When we think of a poet and philosopher, we may think of someone thoughtful, well-versed, and maybe even soft-spoken. We may also think of someone down to earth and observant. That would be how you’d describe recording artist T.Y. upon meeting him. Even the name T.Y. has a story – it’s short for Tyson Crookmind. As T.Y. puts it, “Tyson was a name given to me by older members of the neighborhood who recognized at a young age, my ability to defend myself. So they started to call me Tyson. And Crookmind came in later, for my in the closet insatiable appetite for books, for reading. Crookmind is linked to crook-minded Kronos from Greek mythology.”
T.Y. was born Keen’a Dionte Ester, on May 11, 1980 in South Central Los Angeles to Brenda Penny and Alonzo Dickie Ester. His father, better known as Dickie, was a night club owner of many, including the Dynasty Night Club in Inglewood and several speakeasy after hour clubs. “My relationship with my parents was attached, tumultuous, and adoring,” says T.Y. “I was fortunate enough to have both my mother and my father. I was very much attached to them as a child. I was always with my father. I was my mother’s first son. She was sixteen when she had me so I was her everything… Tumultuous in the sense that my father did end up going to prison when I was three [until eight years old]… Adoring, because I adored them. As I grew older, I really understood and appreciated everything they did for me.”
Primarily, T.Y.’s childhood was spent in South Central Los Angeles in the street areas of Central, McKinley and Wadsworth (The Fremont District). Growing up in South Central had its positives and negatives for T.Y. Some of the positives, he says, were learning to deal with practical matters and engaging with diverse people. “That’s why I’m a social person,” says T.Y. “I’m a quiet person, but I’m a social person. I like being around other people. I learn by being around other people. I’m a visual learner.” However, South Central did have its negatives, such as putting up with harassment from police, dealing with callous people, and being exposed to ruthlessness and horrific experiences. T.Y. explains, “Every decision made is based on survival. Even as a youth when you’re out there, every decision that you make is about survival.”
When it came to school, it was never consistent for T.Y. – he spent kindergarten at Miracle Baptist Elementary School, first and second grade at Crenshaw Christian Center, third and fourth grade at La Tijera Elementary School, fifth grade at Inglewood Christian School. Part of sixth grade he spent at Chapel Of Peace Elementary, and the other at Highland Elementary in Inglewood when he moved in with his father. Seventh grade was started at Audubon Middle School in Los Angeles, but after being suspended for fighting, he went on to Bethune Middle School. For the rest of middle school, he attended, and graduated from Orville Wright Middle School. Freshman year of high school he started at Westchester High School in Westchester, California, but was suspended several times and eventually expelled. He finished freshman year at Fremont High School. While a freshman at Fremont High School, T.Y. was arrested and charged on suspicion of attempted murder. The case was investigated and dismissed thirty days after T.Y.’s arrest. However, he was expelled from Fremont High School. He moved on to John Hope Continuation School for two years, but was expelled for disciplinary reasons.
“I was very bold as a kid, but I was also a loner, shy in a sense,” relays T.Y. “I had a couple people that I could say were my friends. I wasn’t in a lot of groups. I was by myself. I think that’s why I got into a lot of fights.” Not that his family wasn’t disciplining T.Y. His father required him to do homework and household chores. But T.Y. did occasionally run away to his grandmother, Cleaster Penny’s, house. His father always found him and brought him home. When T.Y. would get suspended, his father punished him by spanking him with a wooden paddle. Once he even cut off T.Y.’s treasured curly hair. T.Y.’s parents worked, yet still made sure he had something to do, including buying him video games. Still, curiosity beckoned T.Y. “I’m seeing all this other stuff going on around me, and I was more interested in that, so that caused me to be a little rambunctious and out there, gave me fits of wildness. It was a lack of attention,” he admits. At school, T.Y. says he actually had fun, especially when it came to sports – a great outlet for an energetic kid like T.Y. “As far as academically, I wasn’t really interested in books [at that time]. I knew how to read, I knew how to do mathematics and all. I just felt like that was secondary when it came to learning and dealing in practical matters.”
