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Rapper Lil Boosie Was the ‘Sound of Ferguson’ — Fresh Out of Jail, Can He Claw His Way Back?

Rapper Lil Boosie Was the ‘Sound of Ferguson’ — Fresh Out of Jail, Can He Claw His Way Back?: Rory Kurtz

Rory Kurtz

It’s a muggy October night in Louisiana, and the crowd at the 13,500-capacity Lafayette Cajundome is growing restless. Rich Homie Quan, a 2014 breakout rap star—whose anthem “Lifestyle” is a YouTube hit with more than 100 million views—is giving it his all on stage. Auto-Tune crooner Future is up next. But the opening acts elicit only groans from the concession stands. Future abandons his set three songs in, explaining he hasn’t been paid properly. Twitter messages start to appear: “Soooooo future walked off stage at the boosie concert in Lafayette & they played fuck u after he left #messy.”

After two hours of waiting, all the crowd wants is Lil Boosie, a.k.a. Boosie Badazz. They’re accustomed to long waits, though, because until March 2014, Boosie was incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Situated on a former plantation and nicknamed “the Farm,” Angola is a veritable terminal ward for inmates on death row or serving life sentences. It’s the largest maximum-security prison in America, and Boosie served five years there in near-solitary confinement after his sentence for drug possession was followed by a false accusation of murder, a case brought by Baton Rouge’s much-feared district attorney, Hillar Moore III.

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After his release from prison, lil boosie filled stadiums for his comeback shows

Backstage, Boosie huddles with his mother, Connie; his personal DJ, Chill; and his seven-year-old daughter, Toriana, one of his seven children, who are, as he raps, from “five baby mamas with five different personalities.” At a folding table Chill furiously scrolls through Boosie’s back catalog to assemble tonight’s set. Although he has 1,040 songs, five albums and countless mixtapes at his fingertips, Chill is unsure whether this encompasses the entire Boosie oeuvre. “Boosie used to not even have a DJ,” he says. “He would go to Walmart and buy his own CDs to play at shows. I said, ‘Boosie, you can’t do that no more.’ ” Boosie, wearing head-to-toe white offset by a 10-pound, $200,000 gold Jesus piece, wanders toward Chill to discuss his set.

This scene at the Cajundome is overshadowed by outrage building 700 miles away in Ferguson, Missouri as a protest movement set to become the story of the year gains steam. Given Boosie’s release just seven months earlier, one might assume it would take time to rebuild his public profile, but in August, Boosie’s “Fuck the Police” became the soundtrack for the demonstrations against the police shooting of Michael Brown. In the track, off his 2009 album Superbad: The Return of Mr. Wipe Me Down (named one of the 50 best rapper mixtapes of all time on Complex magazine’s website), Boosie vividly describes abuses at the hands of cops. That and the song’s call-and-response chorus—“Narcotics! / Fuck ’em! / Feds! / Fuck ’em! / DAs! / Fuck ’em!”—make it a compelling piece of protest music.

Little could he have predicted the track would contribute to dozens of arrests in Ferguson, including the one captured in an August 23, 2014 YouTube video in which a protester standing outside a McDonald’s blasts Boosie’s “Fuck the Police.” He’s quickly swarmed by officers led by Missouri State Highway Patrol captain Ronald Johnson, whom Time magazine dubbed the “star of the Ferguson crisis” for his ability to calm angry crowds. As the protester is arrested, someone yells, “What law was broken?” Johnson responds that the man was “inciting”—as though publicly playing Boosie’s music could bring about riots.

It’s a plausible conclusion. “Police hot in Laffy,” tweeted one fan at the Cajundome show, “ ’cause Boosie around.” St. Louis rapper and protest leader Tef Poe called “Fuck the Police” “the national anthem of Ferguson protest grounds” in the St. Louis Riverfront Times, proclaiming Boosie had “more relevancy to Mike Brown’s peers than Al Sharpton.” Indeed, a USA Today reporter posted a Vine video just a day before Boosie’s show that captures hundreds of protesters furiously rapping the song’s lyrics directly in the face of said police.

