reminded that despite his good deeds, for many, Silky’s music still is what makes him the most popular figure in the ’hood. In person he’s soft-spoken and sincere—almost meek—but when he presses PLAY, I’m hit with a gravelly assault of violent expletives.

What gives?

“I’ve got to use that language so they don’t think I’m soft,” he explains before I can even ask over the blaring backbeat of “Hard Times.” “But the lyrics tell them I don’t see anything good in the violence.”

The way Silky sees it, the senseless fights at Tara and other area high schools boil down to a turf war. It’s 225 gangsters versus 504 evacuees, and the battle is being waged in the one place these kids are forced to cohabitate: public school.

When this violence first struck Tara High, Silky approached school officials and asked them if he could speak at an assembly. Like he’s done at other high schools, Silky wanted to bring his hearse and coffin with a mirrored-bottom and tell students about the bright future they can have away from drugs and violence.

The school declined. “I don’t think they want to admit the problem,” he says. When interviewed months later, Tara Principal Luanne Estes denied receiving an offer from Silky. Though not independently confirmed, records from the rapper’s Stop The Killing Inc. dated Sept. 21 show otherwise. It’s his word against Tara’s.

Likewise, at times it can be Silky versus city officials. Do they trust him? Silky is not sure Mayor Kip Holden or Chief of Police Jeff LeDuff really do. He invited both to his Stop The Killing Rally last September, but neither showed. Silky believes their intentions are good, but they just don’t see the scope of the problem.

Holden could not be reached for comment for this article, and LeDuff declined to be interviewed about Silky. It seems neither wants to be viewed as a big supporter or critic of Silky’s efforts.

In a lot of ways, the 225 vs. 504 battle reflects the tensions buzzing between Southside and Eden Park which, in turn, reflect any number of international and racial conflicts where neighboring people have been warring for so long, eating prejudice for breakfast, that the so-called enemy ceases to be human and exists in the aggressor’s mind only as something to be extinguished.

“Everybody wants revenge,” Silky says. “But all this violence pools back. It’s like everything is open, and you can’t close the wound.”

Silky does not believe in any short-term solutions. He talks about his work affecting future generations. But he does espouse a simple formula: Better living conditions equals better people. This is what he tells me straight up, but I know what he means. He loves the people of Southside. He just means that better living conditions equal better behaving people, and less violence. And those are the stories he wants for his neighbors and for his documentary—more people coming together and fewer people dying.

After weeks of meeting with Silky and riding around the ’hood in his giant Hummer, I see his positive nature, the care and the dollar bills he hands out returned in full by the kind words, respect and love of others. Still, I can’t help but feel he is a man woefully alone in this fight. Silky is from the streets, and like he always says, it takes someone with the stench of the streets on them to make a change in the ‘hood. It’s hard to find any other street people who are lending a hand. So remaining focused and fortified isn’t always easy for the rapper. He admits that, at times, it does feel like he’s fighting a losing battle. But in those hours of doubt, Silky leans on his faith and his singularity of purpose.

“I just breathe and look at it from six feet on up,” Silky says peering out through the windshield as we ride. “I still see God’s beauty in the trees above. It’s still beautiful because God knows it’s here. Why does He have it this way? I don’t know. But I do know He has me on a mission to see it change.”