As early as his middle school years, T.Y. had already been involved with street gangs and drug dealing. His freshman year at Westchester High School, he started selling drugs. He was 15 years old. After a couple years at John Hope Continuation School, he dropped out of school and became fully engaged in the street life – gang banging and selling drugs. T.Y. is a documented member of the East Side Family Swan gang. “Formally, to me, being in a gang meant a sense of belonging, a sense of camaraderie, and a sense of trust. Presently, however, to me, being in a gang… is a false sense of everything that I just mentioned. Don’t get me wrong. There are still people that I do trust, to a certain extent… that I do feel a sense of camaraderie with and towards. And even the belonging to a certain degree. However, that is not everything. I thought it was everything. I thought that everybody was a comrade, I thought everybody I could trust, only to find out that that’s not true. As long as you’re there and you’re doing the things that people think you ought to be doing, whatever that is, whatever led you into this gang life, selling drugs, shooting… But as soon as you take a fall, that’s over with.”
From a young age, T.Y. showed a proficiency in creating raps. During his teen years, T.Y. also actively engaged in writing lyrics and rapping on the streets of Watts and South Central Los Angeles. “Guys in the community and gals knew me as someone who was really lyrical and poetic. Even then, at a young age, rapping about what’s going on around me but actually making it make sense. My friends would be saying random thoughts.”
At the age of 19, T.Y. was arrested and convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to seven years in state prison. While serving his seven year prison term for armed robbery, new charges were filed against him for an unsolved homicide. If convicted, T.Y. would be sentenced to life in prison. Then, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office charged him with another crime – a state prisoner in possession of a dangerous weapon or dagger. T.Y. now faced charges in two separate cases on top of the one that sent him to prison, making it three strikes, and a conviction in either case would result in a life sentence in prison. The dangerous weapon matter was critical because it was T.Y.’s word versus a state prison guard’s – there were no other witnesses. Jerome Bradford, T.Y.’s private criminal defense attorney, quickly negotiated a plea agreement resolving both the homicide and dangerous weapon cases. Over the next sixteen years, T.Y. spent time in California state prisons, including, Delano, Salinas Valley, Kern Valley, New Folsom, Corcoran and Lancaster.
During his time in prison, T.Y. matured as a person. After the initial shock of being ripped away from his family and the loss of any control over his own life, T.Y. expresses, he began to, “Pay more attention to the choices that I made, whether it was the words that are coming out of my mouth or my actions.” While T.Y. does describe the experience of being in prison as horrific, he relates that his time was not as grim as others’. He did get into fights a lot and had to be on his guard, carrying knives with him. A lot of the violence directed at him was because of where he was from. Many people in jail came from rival neighborhoods and gangs. “Those experiences are hard lessons because it was primitive, it was almost savage-like,” says T.Y. “But through it all it helped me to exercise more self-control and to be more conscious. It didn’t harden my heart because I still like to laugh, I still like to get out and do things and see places. I don’t think people are out to get me, people are racist, none of that. Actually, I’m better off now because of that experience. I developed a sense of self while in prison. Being able to be still and take the time out to explore me.”
While in prison, T.Y. obtained his GED and earned a certification as a welder. He also developed a love for books, particularly those that spoke to his situation and taught him compassion and, “not to prejudge but also to understand and be empathetic toward another’s plight.” Among those books, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher & The Rye, John Griffin’s Black Like Me, and Viktor E. Frankl A Man’s Search For Meaning. Not to mention a love for Ancient and Black History, Greek Mythology, and Shakespeare.
For T.Y., prison provided time for self-reflection, especially on the occasions that he had to do time in “the hole,” when he had no privileges, no television, radio, or communication with other inmates or any other human beings. “Prior to going to prison I was always on the move. In order to understand who you are and what your purpose is… You have to ponder on that and be still and really go in and dig deep… It’s almost like a river running or filling up the bathtub with water. While the river is running or the bathtub is filling up with water you can’t see your reflection. But once it stops, once the river is still, and you cut the bath water off and peer down in it, then you can see your reflection.”
One thing T.Y. did while in prison was he became very productive in writing rap songs and performing them in prison talent shows and on prison tiers. Of those songs, 26 were copyrighted before he was released from prison. The songs were based on his experiences on the street and being incarcerated. For T.Y. this was a major feat. He was so prolific that many of the songs he wrote in the beginning, only those around him at the time have ever heard. As he wrote more, he began spending more time on them, giving more care and crafting them.