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PROTESTERS IN FERGUSON, MISSOURI

After a moment of worship with Connie and an aunt who joyously completes a prayer with “Lawd, we gonna set it off,” Boosie walks down a cavernous hallway flanked by family and friends to ascend the stage. The stadium erupts, the throng screaming, dancing and rapping along. A sense of resurrection surrounds the man who nearly died at the hands of the Louisiana criminal justice system. The set is raw and compelling, and Boosie concludes it with “Fuck the Police,” to which he adds, “RIP, Mike Brown.”

“I could go until six in the morning,” he tells the crowd.

It’s a proud return to form, one of several since his release from Angola. “You couldn’t hear yourself talk at his first two shows,” says DJ Chill. “He could have walked off without performing and the crowds would have been satisfied.” That momentum continued with a fall 2014 mixtape titled Life After Deathrow, which garnered more than 100,000 downloads on the day of its release, building anticipation for Boosie’s first post-prison album, Touchdown 2 Cause Hell.

What has made Boosie a central figure in Ferguson, drawing thousands to welcome him back and propelling a career that only strengthened in his absence, isn’t jewels and it isn’t stunts—it’s his music, which touches listeners in ways few rappers since Tupac can. It is music made possible by his birthplace of Baton Rouge and by his fight against the racial injustice of Louisiana’s mass incarcerations—what law professor Michelle Alexander has called “the new Jim Crow.” And the resurrection that followed was born of a law-enforcement campaign that, despite its best efforts to imprison him for life, could not kill his spirit.


Under an inky black sky on a fall evening in New Orleans, I’m wandering a 650-acre gated community, searching for Lil Boosie’s home. This earns me a sarcastic text-message rebuke from the rapper’s bodyguard, friend and quasi life coach, which means I’ve been LOL’d at by Hashim Nzinga, head of the New Black Panthers.

Boosie lives 10 miles outside downtown New Orleans, deep within English Turn, a 500-home development with a Jack Nicklaus–designed golf course. A neighborhood of McMansions in a 300-year-old city where 18th and 19th century homes are de rigueur, English Turn is dysfunctional in a distinctly Crescent City manner. The lone security guard smiles and shrugs off the fact that the development has few working streetlights, symptomatic of the decline from its 1980s heyday, with the celebrities who once called it home—Emeril Lagasse and Mike Ditka among them—long gone. I’ve plugged Boosie’s address into my GPS, but the blanketing darkness makes it impossible to discern the pompously named subdivisions—the Manors, the Estates—leaving me little hope of reaching the rapper.

The aforementioned New Black Panther Party, despite its moniker, is not a successor to the similarly named 1960s civil rights group, which the original Panthers would probably consider a blessing. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have labeled the New Black Panthers a hate group. Its platform merely advocates the “elimination of institutionalized racism,” but its rhetoric is often incendiary, such as when a leader of the group’s Philadelphia chapter declared in 2009, “I hate white people. All of them. Every last iota of cracker, I hate it.… You want freedom? You going to have to kill some crackers!”

In November, fears in Ferguson were stoked by a CBS News report that the FBI had arrested two New Black Panthers over an alleged plot to detonate pipe bombs during protests. Although CBS retracted the story hours later, the men were indicted in Missouri federal court for using false statements to purchase two Hi-Point firearms. “Weak charges,” insists Nzinga. “We will win in court.”

After my phone finally lights up with directions, I reach Boosie’s 4,000-square-foot mansion, its front door framed by Grecian columns and an imposingly tall window. In the living room a flatscreen TV plays last October’s BET Awards, where Boosie performed. Bay windows overlook the golf course, palm trees swaying in the dark. For a towering man with wide shoulders and a bald head, Nzinga, who once placed a public bounty on George Zimmerman, is surprisingly gentle as he ushers me into the kitchen.

