University of Miami film student Scott Alboum ventured into Liberty City to look at life through the eyes of former UM cornerback Nathaniel Brooks. In Alboum's 30-minute documentary, Black with No Excuses, the camera pans the trash-lined streets of the James E. Scott Homes, where the football player grew up. The bare buildings are cramped together in military formation, each indistinguishable from the other. A helicopter flies overhead. Young mothers hang around outdoors, gossiping, braiding hair, and keeping their young from traffic. Barefoot children play and splash with water hoses while guys in tank tops loiter on the corners, picking their teeth and watching their backs. A young woman wearing a tightly wrapped up-do with blue highlights yells at the cameraman: "Don't point that shit at me!" Another woman, a canary-yellow finger wave plastered to her head, mumbles her suspicions about the camera crew's relationship to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the feds.
This is the home of Brooks's old street gang, Megaballs, now coming clean as the hip-hop enterprise Megaball 56 Entertainment. As the organization's CEO, Brooks is trying to turn his football years into a rap career that will allow him to go back to the streets on a mission he calls "bringing light to a dark area."
Brooks talks the talk of a big-time baller, a ghetto superstar. When the microphone picks up the filmmaker's fears about guns in the hood, Brooks is unsympathetic. "I'm just afraid of the trouble," admits Alboum. "You can't fault me for being afraid. How could you?"
"You came to me," Brooks replies. "This is real life. You either gonna be real with this shit, o' you ain't." Later Brooks congratulates Alboum on-camera for selecting him as a subject. "I'd follow Nate the Great," he boasts. "That's a smart move on your part. I'd follow me too." The film student followed Brooks over a period of two years, documenting his moves from the streets, to the football field, to the classroom where the athlete majored in theater.
Onstage Brooks found a script that helped him understand the life he comes from: Waiting for Godot. "You see, there's these two clowns right, and they're sitting under this tree, right, and they're just waiting to die," he explains in a recent interview. "That's just how it is in the ghetto. Everyone's just waiting to die." In his real-life rendition of Samuel Beckett's absurdist drama, he has formed a duo with fellow football player and Liberty City expatriate, O'Teman Sampson. Together the two rappers hope to lead the way out of the ghetto for other young people.
Liberty City prepared Brooks only too well for the life-and-death dichotomy of the Beckett play. He can recall about fourteen homies who lost their lives to the street, including his brother who was murdered and a sister who is serving a 22-year sentence on drug charges. "It's about victims and survivors," says Brooks. "That's how it was designed." If the young Brooks saw the toll exacted by gangbanging and drug dealing, he also saw the devastation wreaked by hard honest work at too little pay. "My dad worked three jobs without a car just to make ends meet," the rapper says with resignation. "He took the bus everywhere. He had a heart attack one morning pushing a buffer machine. He sacrificed his life for me. That's why I'm such a workaholic. People can't understand where I get my drive from." Brooks's mom passed away last year with Alzheimer's. He attributes her death to stress and high blood pressure from the negative environment. "I was working so hard to get her out of there," says Brooks, "but time just ran out on me."
Death followed Brooks even into the clean dormitory life in Coral Gables. In April 1996 his cousin and teammate, Hurricanes star Marlin Barnes, was murdered along with Barnes's girlfriend, Timwanika Lumpkins, by Lumpkins's ex-boyfriend (who later was convicted and received the death penalty). The double murder shook the campus and filled Brooks with a familiar sorrow. It also gave him fuel to succeed. "I wouldn't be playing football if it weren't for Marlin," says Brooks. "He would push me, motivate me. He'd say, Play for [my dad] Mr. Brooks.'" The "56" in Megaball 56 Entertainment memorializes Marlin's uniform number.
"I want to change the way my black people think," says Brooks of his goals as a rapper. "I want to reach every kid in every city, 'cuz there's a ghetto in every city." This spring Brooks will begin by visiting junior highs in the Miami-Dade County public school system. He will accompany motivational speaker Ricky Norris, formerly of 99 Jamz (WEDR-FM 99.1), whom the athlete describes as "the ghetto Jesse Jackson." Brooks believes his own experience will be valuable to young people. "I failed the sixth grade and the eighth grade," he declares matter-of-factly. "A lot of ignorant people don't like to read. I was like that too, but I learned. That's why I'm black with no excuses." Brooks thinks his education distinguishes him from other rappers. "These cats be running around with microphones and not going to the library," he argues. "The only time they read is when they locked up. I got street smarts and college knowledge."
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Norris agrees that Brooks will make an impact on the kids by speaking about the rigors of the music business just as he did when he spoke about sports during college. For Norris, however, part of the power of Brooks's message comes from the difficulties the rapper faces. "I want to show [the students] both sides to the entertainment world," adds Norris. "These kids just see the party and don't understand all the hard work. Nate is a good example, because he's still struggling. He's not where he wants to be."
That struggle is evident in the mixed messages Brooks sends. While he criticizes black youth's obsession with materialism, he also proudly features his new Jaguar in Black with No Excuses. A tattoo on his chiseled abdomen reads, "THUG LIFE," in homage to his idol, slain rapper Tupac Shakur, while a second tattoo reads, "LOVE LIFE," a testimony to his girlfriend and two kids who live with him in a small rental apartment near Dadeland Mall.
His music is even more out of sync with his rhetoric. His first self-produced release focused on the celestial realm, dedicated to keeping Marlin Barnes's memory alive. His second CD, Games Over, thumps heavily to Earth, full of baller clichés and derivative execution. The first track, "Money," describes all types of green in an unsophisticated call and response. There's "that shake that ass money/that get on your knees money/that crackhead money," he raps, ending with the nonsensical chorus, "I got that, you got that, she got that." The title track, featuring First Degree, begins with an eerie, synthesizer heavy, X-File-sounding bass line. The lyrics of the hook -- "the game over boy, it's all over/the Megaball player 'bout to take over" -- promote the positive Megaballer lifestyle on one level, but the mocking tone of the delivery leaves the message open to question. That delivery is an imitation of Juvenile, employing the established rapper's signature stretching of vowels and liquified last syllable. At its most successful, Games Over offers a good time, as with the remake of Ben E. King's "Stand by Me" as "Kountrified," but even then the execution is like so much you've already heard.
As Brooks monitors the downloading of his CD from the Internet, ringing up the bling-bling at nine cents per hit, he is keeping his options open, including an upcoming tryout for NFL Europe. His personal journey out of the ghetto follows the most familiar paths open to young black men. "I'm just doing what I been doin' my whole life," he concludes on Black with No Excuses, "and see who pays me first."