On May 13, 2011, news reached T.Y. that his father was shot and killed in his Rolls Royce while pulling into the driveway of his home in Baldwin Hills, California. His father’s death was all over the L.A. media and there was a $30,000 reward for anyone who gave information leading to the arrest and conviction of the people responsible. Because of being in prison, T.Y. was unable to attend his father’s funeral. T.Y. was devastated. Depression set in and to dull the pain he got high on weed and drank pruno – a prison-made wine. To T.Y., his father was his motivation. Like many a son, T.Y. wanted to show his father he could make it in the world, he could find his purpose. His father had always been there to support him in any way he could. “To be able to discover [my purpose] and my talent and to not have him around to see me go out and achieve that and accomplish that, that was my motivation. To show him I got it. All the whoopings, the punishments, I got it. I see why you were doing it now. Because you already knew that I was capable of putting these talents on display in a positive way. And he got snatched. He passed on to the next life cycle. It had me to the point I was like, what the fuck am I going for?” From 2011 to 2014, T.Y. did not write any raps. But during that time, T.Y. turned his focus inward and self-reflected.
“[My father’s death] helped me to develop a more profound respect and appreciation for time and memories.” One memory of his father was that he kept doing what he loved in life no matter what, and that inspired T.Y. to pick himself back up and want to live life again.
A year from his scheduled release from prison, T.Y. was involved in a fight on the yard of Lancaster State Prison. Charges were filed against him for possession of a deadly weapon and assault upon another inmate causing serious injury – both strike offenses. Conviction under either offense would result in him spending the rest of his natural life in prison. An offer was made by the Prosecutor for six more years in state prison, as opposed to life sentence. After consulting with his attorney, Jerome Bradford, T.Y. rejected the offer, saying, “Absolutely not.” The case proceeded to trail where a jury acquitted him of both felony charges.
On November 23, 2015 T.Y. was released from prison, and recorded his first song entitled “Trapped In” a week after being released from prison. For him, it was a surreal experience. He’d been practicing his songs for years, but suddenly, he’s free and recording songs in a studio in Torrance, California – the same studio where NWA, one of T.Y.’s inspirations, recorded their first album.
Rap music sparked T.Y.’s life as early as age seven or eight. One influence was his older brother on his father’s side, who would leave raps for people on their answering machines. T.Y.’s mother and father would not allow him to listen to explicit music. But his uncle listened to rap and when he wasn’t around, T.Y. would listen to his uncle’s rap albums. Artists who T.Y. was drawn to included NWA, DJ Quik, Mac Dre, E-40, Ice Cube, and Tupac. What impacted T.Y. was how unapologetically expressive the rap artists were about what they going through. He wanted to be able to do that himself.
Music, T.Y. has found to be a release. “A lot of things that I take in around me, visually, phonically, I probably wouldn’t just express it having a regular conversation, you and I. But when I have a pad and pencil, and not a lot of people are around and I have some music, I can release, I can let those thoughts out.” It also provides introspection for T.Y. “We move around so much daily as people. We rarely take the time to sit still and really pay attention to the things that are running through our minds. For me that’s what writing music is. It’s a form of therapy and self-reflection.”
And through the music T.Y. writes, he wants people to hear a message of hope and inspiration. He wants us to seek out knowledge of ourselves, to educate ourselves, and to believe in ourselves and believe that we have a purpose. “You’re going to see a lot of negative things, hear a lot of negative things, but that’s life. You take those things and you learn from them. There’s no such thing as a mistake. There are only experiences. Some of those experiences are good and some of them are bad, but it’s an experience nonetheless. And from that experience is something to be gained and learned.”
T.Y. wants people to hear his story because he knows that there are those who have gone through horrendous situations like his, probably even worse, and he wants you to know you are not alone. Just because you experience bad things, T.Y. says, “It doesn’t mean that you’re a failure or you’re less than or subhuman, it just means that you have a bigger testimony than the next person who hasn’t been through it. You have more to offer and share.” And know, “Before you actually go through whatever situation you’re in, you’ve got be able to see yourself through it, you’ve got to be able to see yourself making it.”
His advice to those who want to be a rap artist is this: “You have to start, to continue, and refuel. To stop thinking and write about what you’re seeing, what you’re feeling, and what you’re experiencing. And as long as you do that, you’ll get better, because practice makes perfect. So if this is something you really want to do, just like anything in life – consistency, persistence.”
To T.Y., sharing your story is crucial because words actually have a huge impact on us. “Words are everything to me. Words and expressing them. The power in them. The ability to make people cry, make people laugh, evoke thought. Words are life. You speak things into existence… There’s power in it. If I didn’t have words, I wouldn’t be anything, I don’t think. Because nobody would know how I felt, what it was I was going through.”