Defining Black Excellence: A Conversation with Former American Gangster Freeway Rick Ross

There is a lot to be said about what it means to be Black in America. Now more than ever, we have taken to celebrating ourselves more openly; and appreciating what it truly means to be Black. Everywhere we look we’re being hypnotized with black girl magic and exhilarated with black boy joy; there’s no wonder the stories of individual excellence need to be told.

In my quest to search for the definition of Black Excellence, I realized that we are not an assemblage of people that can be defined by one experience. Certainly, the success stories of people like the Obama’s represent what it means to be excellent by societies standards; but truthfully, most Black Americans cannot identify with the life this couple lives and the achievements they’ve attained. The average Black American’s story is largely under told and under-appreciated in our society. We have to conform to the benchmarks of White America to be considered excellent. But what happens when excellence introduces itself to us in an opposing way?

I want to take readers on a journey of black excellence. From the heights of #BlackExcellence in the Harvard Law graduate who made it to the White House to the complexities of an American Gangster who has dedicated his life to elevating the black community and transforming the black mindset. Those stories are vastly different but equally important to our progress in America. I cannot attempt to paint a narrative that over simplifies our collective journey. Understanding that blackness is not linear, I wanted to explore our experience through different perspectives, and life experiences that ultimately make up our beautiful and some times challenging existence.

Freeway Rick Ross may have been a real life American gangster, but we cannot ignore the story of a man who earned $3 million a day. While his career path ultimately lead to his downfall, his story connects with millions, like the poem Mother to Son by Langston Hughes says, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, and splinters, And boards torn up, And places with no carpet on the floor — Bare.” Rick’s experience has been a journey; one I felt was great to start off this series as we explore, Defining Black Excellence.

If ever there was a story that perfectly illustrated the classic tale of tragedy turned to triumph, it’s that of Freeway Ricky Ross. Recognized as one of the most prominent American drug lords of all-time, Rick has had more than his fair share of incredible highs and devastating lows, including a 900-million-dollar cocaine empire and a 20-year stint in federal prison. Rick’s prison sentence was to be for a lifetime, but Freeway Rick is out of prison and is now authoring a new story; a story that focuses on community activism, youth mentorship, Emmy nominations and book deals. A story that would not have been possible if it weren’t for his seedy past of criminal affairs and tenacious spirit. Fortunately, for him, Americans are obsessed with a great comeback story, even that of a convicted drug lord who made hundreds of millions off of the crack epidemic and evaded the law for almost a decade. Like many fascinating stories, Rick’s has humble beginnings, and it all started by the 110 Harbor Freeway, in South Central, L.A.

Freeway Rick, was the nickname given to him by his childhood associates, as he was the Rick who lived by the freeway. Looking back to when Rick’s nickname was associated only with his childhood locality and not the LAPD taskforce that eventually took him down, he was a born hustler. “I learned at a young age that money had a certain value and the way you get money is by working, and by us growing up so poor, I despised being poor, other kids had nice clothes and nice shoes, it gave me an inferiority complex about myself that I wasn’t as good as them or I wasn’t as lucky as they were”. At an early age he collected bottles and brought them to local businesses for extra change, he gathered his friends and organized car washes and lawn care services in his neighborhood. His mother said he was always the ringleader as he was intelligent, resourceful and likable. People didn’t mind following his lead because he was never forceful, he was persuasive. He possessed a tried and true work ethic that would later catapult him to next-level success in the illicit world of drug dealing. But before Freeway Ricky played American gangster in his own life’s intricate story, he played tennis.

Rick was introduced to the game of tennis by chance; he and his childhood friends were roller-skating on a tennis court when a man named Richard Williams approached them. Richard was lugging tennis equipment around and bet the kids that they couldn’t hit a tennis ball into a box. The wager was a single quarter, but that was enough to spark the young hustler’s interest. Rick took him up on his offer, and the rest was history, almost.

He began what seemed like a promising athletic career, attending Dorsey High to compete on an all black award-winning tennis team. Rick put his all into everything he did, and tennis was no different. He made first team all-conference and second team all city. Things were looking up for Freeway Rick, he had the tenacity to become the next Arthur Ashe, even hitting with him on a few occasions. He was determined to get out of South Central, and tennis looked like his golden ticket. He had plans to attend LA Technical College to further his tennis career, but he was harboring a secret that not even his closest friends knew. Freeway Rick was intelligent and industrious, but he was also illiterate.

Rick had been able to get through school not knowing how to read or write, his promising tennis career came to an abrupt end; no college would accept a star athlete who couldn’t read. Rick’s dreams of heading a professional tennis career were shattered, but his craving for success was greater than ever. He turned to the streets.

As he had so many times in the past Rick assembled a crew, but this time it wasn’t for a neighborhood lawn care service, it was for a neighborhood car theft operation. At age 18, he had his own chop shop, big enough to hold 20 cars. He worked diligently removing front ends from cars, cashing in $700 for each. Unfortunately for him, his newest business endeavor was ephemeral, he was busted by LAPD within one year of starting what he thought was a seamless operation. He was charged with 7 counts of grand theft auto and facing 21 years in prison. Whether it was the luck of the draw, or that fortune favors Freeway Rick, he beat the case. The discovery of Freeway Ricks chop shop was due to an illegal search and seizure by LAPD, deeming the evidence that led to the charges inadmissible. He was a free man, still hungry for success, Rick turned to slinging crack cocaine.