There Boosie sits, wolfing down barbecue chicken and mashed potatoes prepared by Nzinga himself. The rapper’s white T-shirt, jeans and rough, shoeless feet belie his status as one of the country’s most talented hip-hop artists. And nothing at Boosie manor resembles the tableaux one might find at the homes of other rappers: no hangers-on, no women, no weed—just Boosie, glassy-eyed after the Lafayette show, and the head of the New Black Panthers nudging him to take his insulin shot. (Boosie, who has Type 1 diabetes, has memorably rhymed, “Diabetes steady eating my insides, fucking my vision up / I swear to God I feel like giving up.”)

Boosie’s friendship with Nzinga is far from radical chic, or extremism as fashion. After all, Boosie is a black man born to working-class parents in the Deep South. He just spent five years in Angola. And “Fuck the Police” is providing the drumbeat to which Ferguson’s dissidents raise their arms, crying “Hands up, don’t shoot.” In other words, Boosie is all radical—and not a damn bit chic.


While a rapper like Rick Ross waxes poetic about becoming a billionaire and popping black bottles, Boosie pens lyrics about growing up poor, washing cars for cash and hoping one day to obtain an elusive bankroll. And while T.I. raps, “If it ain’t about the money / Nigga, I ain’t gettin’ up,” Boosie spits about being there for the impoverished and incarcerated. “I Feel Ya,” from Life After Deathrow, is one of the most empathetic songs in hip-hop today; in it Boosie raps about a raft of outcasts, including an Angola inmate whose commissary account is low and whose mother is suffering from cancer. “If nobody understands you,” the chorus goes, “I feel ya / If nobody understands what you’re going through, I feel ya.”

“It’s in the core,” he explains, pushing at Nzinga’s mashed potatoes. “It’s about that class of people who have a real lifestyle. I can’t talk about food I’d never eat, my fans would never eat, cars my fans would never see or ride in. I can’t talk about Bugattis, because I don’t have a Bugatti. I’m the one rapping about the single mother sometimes.” He pauses to wipe potatoes from his chin. “My fans know what I had to do to get where I’m at.”

It’s an enviable place to be. Last March, just before his release, Boosie signed a lucrative three-year contract with Atlantic Records. Touchdown 2 Cause Hell is one of the most anticipated rap projects of 2015. And his fan base grew while he was locked up: A “Free Boosie” movement that began in 2009 exploded into a pop culture phenomenon upon his release; even a TMZ headline proclaimed him FREE AT LAST. High-profile listeners, including Mike Epps and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, are not just admirers—they’re obsessives. Collaborations are slated with rappers from 2 Chainz to 50 Cent to Curren$y; even Justin Bieber has professed his desire to record together. Last fall Boosie delivered such a hot streak of guest verses for the likes of Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy and Rick Ross that in November 2014 Complex magazine’s website compiled his “10 best verses since being released from prison.” And his lyrics are parsed with passionate exegesis: A Twitter account tribute to the rapper’s rhymes, @TheMindofBoosie, has nearly 150,000 followers.

“Boosie is an urgent artist, one who drives the culture,” says Atlantic Records chairman and CEO Craig Kallman. “Today there’s an opening for entrants to the rap game who are doing something powerful and meaningful. Signing Boosie felt obvious. His new album will only scratch the surface of his thoughts on politics, where the country is at economically and in our history. I could see him doing the Clash’s Sandinista!”—the 1980 triple album titled after the Nicaraguan liberation movement by the iconic British punk band, the “only band that mattered”—“but two to three times over.”

Boosie was born Torrence Hatch on the south side of Baton Rouge, his mother a public-school teacher and his father, Ray, a part-time construction worker. “My dad was in the streets,” Boosie says, “but he’d bring home a check too.” Baton Rouge, the state capital and a conservative company town, is similar to Washington, D.C. but with uglier politics. Louisiana is so dominated by oil and gas companies that environmental activists call it a “petrocolonial state.” Entrenched racism and violence infect the city. “Separate and Unequal,” a recent Frontline episode about the Baton Rouge school system, follows an attempt by a group of mostly white parents to form their own town, St. George, complete with its own school district.

