Former drug kingpin shows how he turned wrong into right

“Freeway” Rick Ross envisioned himself speaking to crowds of people in the future despite serving a life sentence in prison for drug trafficking in the late ’90s. Ross knew that he had a story to share with people young and old alike, but that goal seemed impossibly out of reach after he was charged and sentenced for conspiracy to possess over 100 kilograms of cocaine with the intent to distribute. 

That vision came true Friday afternoon, Dec. 9 at the High School for Recording Arts (HSRA) in St. Paul as Ross spoke to an audience of students, educators, and community members. He visited HSRA as part of his speaking engagements all around the country where Ross shares his life story with audiences and imparts lessons from his life. 

“I didn’t know what I was gonna do with myself,  ’cause I’ve never had a job,” Ross said about life after prison. “The only thing I ever done was play tennis and sell dope. 

“So I was a little worried about what I was gonna do, and I knew that I couldn’t go back to the dope game because I’d already escaped life sentences a couple of times.”

Students took notes on worksheets as Ross spoke from the stage and shared his story as a convicted drug trafficker turned author, media mogul and businessman. He talked about how far he came in life despite not being able to read until the age of 28. This skill helped him find a legal loophole that would be the basis of his appeal, leading to his release in 2009. 

Background

In 1996, Ross was given a life sentence after spending years running a cross-country drug trafficking organization. Prosecutors estimated that Ross generated nearly $900 million total in cocaine sales and at one point was raking in $3 million a day from the drug trade. This was during the height of the crack epidemic in the United States. 

Information subsequently released after Ross’s conviction tied him to the Central Intelligence Agency’s efforts to fund anti-communist wars in Central America, revealing the U.S. government’s hand in pouring drugs into urban communities across the country. 

Ross’s life has inspired shows such as “Snowfall” and the film “Kill the Messenger”; however, Ross, now 62, is on a path to take back his own narrative.

How the event came together 

David Starks is a Power in Peace case manager at Face to Face and works with Ramsey County to provide youth with restorative justice options in order to avoid harsher consequences due to infractions. Starks had known of Ross’s story for years and had sought him out for speaking engagements in the past, but the timing was never right. 

“I was gonna have him come back around shortly after Philando Castille got killed,” Starks recalled. “But I was in the middle of my own court stuff and it was just kind of a little bit hectic.”

After other locations didn’t work out, Stark’s colleague, Dr. Raj Sethuraju, suggested that they host it at the High School for Recording Arts, to which Starks agreed. He connected with the school’s founder, David “TC” Ellis, who was enthusiastic about the idea. 

“He said, ‘Man, we love that. I love for my students to hear about this history and know this history.’ It was that simple,” Starks said. 

Student reaction 

HSRA seniors Ryah Davis and Arnea Agnew attended the talk by Ross and left the event with an appreciation for his story and their potential. “He kind of showed us how he turned wrong into right. How he turned something that was supposed to be a little side hustle ‘cause he needed some bread into something that funded his life,” Davis said.  

“I think he was trying to get to the point where he could have did better with his choices and could have did better in his life instead of taking the role he took, because he knew he was smart. He just didn’t know where to use his smartness,” Agnew said. 

The HSRA holds different events for students throughout the school year and invites local and national figures to speak to students. Earlier this year, rapper NLE Choppa attended the school and held a meet and greet. For Davis, the local speakers tend to have the most impact. 

“There’s times where people from the community come in, and I ain’t gonna lie, a lot of those be bigger than the famous people,” Davis said. “They could get a bigger impact on the community because they live what we live.” 

Although some younger folks might be unfamiliar with his story, Ross sees the impact that his speeches have on the young crowds he speaks to. “I’m seeing the youth catching on. 

“They like the things that I’m talking about because I keep it real, per se, and so often they’re not getting the truth. They’re not getting the answers that they want. But one of the most important things that I want them to understand is that they have to be the conductor of their life.”

While Starks wanted the youth to get a lot out of this event, he also invited several members of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office so they could learn from Ross’s story and hear from the youth. He specifically wanted members of the Collaborative Review Team (CRT) present. The CRT is made up of public defenders, prosecutors, mental health experts, and community leaders who decide on alternative justice options for youth within the Youth Justice and Wellness division of Ramsey County.

To further shape his narrative, Ross will continue to speak in front of more communities across the country as he tours his books “Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography” and his latest work, “The 21 Keys of Success.” He’s also in the process of developing a feature film about his life.

Overall, Ross’s goal is to build up the Black community economically and create a self-sustaining community with solutions for education and employment. “The only thing I’m really pushing for is economic stability for Black people,” he said. “I think that most of our problems sit around economics ‘cause we can’t get a good education without money.”

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