'My daddy was a dope dealer': Being a son in the age of mass incarceration

exp mass incarceration Chaz French Tony Lewis Jr_00000000
exp mass incarceration Chaz French Tony Lewis Jr_00000000

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    Chaz French,Tony Lewis, Jr. reflect on their fathers

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Chaz French,Tony Lewis, Jr. reflect on their fathers 02:27

Story highlights

  • DC rapper Chaz French reflects on his father and mass incarceration in the song "Pops"
  • Tony Lewis Jr., the son of a former drug kingpin, is also featured on the album

Washington (CNN)"My daddy was a dope dealer, my daddy was a street n---- ... You may say he ain't s---, but to me he's the realest."

Those are words from Washington, DC, rapper Chaz French's song, "Pops," in which the 26-year-old reflects on his once-strained relationship with his father, who was "in and out of jail" throughout his childhood.
"Growing up, my dad was in and out of jail. I used to take it out on him. I used to feel like he didn't want to be a part of my life. I used to feel like he was doing the things he was doing on purpose," French told CNN's #GetPolitical. "I used to just hold this grudge against him like, man, why isn't my dad here? Is it me? If it's something I did?"
    Chaz French and his siblings with their father in the 90s.
    But the song also reflects a coming of age for French, who is now the father of two children of his own. He said that as he became aware of the system of mass incarceration in America and how his own family is a part of a larger narrative, his anger toward his father softened. The DC rapper said he realized that despite making mistakes, his father loved him and wanted to provide for their family.
    While working on the album "True Colors," French reached out to Tony Lewis Jr. -- a community leader and re-entry expert in Washington -- and asked him to share a message on the song, "Young World."
    Tony Lewis, Jr., right, is pictured with his father while visiting him in prison in 2016.
    Once known as the son of a drug kingpin, Lewis has transformed his father's legacy and has become an advocate for criminal justice reform. He helps former inmates find jobs, mentors children with incarcerated parents and shared his experience in the autobiographical book, "Slugg: A Boy's Life in the Age of Mass Incarceration."
    "In this country when a person gets a label and the person is called an inmate, that negates father, and son and mother and daughter or whatever," Lewis told #GetPolitical. "The whole prison process is to dehumanize and so the system is not set up to promote the familial bonds that are so vital."
    According to the Prison Policy Initiative -- a nonprofit public policy think tank -- in 2016 there were more than 2.3 million people imprisoned in America in federal, state and private prisons, as well as other facilities. More than half a million of those people are incarcerated for drug convictions.
    One of those is Tony Lewis Sr., who is currently serving life without the possibility of parole for his role in helping bring crack to Washington in the 80s. The younger Lewis visited his father recently at a federal prison in Maryland.
    How has mass incarceration impacted your life?
    Chaz French: Growing up, my dad was in and out of jail ... In most of my songs prior to ("Pops"), I would bash him for not being in my life because I just clearly didn't know and it took people around me to bring mass incarceration to my mind and tell me what it really is and what it's really about.
    Chaz French is pictured with his son and his daughter.
    Tony Lewis Jr.: My father went to prison when I was 9 years old, which was in 1989. My father is still incarcerated so for the last 28 years he's been serving a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. When my father went to prison, he was sentenced under mandatory minimums ... my world got turned completely upside down.
    How did your father's absence impact your family?
    French: I guess a lot of people don't realize how much mass incarceration affects not just the person locked up but everybody around that person ... the mom, more so the kids, just everybody. It plays a toll on your mind mentally, it makes you feel like, am I not special enough? Am I not worth it?
    Tony Lewis Jr., and his father in 1986.
    Lewis: My mother started to suffer from severe mental illness and I really kind of lost both of my parents in that experience because my mother never returned to her former self ... The collateral damage that mass incarceration costs does not stop at the inmate. It really goes deep and delves down far reaching into the communities. Children all over this country are having emotional, social and academic issues as a result of mass incarceration.
    What message did you want to send in your feature on "True Colors"?
    Lewis: I wanted to speak to every child of an incarcerated parent in this country. I wanted to talk to them and let them know that I understand what you're going through. I know the difficulty and the pain, but you got to use that pain to move forward ... Also, the bigger piece is that your incarcerated parent still loves you, your incarcerated parent is special, your incarcerated parent is someone that you should still want to make proud no matter what and sometimes they're an example of what not to do.
    Tony Lewis, Jr., and his family visit his father in prison in 2017.
    What are the psychological effects of incarceration?
    Lewis: I think about my father. He's lost my grandmother, his sister, a brother. So if he was to come home today, his family is not the family that he left ... It's not just about children with incarcerated parents. I'm a parent now and I have two daughters so my children have a grandparent that's serving a life sentence, so that kind of generational trauma is being passed down.
    Tony Lewis, Sr, (left) hugs his son during a prison visit in 2016.
    French: You've been looked at as a criminal for however long you was in jail, you've been treated like basically, an animal for however long you were in there, and then when you come home, you still have that mindset that that's what you still are ... in that instance it becomes everybody around you bringing you back to life.
    Is this what you wanted to do for your father?
    French: That's exactly what I wanted to do for my dad and I feel like my dad is back to the guy that he was before he went in and a more positive way. We talk every day now, we have a better understanding of what really goes on. I'm happy that I made that song and I'm happy that we are back to normal.
    For more, check out CNN's #GetPolitical series HERE.