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Rapper Jeezy talks 'church' at Juvenile Justice Center

On Wednesday, rapper Jeezy, on tour with his newest album, Church in These Streets, addressed 80 teens in an auditorium at the Juvenile Justice Center in West Philadelphia.

On Wednesday, rapper Jeezy, on tour with his newest album, Church in These Streets, addressed 80 teens in an auditorium at the Juvenile Justice Center in West Philadelphia.

He found himself telling them something he's told his 19-year-old son.

"Everything you've been through," he said, "I've been through."

(On the Church in These Streets track "I Feel Ya," he raps: "Put your fam on your back, boy, I feel ya. / Put your hood on the map, boy, I feel ya. / You ain't got to say a word boy, I hear ya.")

Jay Jenkins (his non-rap name) used to be Lil J when he came up in 2001. Then he was Young Jeezy. Sometimes called a co-inventor of the genre known as "trap," he had a string of rap hits - and a rap sheet.

From drug-dealing to assault charges, Jeezy, 38, has made headlines for his arrests. In his talk Wednesday, he spoke of being arrested in Los Angeles last year 20 minutes before hitting the stage to perform. In front of other artists, he and members of his crew were cuffed for crimes they did not commit. He spoke of standing up against a system that too easily arrests and incarcerates black men: "I refuse to let them make me - make us - another statistic."

The title Church in These Streets may sound like a surprising choice for a man so frequently at odds with the law. But Jeezy, who these days is often affectionately nicknamed "Pastor Young," insists it is his testimony. Raised by his grandmother, he says religion kept him focused, positive, and balanced.

Throughout his talk, he stressed opportunity, responsibility, and accountability. He told his listeners to "make your next move your best move" and not to "let your surroundings dictate who you are."

His listeners, ages 13 to 19, asked how he got through his hardships. Jeezy stressed his faith. His greatest feeling of accomplishment? Buying his mom a house. What does he think about Philly rapper Meek Mill? Answer: "He's like a brother." His watch brand? Rolex.

One young man stood and began, "You talked about taking opportunities" - and then launched into a full-fledged rap "in a Trayvon hoodie, in 'hood full of Zimmermans."

The performance got a standing ovation and props from Jeezy.

After his talk, Jeezy sat in the back of the auditorium. His crucifix chain gleamed against his black T-shirt. He had a show in four hours, but this, he said, was a stop he had to make.

"It feels like talking to your little brothers and sisters," he said. "Sometimes, not having the knowledge is why we do the things that we do because we think it's cool."

But ignorance, he said, was only part of the equation. Another huge part is a law enforcement system that often seems to operate without responsibility or accountability.

"Look at a city like Philly," he said. "It's set up for the youth to fail."

Alicia Taylor, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, was pleased with the receptiveness of the audience. "There are a lot of times when we bring in people and they're not impressed," she said. "It was pretty silent when he was talking. They were listening, and I think they got it."

It was Jeezy's camp who reached out and asked for the chance to talk. Despite his own brushes with the law, Taylor said, Jeezy "held himself up as someone who has made mistakes in the past and has been able to turn himself around."

Just recently, Jeezy visited a friend in Los Angeles who is incarcerated and who, he says, is in for a long time.

"You see their eyes starting to dim," Jeezy said. "I just don't think that's the way for everything." On the subject of long sentences for drug-related crimes, he says, "You really have to think about the fact that [we] are sending someone away for 20 years for a crime that's nonviolent."

According to the Sentencing Project, in 2013, more than 35,000 people were committed to juvenile facilities. The United States leads the world in the number of people incarcerated, with more than two million behind bars - and also in the number of juveniles (18 and younger) serving life sentences.

The pendulum may be swinging Jeezy's way. Last month, in the largest one-time release of drug offenders with long sentences, the Justice Department ordered 6,000 people set free from prison. President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 inmates whose punishments were disproportionate to their drug offenses.

(Remember Jeezy's "My President" on his 2008 album, The Recession? "My president is black, my Lambo's blue"? That was four months before Obama was elected. He says that he hasn't seen all the changes he wanted to from the Obama administration, but that the president "did what he could.")

These days, it isn't rare to hear Jeezy introduced as both rapper and activist. He sat in the front row at this year's Million Man March, and five days after Michael Brown's death, he traveled to Ferguson, Mo., and has been vocal about police brutality. He said speaking out was a responsibility not only for artists, but also for "black men as a whole."

"If you hear me say anything about my culture and my people, it's because I'm grown, I'm a taxpayer, I have kids," said Jeezy. "I'm saying it from that perspective. But I've been done dirty, too."

And if he had to choose one track on the album that embodies the nation's current climate? Without hesitation, he names "Just Win."

"If you want to prove everybody wrong at the end of all this, you got to do something great," he said. "This corner they painted you in, this box they put you in, you're smart enough to get out of that."

That was something he hoped to impart to the youths - and later that evening to a sold-out Philadelphia crowd at Union Transfer. Hard tracks with heavy bass lines reverberated through the venue. Fans rapped along in fierce reverence. Here, there's royalty in the 'hood. There's grit in the pure. There's devotion to the hustle and grind. And loyalty is one of the highest virtues. In Pastor Young's church, there are no glass houses, and no one casts stones.

"In church, you hear everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly," Jeezy said. "This is church in these streets."