Since 2006 the city of 230,000 has averaged 60 homicides each year; as a measure of population, its homicide rate is more than three times that of Los Angeles. At one point a despondent local businessman erected highway billboards that read BR MURDER RATE HIGHER THAN CHICAGO.

“It’s just been like that,” Boosie explains. “Murder, murder, murder. Whoever murders most gets the most money. People will try to take your life because of what you’ve got, make you feel like you owe them something because of it. The dropout rate is sky-high and there’s so many guns, so people just be trying to protect themselves, scared for their lives.” He pauses. “Baton Rouge is crazy, you know?”

Growing up, Boosie sought shelter from south-side chaos in basketball. He played across the country as a point guard in an Amateur Athletic Union league. While the streets raged, his family life remained warm. He spent his boyhood writing poetry and hanging out at neighborhood suppers, a Baton Rouge tradition of weekend neighborhood gatherings. “You’d purchase a supper,” Connie explains, “play cards, listen to music—but not hip-hop. Love songs. Blues.” When his father passed away from cancer in 1998, Boosie realized he wanted to rap. “He didn’t want to play basketball anymore,” says Connie. “He wanted to support the family.”

For Boosie, it was a year as transformative as it was tragic. His cousin Glenn Clifton Jr., under the moniker Young Bleed, released his debut album, My Balls and My Word, on No Limit, a then-mighty New Orleans rap label. At its peak, the No Limit empire, run by rapper and entrepreneur Master P, was valued at nearly $400 million. A berth for Baton Rouge rappers in that glitzy universe (so pivotal within the national rap landscape that it popularized the term bling) raised the possibility that the smaller city could become a hip-hop epicenter too.

At the time, Baton Rouge had two major rap stars: Young Bleed and C-Loc. In 2000 Boosie joined Bleed and C-Loc’s burgeoning rap crew, the Concentration Camp, and released his solo debut, Youngest of da Camp, an auspicious work from an 18-year-old artist. The release made him the hottest rapper in the city. “When Boosie came,” he says about himself, “it’s just been history ever since.”

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BEHIND BARS, THE RAPPER CONTINUED TO RELEASE MIXTAPES, PROVING YOU CAN’T KEEP A HOT ARTIST DOWN

A pair of Baton Rouge music entrepreneurs, Marcus Roach and Melvin Vernell Jr.—known as Turk and Mel, respectively—quickly signed Boosie to their label, Trill Entertainment, on the strength of his debut. The presence of their other partner, Pimp C of the legendary Houston rap outfit UGK, persuaded Boosie to choose Trill over its competitors. Through Pimp C, Boosie met Nzinga, who was then UGK’s road manager. “I been knowing Boosie since he first came to Trill. This is nothing new,” Nzinga says, referring to their brotherly bond.

Atlantic CEO Kallman hails Turk and Mel as “great record men.” Boosie’s arrival led to phenomenal records, even after Pimp C, who became Boosie’s close mentor, died in 2007 from a codeine overdose. Most rappers boast of their prodigious output, especially in today’s mixtape-driven digital era, but Boosie’s catalog grew so vast and varied—with songs about two-faced street partners (“Betrayed”), paeans to strange sex (“Finger Fuckin’ ”), tributes to great mothers (“Mama Know Love”), cautionary tales about the streets (“Chill Out”) and sweet, heartfelt tracks dedicated to his children (“Daddy Luv U”), all delivered in his nasally punk snarl—that it is a universe unto itself. Boosie was among the first to popularize the now ubiquitous term ratchet, on a song of the same name, defined in liner notes by the song’s producer as “n., pron., v., adv. 1. To be ghetto, real, gutter, nasty. 2. It’s whatever, bout it, etc.” It’s now universal slang: Beyoncé posted a photo of herself on Insta-gram in which she sports door-knocker earrings that read RATCHET, and Miley Cyrus has been accused of co-opting ratchet culture with her embrace of twerking and gold grilles in her infamous 2013 video for “We Can’t Stop.” “When Boosie talks about being ratchet,” says Nzinga, “he’s really just telling our stories. And that’s how he became the people’s rapper.”


