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T.I.'s Road To Redemption: Guest Post Point/Counterpoint

When it comes to Top 40 music, no Blogulator reader steps up to the plate to tell me when I'm right or wrong than esteemed friend Molly. So for today's post, and hopefully again in the future, we present to you a point/counterpoint discussion-style entry on Top 40 superstar T.I.'s latest venture into the media before he gets sentenced for attempting to purchase guns in a Walmart parking lot. It's a one-time only MTV series called T.I.'s Road to Redemption, and as "Tip" counts down the hours to his "day of reckoning" (as he likes to call it in epic reverb at the beginning of each episode), he attempts to find a kid on the wrong path (gang activity, usually) and basically scare them straight and help find a better path. Let's begin.

Chris: I have a love/hate/love/hate relationship with this show. I love that there's a show on MTV besides True Life that is well-meaning (though of course also exploitative), but I hate that there is little to no buzz whatsoever about its existence and that after its run is up, no one will ever mention a show like it being put on MTV again. However, I love that T.I. is doing more than just speaking engagements to fulfill his community service and is actually getting one-on-one with these kids that need guidance, but I hate that he's probably making some mad bank from doing it. In a nutshell, these are the show's two big issues that make me sad at the world and how it operates when some kind of goodness is trying to be injected into it.

Ultimately though, yes, the lives of these kids are better (if only based on what we assume to be truths when the roll epilogues at the end of each episode proclaiming the change if their lives since the show's taping), so regardless of the media and T.I.'s financially-motivated decisions, I'm glad this show exists. Cue Molly and her sociology education background to break me down and show me where I'm wrong (I'm glad we can both agree in advance at least that T.I. is mighty fine, as the commenters on MTV.com only seem to be capable of discussing on the forum pages for this show).

Molly: I love/love/love/love that we seem to be on the same page with this show at the moment. I don’t think I’ll be proving you wrong just yet, but I'm happy to break down my initial thoughts for you…

After much reflection, I determined that my biggest concern with this show is that the focal point is T.I. I mean it’s spelled out for us in the show’s title: T.I.’s Road to Redemption. His redemption is what’s at stake here, not the salvation of the youth. His wealth and celebrity give him the power to produce a show looking at these young men’s lives, but in the end he still places himself front and center. I feel like when we only expect what is required of someone (i.e. 1000 hours of community service or just being an entertainer), and they go above and beyond it – it tends to make them somewhat critic proof. It goes back to the old “means to an ends” argument: If these youths’ lives are made better in the end, does it really matter that the means T.I. used were somewhat self-serving? But there’s also the argument - as with all celebrity philanthropy I suppose - that it’s little more than a vanity project. Case in point, watching the show, I felt like I’m led to believe that in each of these cases, it’s only T.I. that was capable of “getting through” to these kids and catalyzing change. Is this a reflection of our celebrity-obsessed culture and do only celebrities possess the power to make a dramatic difference in certain kids' lives? If so, does this justify the collective apathy that has a stranglehold on American culture? Not that these questions are really answerable...

Chris: Ah yes I think you nailed that big funny feeling in my stomach on the head (hmm my body idioms seem to be colliding confusingly) that I had while watching this show. In every episode, each kid is talking to the MTV camera crew, thinking they're being interviewed for a generic show about theft or what have you, talking about how they live the way they live to survive, because they have to for their family, etc. But then T.I. walks in the room to surprise them and show them the way they're living needs to change and they're smiling and ready to go ride to a cemetery or mortuary to get a reality check so willingly. And why? Because it's someone they respect, unlike (mostly justly so) most authority figures that try to help them. So we must give the situation some credit: T.I. is someone they look up to and who has not only said no to drugs and guns (sure, not until he got caught, but said no nonetheless). Yes it makes him the Jesus figure in a sickening self-aggrandizing way and it's indirectly an order by the court, but at least part of his job is not just doing time or paying fines and lawyers or donating to vague charitable organizations. It's finding specific kids who need guidance and giving it to them straight.

So now we have to think, is the one-on-one "4-step process" (as he calls it) practical and/or realistically helpful? Or is it just another feel-good editing trick? Also, what about the kids specifically? Let's not make this all about T.I. as we've obviously been forced to by the show's nature. Or were their plights so homogenized by the show's formula that they became indistinguishable?

Molly: The kids! Way to pull at my heart strings and my brain strings.

T.I.’s four-step process does homogenize the young men. But that’s a necessary evil of forcing different stories into the same structure that most TV shows demand, complete with feel-good ending for each episode – went back to school, got a job, or is staying off the streets. Because no one wants to watch a show where T.I.’s intervention doesn’t work! I’ll be the first to admit that I crave those black screen updates at the end of all documentaries – it helps erase some of the uncertainty surrounding the rest the stories. But in reality: life = uncertainty. Whether you’re a boy in a gang or a girl from the Midwest – in the end, we all have no ultimate assurance about how our lives will turn out.

