UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
I got some issues, that don’t nobody know about
I done some things so my family wouldn’t go with out
Lost another nigga but this time I didn’t pour it out
I took it to the face cuz it hurts when I’m sober now
Like many kids who find themselves in toxic households, Seattle’s Macntaj was an angry teenager. Expelled from more schools than he can remember, Taj found it almost impossible to channel his anger at the negativity that formed the backdrop of his existence. The son of divorced parents, Taj grew up in Skyway in South Seattle with his mom and abusive older brother. His dad, an immigrant from Ghana, had beaten the odds to achieve his own version of the American dream: a business and a middle-class life on Seattle’s affluent Mercer Island.
Bouncing back and forth between the serenity and spirituality of his father’s life and the chaos he experienced in Skyway was not enough to stop the inevitable draw of gang life.
“I have learned to exist and adapt to whatever environment. Sometimes I feel like a liar. I genuinely care about people…but there are so many things I do that contradict that.”
Everyone Taj knew, other than his father, was in a gang. He remembers the day when his brother came home after a vicious beating that opened the door to his initiation in a gang. At the age of seven, Taj saw his brother’s broken face as a badge of honor, a sign of bravery. Over the next 8 years, he saw how much other people respected and feared his brother and he wanted that respect for himself. As a teen, he started spending more and more time in Sacramento, visiting a friend living in the infamous Garden Block neighborhood. Friends he made there would frequently travel to visit him in Federal Way. Even though many thought he had already joined a gang because of his brother's affiliations, he officially became a gang member at 15 and formed brotherhood spanning Seattle and Sacramento that endures till today.
“The only reason anyone joins a gang is out of fear. Fear of what other people might think of you. I cared about what people who didn’t know me at the time thought about me.”
Anxious to prove himself, Taj took bigger and bigger risks and he was soon regarded as a leader in both cities. He believes it was divine intervention that kept him out of prison during those years.
With adulthood on the horizon, Taj came to understand that it was the brotherhood, the family that was most important to him. Guided by his meditation practice, he found that he had lost interest in the psychology of gang life. But he couldn’t abandon the relationships. The journey out of gang life, however, was slow with many set-backs along the way.
“There are a lot of brothers who don’t want me to get my hands dirty. There’s too much to lose. If I succeed, we all succeed.”
Today, Taj has found balance with his music which has always been a creative outlet and a solace. At 14, he asked his mom for a BR Boss 800 digital recorder for his birthday. This was the start of an intense obsession. He would scribble lyrics on envelopes, sticky notes, whatever he could find and then set up the recorder in the laundry room, the only room in the house where he could isolate himself, to knock out a song and burn a CD. During a pivotal 18 months studying sound engineering at Seattle’s Art Institute, Taj caught the attention of instructors, the late Tom Pfaffel and Kevin Bresler, who recognized his talent and pushed him to do better.
Alone in the recording studio, Taj enters a space where he can contemplate, reflect and feel emotions that are too raw to experience with others. He remembers people who aren’t around anymore and escapes the pressure of having to do this and pay for that. On stage, for a second in time, he has your full attention and can explain the things he cannot say when a beat’s not playing.
“Everything I don’t like about myself, everything I am ashamed of does not exist in that moment of creating music.”