By the early 2000s Boosie’s career had hit its stride. He’d even managed to find a place among Baton Rouge’s white elite, with a home in the ritzy Centurion Place subdivision; a neighbor who was a judge brought cookies as a housewarming gift. But the goodwill was short-lived. Before long, Boosie was seen as a new-money nuisance, and his world began to collide with Louisiana reality, where the laissez le bon temps rouler (“let the good times roll”) image is little more than tourism marketing.

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States. If it were its own country, it would have the highest incarceration rate in the world. This is due to the state’s habitual-offender law, which mandates a prison sentence of “natural life” without parole after three felony convictions. Drug possession in Louisiana can be a felony, depending on the drug and the offender’s intent, which means multiple drug convictions can lead to a life sentence. In 2011 a 35-year-old named Cornell Hood II was handed a life sentence on his fourth marijuana-related conviction. According to a Times-Picayune series called “Louisiana Incarcerated: How We Built the World’s Prison Capital,” at least 300 inmates in the state who are serving life without parole have never been convicted of a violent crime.

Given Boosie’s revolutionary, power-challenging music, a series of drug-possession charges between 2008 and 2011 brought him serious trouble. In October 2008 Boosie was pulled over by East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies, who seized a small bag of marijuana, a blunt and a gun from his vehicle (his gun was legal, but it is illegal in Louisiana to carry a firearm while in possession of illegal drugs). In 2009 Boosie pleaded guilty to third-degree marijuana possession and was sentenced to two years in prison. Further drug charges in 2011 didn’t help the rapper, who pleaded guilty to attempting to smuggle codeine into prison. What might have been a misdemeanor in a more liberal city earned Boosie a decade in Baton Rouge, thanks to the harsh political climate and, some said, the perception among the city’s elite that his rising national profile made him a dangerous cultural force. Six years of the sentence were suspended, but the conviction’s timing could not have been worse, arriving as Superbad debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200.

The blow would soon be eclipsed by a life-defining tragedy: At 12:40 A.M. on October 21, 2009, a 35-year-old Boosie associate named Terry Boyd was shot to death at his Baton Rouge home. The shots were fired through Boyd’s window. A toxicology screen later detected morphine, marijuana and codeine in his blood. The murder was noted in the Baton Rouge Advocate’s “Police and Fire Briefs” section and scarcely anywhere else.

Law-enforcement officials claimed to have no leads, but behind the scenes fingers pointed at Boosie, perhaps the unlikeliest suspect—he and Boyd were family, as Boosie has a daughter with Boyd’s sister. During the trial, prosecutors alleged Boosie had ordered Boyd’s murder to preempt an attack after an Angola inmate warned him in a letter that Boyd was set to “jack and slap him,” as reported by Rolling Stone. Boosie and his legal team deny the letter’s existence. Prosecutors were unable to explain the meaning of “jack and slap” or why Boyd would turn on a man he had previously been amicable with in court. The letter itself has never been released to the public.

Behind bars at the Dixon Correctional Institute, Boosie had no doubt he was going to take the fall: Michael “Marlo Mike” Louding, a teenage Baton Rouge street player whose nickname stems from The Wire’s violent drug lord Marlo Stanfield, had confessed to law enforcement that Boosie paid him to kill Boyd.

Curiously, Louding provided police with factually inconsistent statements on May 14 and May 17, 2010. In the first, Louding denied any involvement in the Boyd murder, but then he reversed course. “Boosie was like, ‘Y’all need to take care of it,’ ” he told interrogators, claiming the rapper gave him $2,800 to do so.