Yet, if you can get past the gimmick of the show, you can still see some truths about these kids’ lives. And sometimes the simplest images stuck with me, like seeing people sleeping on bare mattresses without sheets. For some reason that picture hit me with such a strong sense of the hopelessness and chaos that inhabits in these kids lives. A closer look also reveals the differences in each story. Some are parents, one couple is homeless, and some have given up on high school while others still have a chance to finish. While they all face some of the situational and economic obstacles, these individual stories speak volumes about their chances for long-term success. Case in point: Trey, from episode two, is lucky enough to have a mom who’s engaged, involved, and concerned for him. To me, this fact alone created a true sense of hope for his future, but sadly it was fact that was completely neglected in the episode. In each of the other episodes, there’s no one around to give a crap about and provide long-term support to the rest of the young men we meet.

But the show’s structure and consistent positive endings still give us the illusion of certainty where there is none. Especially for those of us that work with kids, it is intoxicating to think that there’s one catch-all formula that could consistently affect positive change in every kid’s life. And maybe this illusion isn’t all bad. Maybe we need these things to find hope.

So I guess I'm left with this: What can the viewer take away from a show like this? Where does it fall short? I have some thoughts, but I'll let you answer first...

Chris: Nice work refocusing our cumbersome messes of emotions. To answer your question, I must, as any jackass engaged in discourse must, respond with a question of my own. What can the viewer take away from T.I.'s Road to Redemption or what should be taken away from it? The sad fact of the matter is that the majority of the people watching probably react with some variation on the following: "T.I.'s been through this. It's good that he's helping these kids avoid the mistakes he made." And that's giving the audience a lot of credit I think. In no way, shape, or form, like you suggested by the mere inconclusiveness of each episode (despite wannabe-panaceas like checks for groceries and acting classes), does it inspire to help cultivate change.

It only inspires more passiveness, like any television show. It's spoonfed, it's soft, and it wraps up like a fairy tale each and every time, regardless of how much hurt and hesitation probably still do reside in those kids' hearts. Look at The Biggest Loser or even American Idol, people watch it because it helps them fantasize from the couch about dreams of bodacious bods or singing careers. T.I.'s show, while better than the alternative, only says, "hey look what I'm doing, you just keep sitting there and buying my songs and watching my flawless grin, but look how much good I'm bringing to the world."

God why did we delve into this monstrous beast of a show? A giant part of me feels like it's not even worth my time, but I am as guilty as anyone else - I love seeing an inspiring story, especially narrated by someone whose music I like and whose seemingly earnest changes in his own life seem to translate to those of others, regardless of how fake it may be in reality. So you get the final word, Molly. Have at it, and the only thing I want to make sure you make clear is what are the actual benefits of having this show on the air, as I clearly cannot properly articulate it.

Molly: Chris, don’t despair! To be fair, you should really acknowledge that all TV shows are monstrous beasts. Now, “what should the viewer get out of this subject matter?” is a powerful question. Oh! There are so many things, but in my mind the biggest being: racism still exists. I know the “R” word is terrifying. It makes people feel defensive, confused, and powerless. But invoking racism is not an excuse or a blame-game. It’s not a catch-all explanation for anything. But until we all can acknowledge that racism IS, that it lives and breathes in all our lives, we’re just going to run in circles like we have been for years. How do these kids’ lives not reinforce that!? In an ideal world, this show would allow viewers to see how: (1) we all allow people to live in such isolation and poverty while perpetuating racial segregation [in neighborhoods and schools] and (2) its so easy for us to genuinely not care about these things.

I definitely appreciate the overall message of the show: personal responsibility, stay positive, and work hard to achieve your dreams. Heck, those are key components of my own approach to life and the foundation of the American dream. But this show rests on the idea that these boys’ success hinges solely on whether or not they adopt a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach to life. It does a great disservice to their struggles not to acknowledge the structural challenges they’re facing.

Bottom line: T.I. could intervene and inspire these kids without a camera crew around. The only point of televising or sharing your quest for redemption is to educate or inspire others to wrestle with their own responsibility in their lives and communities. And so far this show fails on both counts. Instead of focusing only on how T.I.’s experiences mirror the kids’ and how he is uniquely suited to change their lives, a truly redemptive conception would come from humanizing their stories, universalizing their plights, and engendering a sense of collective responsibility for each others’ failures and successes.

But, in the end I know that Chris is right - it’s just another throw-away TV show that no one will remember after its run is over. But to me this show had potential, however wasted. And if we stop seeing and seeking the possibilities even in such an insignificant TV show, it’s as if we completely give up on the power of TV as a medium for education, information, and positive change. I, for one, refuse to accept that television is good for nothing more than a million versions of American Idol.

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  1. Blogger DoktorPeace | 2:27 PM |  

    I just got an e-mail from a friend saying they spotted TI and his entourage on the beach in St. Barth's. So if you'd like to include the man himself in this conversation, that's where you can find him.

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