We Should Have Held T.I. Accountable Years Ago

What’s it going to take for us to see the red flags for what they are?

Everything should have changed for Clifford “T.I.” Harris in November 2019. That’s when the rapper went on the Ladies Like Us podcast and talked about traumatizing his daughter, Deyjah. “Not only have we had The Conversation,” he said when asked about sex education in his household, “[but] we have yearly trips to the gynecologist to check her hymen.” The tradition, he said, began the day after her 16th birthday.

After mentioning how he pressured his daughter into waiving her medical privacy during these trips (“I’m like, ‘Deyjah, they want you to sign this so we can share information. Is there anything you would not want me to know? See, Doc? Ain’t no problem.’”), T.I. described how he responded to the doctor’s suggestion that nonsexual activity can break the hymen as well: “I say, ‘Look, Doc, she don’t ride no horses, she don’t ride no bike, she don’t play no sports. Just check the hymen, please, and give me back my results expeditiously.’”

Here’s how the World Health Organization (WHO) described the practice of “virginity testing” in a 2018 report: “The examination has no scientific merit or clinical indication — the appearance of a hymen is not a reliable indication of intercourse, and there is no known examination that can prove a history of vaginal intercourse. Furthermore, the practice is a violation of the victim’s human rights and is associated with both immediate and long-term consequences that are detrimental to her physical, psychological, and social well-being.” That WHO report was published in English and Farsi — because these hymen checks are all too common in repressive regimes like Iran. That’s what T.I. took pride in subjecting his daughter to.

After the podcast aired, Deyjah Harris called the comments traumatizing, saying she felt “very shocked, hurt, angry, [and] embarrassed.” And anyone with any understanding of abuse and how we violate women’s bodies — including Planned Parenthood — saw the incident as a bright red flag. This was an act of abuse.

The saga has been on my mind a lot in the past couple of weeks as the rapper and his wife, Tiny, have been accused of sexual assault, coercion, and kidnapping by dozens of women — many of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events. The avalanche started last month when former family friend Sabrina Peterson accused T.I. of holding her at gunpoint in 2009 in front of children. She followed by posting screenshots of dozens of women coming forward about stories of coercion, drugging, and sexual assault, essentially being forced into threesomes with T.I. and Tiny. “Stop harassing my family,” Tiny wrote on Peterson’s Instagram page. “You strange. Everybody know you been special… Please get help but LEAVE US ALONE.”

T.I. released a more polished refutation. “We’ve never forced anybody, we’ve never drugged anybody against their will, we’ve never held anybody against their will,” he said in an Instagram video. “We’ve never made anybody do anything. We never sexually trafficked anything.”

Despite these denials, attorney Tyrone Blackburn is claiming to represent 11 different women, and he’s looking for investigations to be opened against the Harrises in all those cases. This is as real as it gets — and when the dust finally settles, T.I. and his wife surely won’t be the only people implicated. But they may finally be at the center of the #MeToo moment that hip-hop has been avoiding for years.

The rapper admitting to abusing his daughter should have been the beginning of the reckoning, but it was just another opportunity for us to turn a blind eye to the obvious.

The Russell Simmons rape accusations and ensuing documentary yielded muted responses within the community. Allegations of Afrika Bambaataa sexually assaulting multiple teen boys were quickly buried. The list goes on. But the T.I. and Tiny cases can go off like a time bomb across the industry and Atlanta.

The lineage from the hymen story to the accusations follows a specific and predictable script. Cracks begin to show in the facade; those early red flags are a warning sign of something more devastatingly harmful behind the scenes. The problem with those warnings is that they are often seen as overreactions — as was the case with T.I. The rapper admitting to abusing his daughter should have been the beginning of the reckoning, but it was just another opportunity for us to turn a blind eye to the obvious.

As a journalist in Atlanta, I’ve heard the rumors about T.I. and Tiny inviting other women into their relationships. Everything beyond that has been innuendo and whispers. I’ve also been in spaces with people who have mentioned a fear of candidly reporting stories about T.I. because of the way he makes his presence known in so many corners of the city has an intimidating effect.

But that doesn’t come close to excusing the ways publications have covered T.I. as a beacon of Black positivity. When LEVEL interviewed T.I. last September, the conversation touched on Tip turning 40, his desire to do a Verzuz with 50 Cent, and his parenting; his hymen comments were never mentioned. It was just another in a series of press runs that allowed T.I. to continue his clean-cut persona.

T.I. has, of course, been masterful in his branding and rebranding, building a one-man empire that could withstand allegations from people society deems expendable or ignorable. Nationally, T.I. has fashioned himself into a modern-day version of Bill Cosby’s family man persona. As the star of reality show T.I. and Tiny’s Family Hustle, he’s cast himself as a classic TV dad taking care of his many kids and working through marriage with his wife. He’s used his business ventures to make him a staple in the Atlanta corporate scene. He’s even entrenched himself in the city’s political machine, becoming part of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ transition team.

The next public phase in T.I.’s Cosby act was embodying respectability politics. Over the summer, he stood next to Bottoms and reprimanded Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. “This city don’t deserve this,” he said. “I understand that a lot of others do, but we can’t do this here. This is Wakanda. This is sacred. It’s supposed to be protected.”

The optics were clear: T.I. has made himself a member of the establishment, where respectability is more important than any cause. But in hindsight, it’s not a stretch to see the press conference and the reality show and the overall polished image as something more premeditated — something that looks a lot like armor.

T.I.’s status has become a way to guard himself and his brand from any women who dare to challenge his empire. And now the moment he’s been hedging against has finally arrived. Now he sees just how much protection he’s manufactured. It’s taken him this far and allowed him to allegedly get away with years of abuse.

Regardless of what the criminal and judicial process brings about for T.I. and Tiny, we’ll be left again wondering how we ended up here. How can someone so visible go so long without any consequences? We’ll roll out the same talking points about believing victims, about how silence is complicity. Even if we had seen T.I.’s comments about his daughter as the danger they presented, at the very least we could have forced some sort of reckoning then — which would have still been too many years too late. Yes, we need to believe survivors. But we also need to believe people who simply know what it means when a man is willing to invade his own daughter’s body. There’s no such thing as an overreaction to something like that.

Here’s the thing about these abusers: There are always signs. The more power they amass, the more power we give them with celebrity worship and plea-copping, the louder and more unavoidable the signs become — and the more invincible they feel. Their brazenness is only amplified by their ability to avoid repercussions. T.I.’s career should have hit an inflection point two years ago when he loudly and proudly admitted to his mistreatment of his daughter. And yet, nothing. It’s a refrain we’re far too tired of having to hear. My somewhat futile hope is that we trust the people trying to warn us about the truths we refuse to acknowledge.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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