Jason Williams, Boosie’s attorney, notes Louding was interviewed over nearly 10 hours, but police began recording only after seven hours had passed. Louding later admitted that prosecutors had offered him a deal for “less than life” for Boyd’s slaying if he cooperated against Boosie. Further, Louding claimed investigators lied to him during the interrogation, saying Boosie had a $25,000 hit out for him; getting Boosie behind bars, Louding was told, would ensure his safety.

“I was getting word from other jails of what Marlo was saying,” Boosie recalls. “I knew what was coming.” He believes Louding’s claims were the result of a law-enforcement campaign to turn Boosie’s network against him. “They were snatching all my people up off the street,” he says, “snatching up everybody.”

“Boyd was thought to have killed several people,” says Williams. “There were bullets in Baton Rouge with his name on them.”

On June 17, 2010 Boosie was indicted for first-degree murder—a charge that carries a punishment of life without parole or the death penalty. East Baton Rouge Parish is particularly death-penalty prone; in 2009 it accounted for 16 of the 82 death sentences handed down in Louisiana, more than any other parish (and all 16 were given to African American males). Boosie coped with the prospect of death at the height of his career by self-medicating. “I got high every day in jail,” he says. “I’m like, Hell, I’m in prison. I’m going to live like I’m on the street.”

His despair deepened with an intimidation campaign intended to rattle him before his trial. In early 2010 police visited Boosie at Dixon. “Came every two months, telling me they’re going to charge me with another murder, another murder, another murder,” he says. “They said, ‘We got you on seven murders.’ ” Concurrently, Louisiana DAs held press conferences to brag about their case’s strength, the big fish they had caught and the money they’d spent to bring Boosie down. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal attended one of the press conferences. The prospect of taking Boosie on as a client seemed so forbidding that few lawyers would bite. Were it not for Jason Williams, the rapper might still be behind bars, or dead.

As Boosie frantically searched for an attorney to represent him at trial, friends and associates urged him toward Williams. “You don’t know about the new Johnnie Cochran?” Boosie remembers being told. In reality, Williams shares none of the flamboyance of Cochran, who was best known for his slangy “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” defense of O.J. Simpson. With his dimpled smile and easygoing demeanor, when Williams slams the state’s case against Boosie, it is with quiet conviction rather than thunder. He’s quick to theorize why Boosie was indicted: “He was antiestablishment, questioning the authority of the DA and law enforcement in his music,” he says, “no different from Bob Dylan.”

Williams was elected to the New Orleans City Council last March (the same month Boosie was released), a position far from the flashy career moves—bigger, more famous clients and skyrocketing billable rates—of most high-profile criminal attorneys. As an African American man who has defended rich and poor alike, he is deeply familiar with the unequal scales of criminal justice. In taking on Boosie, Williams “had to go against Governor Jindal, District Attorney Hillar Moore and law enforcement itself,” he says, “and say they were wasting taxpayer dollars.” Or, as Boosie says in praise of Williams, “I was hollering at everybody, seeing who ready to go to war, to be hated if they beat this case.”

As the office of Baton Rouge DA Hillar Moore focused its campaign, the rapper boldly and publicly fought back. On a 2010 mixtape track, “Fuck ’Em All,” Boosie rhymes, “Fuck the DA Hillar Moore / Your racist ass going to hell / Probably gonna be dead / When I come outta jail.” Boosie’s lyrics against a man with the power to seek his death—in combination with his case’s high profile, his rising fame and fears for his safety—would result in his being moved from the medium-security Dixon to near-solitary “closed cell restricted” 23/1 confinement (23 hours in a cell, one hour out) on death row in Angola.

Nearly 75 percent of Angola’s 6,300 inmates are serving life sentences without parole. Few of the thousands who enter leave alive. For a drug offender like Boosie, the placement was extraordinarily unusual. High-profile inmates such as snitches and celebrities often find themselves in protective custody, but as NYU law professor Bryan Stevenson writes, “It is illegal to subject pretrial detainees to confinement that constitutes punishment. Putting someone who has not yet been tried in a prison reserved for convicted felons is almost never done. As is putting someone on death row.”

