A: I thought it was funny.
Philadelphia, specifically among black men, was way ahead of the curve in terms of the popularity of wearing a beard. Rocking a beard in Philly is like wearing a chin crown. To what do you attribute the popularity? I know that there is a large percentage of African-American men in Philadelphia who are followers of the Islamic faith. Do you think that is a factor?
I do. I was raised as a Muslim. I think the beard, and specifically long facial hair, is indicative of a sense of wisdom, strength and royalty, and not just in Islamic. In most of the religious books, when men of faith or kings are described, they are usually described wearing long facial hair. The beard is a reflection of both wisdom and royalty.
I also think the barbers from Philly are the best when it comes to the beard game. I made the mistake of going to a barber who was not from Philly, and let’s just say, I would never do that again.
Do you have a specific barber from Philly that is your go-to guy?
I actually have three barbers from Philly that I use. Shout out to Faheem Alexander and the Hands of Precision shop in South Philly, Darien Hilliard in the East Falls section of Philly and Shaun “Shizz 215” Porter, a Philly barber based in Los Angeles. Those guys are true craftsmen.
Your freestyle at Harvard University in 2016 was searing and soaring epos. When I heard the line “What my father was into/sent him to his early grave/then Mom started chasing that base like Willie Mays” it felt very personal. Was it autobiographical?
It was absolutely autobiographical. I had a tumultuous childhood. My dad, Thomas Trotter, was murdered before I was a year old. From what my family members and those who knew him have told me, he was a good man, very kind to my mother and very chivalrous. Opening doors for women, very respectful.
But he was also feared. My dad grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and was associated with Mosque No. 12, which was also the birthplace of Black Brothers Inc., a.k.a., the Philadelphia Black Mafia. Years later, I discovered that my dad’s body was found near an alley in Germantown. Ironically, that same alley was not far from the location of “Night Catches Us,” a film I shot in 2010 with Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie, and directed by Tanya Hamilton.
What are some of the earliest memories of your childhood?
I grew up in Mount Airy, a middle-class enclave in the Northwestern area of Philadelphia. The most profound memory I have from my childhood, is burning down my house at 6 years old.
Wow. Really? What happened?
It was an accident. I have always been drawn to the visual arts, even as a child. I used to play with green plastic army men, and I would use a lighter to melt parts of their body, to make it seem like they were wounded as they fought each other. I had done this many times, with no problem. However, on this particular occasion, the lighter got too hot, and it burned my hand. I flung the lighter away from me, and it ignited the curtains.
My brother Keith, who was 14 years old, and my mom’s boyfriend were downstairs, and they smelled smoke. They called the Fire Department, and my mom’s boyfriend took me with him to pick up my mom from her doctor’s appointment. My brother waited for the Fire Department.
When we got back, the fire had been extinguished, but my brother had accused a few of the firemen of pocketing some jewelry and smashing some framed family pictures on the floor. My brother also said some of the firemen had destroyed some furniture that had no fire damage at all. One of the firemen got in my brother’s face and threatened him, and another swung on my brother. My brother fought back, and he was arrested.
That day was a turning point not just for me, not just for my family because of the fire, but that was the day my brother was arrested for the first time. He has been in and out of jail ever since.
Were the challenging circumstances of your childhood a catalyst in terms of your attraction to hip-hop?
I think so. The culture of hip-hop — not just the rapping but the graffiti, the dancing, the attitude — was an escape for me. Because I was a visual artist, it was the graffiti component that pulled me in. I became a tagger. I bombed walls all over the city with the name “DT” or “Double T,” which are my initials, Tariq Trotter.
When I was 12, I was arrested for tagging a basketball court in a South Philadelphia park known as the Lot. I was sentenced in juvenile court to what was known as scrub time, in the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti network. I was supervised by a lady named Jane Golden, who now runs the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, of which I have been a longstanding board member. Talk about full circle.
Do you think that your talent for tagging city walls helped you get accepted to the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts?
Absolutely, because it was connected to my passion as a visual artist. I wanted to be a painter or an illustrator.
This is the same school where you met Amir “Questlove” Thompson?
Yes. It was there that we formed the group Square Roots, that later became the Roots. Quest was a fascinating guy to me when I first met him. He has always been a brilliant musician.
How would you describe your high school years? Were they as tumultuous as your childhood?
Money was not a problem, but for a while I was selling crack. I didn’t have to, but everybody I knew at that time was either caught up selling crack or smoking it. Had it not been for one of my uncles shipping me off to Detroit to live with family members, I would have become a statistic.
After a few months, I returned to Philly. I was determined to turn my life and be successful. But not long after I returned home, my mom, Cassandra Trotter, had gone missing for a week. She had gotten addicted to crack cocaine, so it wasn’t odd for her to go AWOL for a day. I would usually see my mother once a month, which was around the time my dad’s Social Security and Navy benefits came in. However, when my mom went missing for a whole week, me, my grandmother and our family, we knew something was wrong.
Our family checked with the hospitals, the jails and then the morgue. An unidentified black woman matching my mother’s description had been admitted to the morgue. Dental records confirmed it was my mother. She had been stabbed to death.
I am so sorry. God rest her soul. Did the cops ever catch the person who murdered your mother?
Yeah. It was a 22-year-old dude who lived a few blocks away from my mom in southwest Philadelphia. He was arrested and was supposed to have gotten the death penalty, but then through some clerical error, there was almost a mistrial and he had to be tried again. I sat through two trials. I was 16. He was found guilty again in the second trial, and he is serving a life sentence.
How did all of this affect you and your art?
I felt rage. The kind of rage you see from the families at the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer or the trial of any serial killer. I know that kind of rage. For a minute I was like: “My mom was murdered, and I don’t care about anything or anyone anymore. I’m going on a killing spree.”
But at that same moment, something turned me around to want to survive. Resilience spoke to me as opposed to nihilism. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to win, and I’m going to be a success. My mom would want me to achieve greatness in life.’ That tragic experience became a positive motivation for me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.