Ice-T, the rapper, actor, and father of three, delivered the American Age Lecture on April 27 as part of Fordham’s Spring Weekend 2017.
Selected by the students, he offered advice in unedited, blunt language that left few confused as where he was coming from.
Despite being known as the Original Gangster, his advice veered toward the kind that any dad might give to their kids. He also gave career advice from the perspective of a successful businessman.
“Always be on time,” he said. “Never show up late for a check and never make anyone you want something from wait for you.”
As an actor, Ice-T is perhaps best known as Sergeant Odafin “Fin” Tutuola on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a role that he’s been playing continuously on primetime TV since 2006. He told theater students they were on the right path by studying the craft at a university, but also added, “What’s your backup plan?”
In drawing upon his own personal experiences, he was able to highlight the advantages that the audience of college students already have.
“You guys are already on the right track, you’re better off than me because [at your age]I was doing everything I could do to kill myself,” he said.
Born in Newark, New Jersey to parents who both died when he very young, Ice-T said he grew up with an aunt in wealthy suburb of Los Angeles. There, he attended a junior high school and learned to “kick it with the white kids.” But in high school he began to turn to petty crime and to affiliate himself with gangs.
“Gangs are what you do when you have nothing else in your life,” he said, calling it a “weird kind of family” that he, an orphan, was attracted to. Nevertheless, he said he never smoked, did drugs, or drank alcohol, despite the peer pressure.
He said he did, however, become a teenage father of a baby girl, which spurred him to join the army to support his family. He served four years in the infantry with the Army Rangers.
Although he left the military with an honorable discharge, he said he found the transition to civilian life difficult. Soon he was back among friends who were “hustlers and gang bangers.”
“What was I trained to do? I was a sniper. I knew how to throw a grenade. But I was not set up for a job,” he said.
For four years, he said, he was a career criminal who committed robberies but never seriously hurt someone. But to escape that life, he turned to hip hop.
“I thought, maybe I could do this and get out of trouble,” he said. “I was rapping about the stuff that I was doing and unknowingly created a genre called gangsta rap.”
Some of his more incendiary lyrics were about the police beating of Rodney King; they caught the attention of then President George H.W. Bush who denounced the rapper and which led to what he called “the deepest background check ever.”
But it was a car accident, and the subsequent 10 weeks in a hospital, that set him on a different course, he said—from being a real-life criminal to playing a cop on TV.
“You don’t guide life; you ride life,” he said. “Where you think you’ll be going now is not where you’ll end up. Always be prepared to change.”
“And you have to have the courage to stand your ground,” he said. “The ability to be who you want to be is the biggest gift you can give yourself.”