Since 2002, Zacharia Ali, founder and CEO of ZAR Entertainment, has made it his mission to unearth real-life stories of notorious criminals, with hopes of showing America’s youth the unglamorous side of this lifestyle. ZAR creates socially conscious, positive images of diverse cultures and distributes them not only domestically, but around the world. They spread their positive messages via children’s programming, animated series and comic books.
One of their most popular mediums is Gangster Chronicles, which are explicit novels and illustrated comics for teens and young adults. These stories of notorious gangsters and convicts are written by inmate contributors, turned youth advocates, Marvin Ellison and Rudy Williams, essentially to kill the curiosity about criminality. The unscripted accounts are more than simple cautionary tales. They can save lives.
Read what Ali has to say about his aha moment, why Gangster Chronicles are important to today’s youth, and why it’s necessary for impressionable youngsters to decipher hip-hop propaganda.
What prompted you to create Gangster Chronicles?
While in Japan, I saw they had a very strong admiration for the hip-hop culture, which really is not African American culture, but more of a culture that was engineered and then exported.
I had a conversation with one of the sons of a very wealthy man in Abu Dhabi. I think he was around 13 at the time, maybe 12, and everything he asked me was about Tupac, Jay Z, Martin Lawrence, Mike Tyson, R. Kelly, and Allen Iverson. It was his whole basis of his identifying with the African American culture. It led me to look beyond what was being displayed and go into research mode questioning why and who are these images and what type of values are being shared by all these different ethnic groups.
When I looked into the lifestyles of Puffy or a Jay Z, the basketball players, the football players, all of them had the same thing in common which isn’t even a rapper; they all were emulating a gangster image.
In the ’60s and ’70s, you had the Black Liberation Army, Black Panthers, all of the positives, Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, that were being pushed at the time. Then all of a sudden, you had the black exploitation films, The Mack, Goldie, Black Caesar, and all these different heroine craze. You [aspired] to be a pimp, a kingpin, as opposed to a positive force within the community.
I witnessed that same transition in the ‘80s when you had a positive outlook as far as when it came to the rap music with KRS˗One, The Jungle Brothers, Public Enemy. And, then all of a sudden it went to gangsta’ rap. From the late ’80s and early ’90s to now, that has become the predominant imagery that has projected and also replicated in the lifestyles these athletes and entertainers integrate into their persona.
Looking at it from that perspective, I said, “OK, if we’re trying to re-engineer the image that is projected, then you have to go to what created that image because these are the same mythologies are constantly being repeated.”
I said, “OK, let me go try to help kill that mythology so the lie will not continue. That led me to the head of the snake, which happens to be most of these so˗called gangsters.
The Gangster Chronicles, are explicit novels and comics that are targeting the youth. So, how do you get parents’ buy-in?
It’s really not the parents buying into it. I would say young adults. Adults because, this era, if you look at anybody under 40, there’s really no difference between, unfortunately, a 40-year-old and a 17-year-old. They’re both listening to the same music. You’re 40 and a man, you’re playing PlayStation and Xbox. If you’re 19, you’re playing PlayStation and Xbox.
There really is no difference between the role models and the young adult. You have Rick Ross who borrowed his whole handle from another person and basically is not authentically who he claims to be. How does he 17-year-old really understand what Rick Ross is talking about? He doesn’t. He doesn’t know anything about Noreaga. He doesn’t know anything about the ’80s because he wasn’t born. Then you have to look at who is Rick Ross’s client base – mostly men over 30.
Parents allow their child to listen to a Jeezy, a Rick Ross, a Lil Wayne, or any of these other rappers that are promoting gang lifestyles. Everything they’re talking about is about Crips and Bloods. But, you allow that to be in their iPod or their iPhones or whatever it is that they’re consuming on a daily basis. This is what you allow to exist which then allows the tattoos and everything else that goes with that.
On our side, it’s really not getting the validation or the approval from the parents. It’s more becoming, “Why are we relevant to the young adults?” The only way we can become relevant to the young adults is we have the names attached to our platform of the people who they’ve only heard about through the rappers and entertainers that they are very fond of. If they know who Rick Ross is, then we’re working with the real Ricky Ross. If they know who Haitian Jack is, then they’ve heard Haitian Jack through Tupac. If they know who The Black Mafia in Philadelphia, they know about the Black Mafia in Philadelphia from almost every artist that has come out of Philadelphia. Or even the same with one of our authors, Rudy Williams, who basically, “The Wire” series was based upon his street˗level dealers. Everybody knows what “The Wire” is. But, not everybody knows who Rudy Williams is, which was the crux of the whole story arc they actually built upon.
If we’re actually trying to have a healthy dialogue and rapport with the youth, then we have to have a sense of credibility of why they should listen to us or why are we even relevant.
These guys are bona fide kingpins and killers, and all that type of stuff. Like, you know how they say, “Look at the glass half˗full or half˗empty.” But, if you come from the other perspective, it’s like, if you said that you had Lil Wayne, Jeezy, and all these other guys and they come together, what do they talk about? If you listen to the content of what they’re talking about, these people, or I should say, their content is running 24/7 in the minds of the youth. What is more dangerous? I mean, do they have access to the people that we’re talking about? No. They’ve never even met these people. And, even the artists that talk about them never met them. You’re not a gangster; you’re an artist. You’re not a criminal. You sell records. You do 360 deals. You do brand integration. You sell sneakers. You sell headphones for corporations. That’s your job. So, why are you talking about getting a drug income? Like, Lil Wayne, if you’ve been rapping since you were 11 or 12, when, from the time when you were 11 to now, have you had time to be a criminal? Never. He had a record deal. I’m just saying that the youth don’t know that because they only thing that they know is this is what they’ve been hearing – the propaganda.
How did you come to get these gangsters to participate?
All of them have a very strong incentive to work and understood what I was trying to do. And, so, on the forefront, it looks menacing. “Uh, gangster crime, we got all these guys that were these big names, and they did this and they did that.” But, really it was more of using that same type of imagery to get credibility, not only with the youth, but also with the other inmates, why they should be part of our team. And, then most of the guys that have been in prison for 25˗plus years, they work with a lot of the other inmates and they teach creative writing.
Most of the violence that existed was because they didn’t know how to communicate. So, now if you can communicate in the most pristine fashion [it] is with the pen.
For more, visit gangsterchronicles.com.