“You have to look at his behavior in prison,” responds Louisiana Department of Corrections spokesperson Pam Laborde. “You can’t just look at the crime. You have people at Angola with murder and rape convictions who are trustees”—that is, inmates with highly sought-after prison jobs and less-restrictive housing assignments. “I know he had issues at Dixon and Angola and time taken from his ‘out date’ because of those issues”—presumably including getting high behind bars to cope with his impending trial.

But locking someone away for 23 hours a day on death row over a marijuana charge—or for anything short of insanity or physical risk—can safely be called overzealous. Indeed, Amnesty International calls such treatment cruel and inhumane.

“Solitary just becomes a way of life,” Boosie recalls. “You make the best of what you have.” Fan mail kept his spirits afloat. “I got hundreds of letters a day,” he remembers, “fans cursing me out, tired of listening to other rappers. Thirteen-year-olds telling me my music was their daddy; I was the closest thing they had to a father. They would damn near have me in tears.”

When his murder trial began in May 2012, it seemed the state of Louisiana had deployed its entire legal arsenal against him. His jury was seated anonymously, protection typically reserved for violent drug kingpins. One prosecutor had a 24-hour security guard assigned to her. Snipers were perched on the courthouse roof. “It was like he was an underworld boss,” Williams says. Nzinga agrees, describing the prosecution’s attitude toward the trial as being “like [Boosie was] John Gotti.”

On the stand, key witness Louding immediately recanted his statements implicating Boosie in Boyd’s murder. To the chagrin of prosecutors, he turned out to be as unreliable as his 2010 interrogation, testifying that instead of killing Boyd on the night of the shooting, he was with Boosie at the rapper’s home. Prosecutors pressed on with flimsy evidence, including a letter from Boosie to Louding advising him to “listen to Donkey, Donkey knows the deal”—referring to Boosie’s cousin Carvis “Donkey” Webb, to whom Louding had reached out after his arrest. They argued that Boosie had told Louding to seek advice from Webb on how to tell prosecutors his confessions were coerced. Webb himself flatly rejected that interpretation, testifying that Boyd had several enemies in Baton Rouge, recalling an incident in which Boyd had been shot 12 to 14 times outside a nightclub by a man he’d robbed. When Webb’s turn on the stand backfired, prosecutors were left scrambling with scraps from Boosie’s lyrics, including “Whoever tried to play me, they dead now” and “Yo Marlo, he drive a Monte Carlo, dat bitch gray / I want him dead today, here go the cake.”

But lyrics are just that. Introducing songs as evidence has become a surprisingly commonplace prosecutorial tactic in criminal cases: A California rapper named Tiny Doo is facing 25 years to life over his alleged role in a gang that committed nine shootings; incredibly, prosecutors allege he was not involved in the gang’s violence but profited from their activities via album sales. The tactic could target any major artist with violent lyrics. “Bob Marley said he shot the sheriff,” Boosie points out. “He wasn’t indicted for it. Johnny Cash said he shot a man down in ‘Folsom Prison’ just to watch him die.”

Even without Louding’s testimony, there was a chance a jury bullied by prosecutors and blinded by circumstantial evidence could bring a murder conviction, especially in conservative Baton Rouge. But before Williams “could make it two blocks back to our hotel,” as he recalls, a unanimous verdict came down: On May 11, 2012, Boosie was found not guilty.

“Karma’s a motherfucker, man,” Boosie says now. “That’s how I feel. After all they put me through, I was acquitted in less than 40 minutes. If I was them, that would hurt.”

Louding was not as lucky: In July 2013 he was given a life sentence without parole after a first-degree murder conviction in Boyd’s slaying. Then, last February during an appeal hearing, a psychiatrist testified that Louding had PTSD, vividly describing two murders Louding had witnessed at the age of nine. But it wasn’t enough to change the mind of Judge Trudy White, who declared Louding “rotten to the core” as she passed him a Bible from the bench.