“I needed another hustle, one of my friends called me up and he introduced me to cocaine for the first time. I didn’t believe it was so lucrative because the drug was so small.” But Rick later found out, that this drug was more than lucrative, and so his career as an American gangster began. Rick learned early that people liked their cocaine cooked in small rocks and ready to smoke. His strategy to beat out his competition was to cook the cocaine for his customers to make smoking more convenient; they coined the term “ready rock” and his plan accelerated his business tenfold.

At their peak, the Freeway Boys, as Rick’s crew was called, could sell 3 million dollars of cocaine per day, making Freeway Rick one of the most successful American drug lords of all time. Before long, his dealings extended far beyond California and into national territory, buying as much as 300 lbs. of cocaine per day to satisfy his flourishing business. He was able to stay under law enforcements radar for about a decade by keeping violence at bay in his business, realizing early on that homicides and police investigations were like twins, one always following closely behind the other. If you were associated with his organization it resembled more of a mentorship program for budding entrepreneurs than a drug cartel; he taught his guys the game and showed them they too could achieve what he had. He wanted everyone to prosper, and prosper they all did.

At age 27, Rick felt like he’d finally made it, and was ready to try his hand at legitimate entrepreneurship. He’d started dozens of businesses while building his drug empire, and his success proved he had the acumen to make any of them successful. Freeway Rick thought he had a chance to wash his hands clean of the drug game and live a life of normalcy with his family; that chance would be obliterated with three punitive words.

Life without parole was the sentence handed down to Freeway Rick after he was caught trying to facilitate a drug deal too good to pass up for one of his longtime associates. According to Rick, at the time of his arrest, he was out of the game for good only acting as a middleman for a friend. At age 28, he had fallen so far from the high life that he once knew. He had earned everything he’d ever hoped for and then some, but there was no luxury car or beachfront property that could comfort him in this time. “I was devastated, to go from having everything you want to not being able to have anything is pretty devastating, but at the same time you know that you have to make adjustments in any situation that you’re put in.”

Adjustments he did make. Rick was still illiterate when he went to prison to serve what should have been a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He took this time to reflect on his life’s decisions and expand his knowledge base. He enlisted the help of his fellow inmates to teach him to read. He went back to the drawing board, writing down alphabets and sounding them out one by one until he could sound out simple and then complex words. He journeyed from short stories to intricate novels, and before long, he was reading law books.

“I started studying law because I wanted to get out of prison and I was looking for a way out.” To his amazement, he found just that. He discovered a legal loophole that landed him an appeal in federal court. The courts saw that the three strikes law that had been used to put Freeway Rick behind bars for life without parole was inaccurately applied to his case. Rick had remarkably set himself free from a life sentence.

He was released from prison on May 4, 2009, and was ready to impact the world in a different way than he had years before. Rick never shed his gangster persona but started using it to inspire people across America to choose a better path than he had. Rick has been an avid public speaker, visiting schools, halfway houses, conferences and prisons on a self-motivated diversion plan for his people. He uses the narrative of his story to be a positive influence for at risk youths of inner city communities. His story lands well with people because it is authentic and significant to the culture that continues to influence hip-hop and television. He lived the life that has been glamorized by our favorite rap artists and movie stars. A life so influential, it led a Grammy nominated platinum selling rap star, William Roberts AKA Rick Ross to take on his name and persona for clout in the music industry. The rap star talks about a lifestyle he’s only lived in his daydreams, but one that the real Rick Ross knows all too well. Freeway Rick knows first hand that the music industry is glamorizing a lifestyle that will eventually leave its real life participants blighted if they survive it. Rick is soldiering on hope and promise of a better tomorrow for his people; becoming the mentor he never had.

“I want people to become critical thinkers if you can critically think you can solve any problem that comes your way. Follow your dreams, pick mentors that you want to be like and you can be anything you want to be.”

Since his 2009 prison release, Rick has stayed on the straight and narrow, adding multiple titles to his resume, including best selling author. In 2014 Rick published his first book entitled “Freeway Rick, the Untold Autobiography”, detailing the events of his captivating story.

Rick has also started an entrepreneurial mentorship program called “The Freeway Millionaire’s Club. His plans are to help his members become millionaires by the time they finish the program.

During his prison stint, Rick became an avid reader, finishing over 300 books. His top three for the black entrepreneur are: Think and Grow Rich, The Richest Man in Babylon and As a Man Thinketh.

“My story is a story of someone who started from nothing and made a lot, but the comeback story is of somebody who took their mistakes and turned them into positives.”

Freeway Rick has been out of prison for almost a decade and he’s rebuilt his wealth to the tune of millions as a legitimate entrepreneur. Much can be said about his captivating story, but one thing is for certain and two for sure, good fortune always follows Freeway Rick Ross.