One of the main values of hip-hop, as a culture and an art form, is as a creative outlet for Black and Latino youth to create art that reflects their lived realities. As the scholar Murray Forman reminds us, hip-hop is an entryway into conversations about the politics of race, space, and place. The storytelling and coming-of-age narratives within the music allows artists to offer introspective versions of their lives.

This is exactly what Shelby, North Carolina native Clifton Gordon seeks to accomplish with his music. 

Musically, Gordon is known as Felipe Luciano, a name he was given by an elder gang member while he was active in gang culture. The name is fitting: The original Felipe Luciano is an Afro-Latino poet and community activist. In the sixties, he served time in prison for manslaughter. Upon his release, he attended college and became an influential leader in his community. Luciano was a member of the Last Poets, a Black Power-era group mentored by Amiri Baraka, whose politically charged music and spoken word performances laid the groundwork for hip-hop. He was also a member of the Young Lords Party, a radical Latino youth-led activist group that was once gang-affiliated. 

Like Luciano, Clifton Gordon also spent time in prison. During his five-year sentence, he began taking college-credit courses through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Correctional Education Program (CEP). Since his release, Gordon’s time has been spent pursuing his music career and investing in the youth from his hometown. With the help of his wife, he launched Helping Our People Excel (HOPE), a nonprofit that focuses on historically underserved young people. The organization offers resources and programs that teach financial literacy, ownership, business development, and more—all themes that are present in Gordon’s music. 

“I remember growing up, we were super, super poor,” Gordon says. “I want to help kids that are in my position and give them a better chance because I felt like when I was younger, if I would have had that, I could’ve been like Barack Obama or somebody.” I spoke with him over the phone about what he learned in prison and his effort to modernize gangster rap.  

INDY: What does it mean to modernize gangster rap? 

FELIPE LUCIANO: I believe in the past, a lot of people that did gangster rap, there was a lot of conscious undertones to what they were saying, like NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police.” A lot of the gangster rap after that just glorified drugs, murder, and calling women names. What I wanted to do was actually give heart and emotion to what’s going on. [The industry] will give you a film like Menace II Society or Paid in Full, or various albums like Doggy Style, but they don’t really talk about the important moments—the moments where you get incarcerated and you’re going through a series of emotions. 

I want to be as authentic as possible so that people can see what I’ve been through. These are real true-life stories. And if you know what you’re getting into before you actually get into it, then more than likely you won’t take that path. And if you do take that path, you do have somebody that can give you some type of advice or guidance on how to find an exit strategy. I think it’s important to have someone who understands a more realistic perspective instead of completely glorifying some of the aspects of a particular lifestyle. 

I’m always conscious that in hip-hop there’s a lane for everybody. Yo Gotti and Pusha T have a specific audience. Kendrick and J. Cole, they have a specific audience, which may be different than Gotti’s and Pusha T’s. Who is your target audience, and how have you been building your fan base? 

I would say that I have a wide range of music that I do. The music that I’ve released as of now fits closely with Meek Mill and Yo Gotti’s sound and approach. But what I’m doing differently is, I’m expressing my story and the fact that I’ve been through certain things. I’m also sharing what I’ve seen—the good and the bad. I had a line in my song “Holy” where I say, “Get a line of credit if you show a hundred racks.” I’m talking about BB&T Bank. They have a program for business owners where, if you deposit $100,000 within a business account in a month’s time, they then offer a $500,000 line of credit. 

So, I’m sharing certain stuff that can get people out of the streets. I’m telling you my story, like, yeah, I’m a D-boy, I come from being a gang member. But listen, this is what you can do to get yourself out of that. Let’s invest into real estate, let’s do different things so that we don’t have to continue there. My plan is to just solidify who I am as an individual. I want my audience to grow with me over time and see how far I’ve come. My music is for people who listen to street music. My music is like high-class gangster music. 

I want to talk in-depth about your experiences—the ones you are intentional about not glorifying. What do you think attracted you to join a gang? 

A few different reasons. My father was killed when I was two years old. Although there was a male figure in the household, he wasn’t really much of a role model. We ended up moving to the West Coast. While in California, we moved to a gang-affiliated neighborhood. I used to get into it with these people all the time. You gotta remember, I’m not from there. I don’t know anything about gangs. I’m from a very small city in North Carolina, so I don’t know what’s going on. I’m getting jumped every day. It was rough. 

We then moved to a rival gang’s neighborhood, and they were just kind of like, “What’s up youngin.” They really embraced and helped me to develop and grow. They pretty much raised me and looked out for me. It was like a father figure, uncles and cousins—you know, a family that I didn’t have, in a big city that I wasn’t from. 

People view gang membership like this crazy thing, but everybody has rivals. Of course, with gang-banging sometimes it just goes too far left. But everybody has rivals—Democratic party versus  Republican party. You got teams that are school rivals. 

Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in jail? What were the top three things you learned? 

My experience in prison was probably far different from a lot of people because I went to prison in North Carolina but with a California West Coast mentality. While in prison I witnessed the entire infrastructure of what I knew of being a gang member crumble around me. It was also very violent. It was so violent that I had to desensitize myself. And for a long time, it was difficult for me to express my emotions. 

The experience definitely taught me how to read people. It taught me that most people are just the same exact person just in different bodies. Meaning, they have the same behavior patterns.

Being alone in prison and not having any visitors taught me that everybody is being used in the world. Some of us recognize that we’re being used and some of us don’t. What it comes down to is, if you feel bad about someone using you—if the exchange is not even—that’s the difference. 

I realized early on that there was a toxic usage of who I was as an individual. I had to learn how to not give as much of myself to people, and if I started feeling used in a situation, it then became OK for me to leave the situation. I left prison with a lot of life lessons. 

Do you think that you were able to maintain your sanity in prison? If so, how? And if not, how did you get it back? 

I believe I was able to maintain my sanity. There’s a mentor that I had in prison. He’s doing life with no parole. He was very violent if you tried him. But he was the most peaceful person that I ever came across in my life. When I first got to the prison, I was so angry with so many people, because I felt like they used and abandoned me, and he said to me, “Lil bro, you got to understand that just because we here it don’t mean the world stops.” He challenged me to think about how much stuff happens in a 24-hour period in my life when I was in the streets. He would say, “Just because you here reflecting and trying to change doesn’t mean all those other people that you dealt with in the past are reflecting and trying to change, too. So you gotta come to grips with studying yourself and trying to better yourself on a consistent basis.” 

He would say over and over again, “Study yourself, study yourself, study yourself some more, because you’ll never completely master self.” What he was trying to say is that there’ll never be a point where you’re a perfect human being, but as long as you’re studying yourself every day, having a time of reflection will allow you to be better.  I began to have a quiet time where I reflected on what I did throughout the day, like how I interacted with other people, how I made those people feel, and what I could do differently moving forward. In prison, I became more respectful, and I became more conscious of how I treated people that were around me. 

Can you share with me about your new song dedicated to Black women?

It’s called “Black Girl Magic,” and it’s actually one of my favorite songs. The song came about through a conversation with my wife. I wanted to make something that Black girls and women can dance to and feel good about themselves. I just wanted to celebrate Black women and let them know they are the backbone of our communities.   

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