Boosie’s acquittal ensured his eventual freedom, but he had several years left to serve on drug charges. With a new lease on life, he poured himself into his work and art, penning an autobiographical screenplay and composing more than a thousand new songs. He attended church services and found meaning in menial prison tasks.

“I was the vegetable man,” he says, laughing.

That newfound focus brought an incredible payoff in his contract with Atlantic.

“We solidified the Boosie deal before he was released so he could hit the ground running,” Kallman says. But neither he nor Boosie could have predicted the cavalcade of mainstream media attention that accompanied his freedom, with coverage everywhere from Buzzfeed (“Rapper Lil Boosie is finally home—Internet, rejoice!”) to Spin (“The Free Boosie Twitter account, which numbers 141,000 followers, can rest easy for a while”). At a postrelease Atlantic press conference, rappers Bun B, Webbie and Young Jeezy stood by his side. “You’ll be surprised how many people don’t want to see a young black man come home from prison and succeed,” iconic rapper and UGK leader Bun B told the crowd. “They waited years for Mandela. They waited years for Pimp C. They waited years for Boosie.”

Boosie’s release from Angola and his prophetic role in the mushrooming anti-police-brutality movement cannot dispel the long shadow his Louisiana criminal record casts over his future, where any mistake, no matter how small, could mean decades in prison. After the Cajundome show, Boosie confesses he’s leaving Louisiana for good. “I’m just trying something new,” he says. “Louisiana is too small for me.” He pauses, struggling to place his thoughts. “Got to get on. New York, Rodeo Drive, Atlanta, you know. I’ll always love Louisiana; nothing comes before Louisiana. It’s just me living here. It’s too much going on, too much that’s been done here.”

Fans from his home state retain their near-religious devotion, with teenagers rocking “Boosie fade” haircuts and LSU sorority girls rattling off his lyrics at will. But “the not-so-Boosie crowd,” as he puts it, knows only his “crucified character.” Outside Louisiana he’ll have a clean slate; the state’s habitual-offender law makes remaining home—where he has contributed so much of his spirit, and where his fans, in turn, see him as family—too risky. Williams personally advised Boosie to move. “If he wants a real shot at freedom, he needs to go somewhere that embraces artists,” Williams explains. “We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. I don’t want him here.” His new home will be in Atlanta, where Mel and Turk moved after their own scrapes with the law similarly forced them to flee. He’ll still meet with his probation officer and undergo drug testing. And because of the long-distance relocation, most of his children will remain behind for the time being, a significant burden on the proud father.

Nzinga, clearing away dishes on the kitchen table, is less resigned to the move, viewing it as yet another dark chapter in a long history of African American artists being driven from Baton Rouge. “Half the south-side black population worked for Trill Entertainment,” Nzinga says. “They trumped false charges and chased them out. It’s an impossible place to live if you’re black and have a certain amount of money and don’t depend on white America. That’s the truth. It happened with Master P, it happened to Trill, and it’s happening with Boosie.”

He is naturally nudging Boosie to embrace his newfound status as a Ferguson icon. As we watch the USA Today reporter’s video, Boosie says, almost under his breath, “I just be feeling like I’m not the only one feeling that way. When I see it, I’m feeling like, Feel me now, feel me now.” Aware of the costs of speaking out against law enforcement, he shies away from revealing much more. Still, Boosie is hardly backing down from Ferguson: He recorded a song in Brown’s honor in the fall of 2014 called “Hands Up Don’t Shoot.”

Although his immediate future is in flux, Boosie’s prodigious musical output will not be stanched. “What I know is the struggle,” Boosie says. “What I know is what I’ve seen, what I’ve been through. And no matter what I’m worth or how much money I make, it won’t make me stop rapping, because I am and always will be the voice of people who can’t speak.

“It’s really all been uphill since the beginning,” he continues. “It used to be so easy to piss me off, and it’s so hard now. I came home making more than I was before. I know who’s real and who’s fake. I got a good situation. So when people judge my character, I smile, because I know who I am. I’m an entertainer. The corner was a long time ago.”

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