(JACKSON, Miss.) — After rap artist Kirk Williams received his master’s degree recently from JSU it marked another Cinderella story for a man who at age 14 had been a drug dealer, homeless and was once declared dead three times by medical personnel after being shot while protecting his sister in an assault.
Williams, 36, and a father of two, grew up on the west side of town, just a couple streets over from Jackson State University. The risky life he lived as a teen on Deer Park street was in contrast to the bustling activity at the neighboring HBCU that eventually would change his life.
The graduate in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning was lucky to avoid a felony, he said. “To come from an environment where 98 percent of people have felonies around you, there is always a concern about being able to register for school and apply for financial aid.”
He admits that “I can tell a man that I’m not a felon – even if I should have been. You can’t say that you’re not one just because you haven’t been prosecuted. You just managed to escape those hoops by the grace of God.”
Those run-ins with authorities resulted in a few misdemeanors. There was a time when police ransacked his home searching for drugs. Indeed, Williams’ young life was different from the average person at his age. “At 14 years old, I was renting from my neighbor and dealing with bills, and my woman was 33. I didn’t have a childhood.
Fast-forward to 2020, Williams now has “MA” after his name. It signifies that he has earned a Master’s of Arts in Urban and Regional Planning. His concentration is in Community Development and Housing Environment in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology. He finished with a 3.9 GPA and was invited into two honors societies.
Along with this accomplishment, he’s also an author, photographer and a rapper who has performed in nearly every state in the southern region.
Also, he expects to release his soon-to-be published book “The Latest I Can Be Was On Time.” And he’s still not done. For eight years, he was signed to a major record label, 35-35 Entertainment. Now, his current and fourth album, “GOD, GLORY & GOLD,” will be his third independent work. It’s available on iTunes, Spotify and other major platforms.
However, earning his degree was first and foremost. Equally important, he said, is trying to persuade his graduating 18-year-old daughter, Kirledra Williams, to follow in his footsteps by attending an HBCU – preferably JSU. His son Lerogerick Derrick is 12 years old, and his ambition is to play professional basketball.
Meanwhile, before the elder Williams could have ever considered obtaining this latest degree, let alone his associate of arts or bachelor’s, he first had to pass the GED exam. This was no easy task.
By all measures, he considers the GED as having been the most difficult educational goal to accomplish. That’s because he was a dropout after the eighth grade, and he had very little guidance on how to excel academically. On four consecutive tries, he scored well with most subjects, but math was his Achilles heel. He was forced to try yet again.
Williams knew that his failed attempts to earn his GED were perhaps the chief obstacle holding him back. Yet, to appreciate his present, you first need to examine his past.
Born in Illinois, Williams’ troubled life began after witnessing the killings of his cousin’s father and his paternal uncle in their Chicago home. That’s when his grandmother decided to rescue and relocate him (the second oldest) and his four siblings back to her native Mississippi, leaving behind Williams’ mother and father – both of whom were “young drug hustlers” who were trying to make a living for themselves.
The family settled briefly in Holmes County, specifically Pickens, where his grandmother had lived before she moved to Illinois years ago. Soon, the grandmother and five children (three girls and two boys) made Jackson their new home, which was a single-bedroom apartment.
Over time, the family was blessed with a two-bedroom apartment, but the extra space didn’t last long. Other relatives moved in, bringing the number of grandchildren in the apartment to more than 13.
“We maintained that for a while,” Williams said. “I got to see my grandmother’s struggles, how she embraced those struggles and how she overcame those struggles. This added to me becoming strong and never giving up.”
After his grandmother realized Williams was no longer going to school after eighth grade, she kicked him out.
“I remember my first day of signing up for ninth grade. I refused to go to the bus stop because I knew that I didn’t have the proper gear. It was my education versus my reality. I was embarrassed about what I didn’t have. So, I refused. The days she thought I was in school I would just go around the block or wherever.”
Sadly, she had a stroke and died two years later. After the funeral, some of his family members swiped all the furnishings, leaving just a glass table in the dining room with no chairs. Basically, they abandoned his siblings in a vacant home with no interest in helping, despite them acknowledging that their mother was a drug addict and was in no position to assist.
Williams then was motivated to do something radical for his family after one day entering the home on a cold winter night and noticing that the temperature outside was warmer than inside.
“You could feel the cold air creeping up from beneath the wooden floors. I opened the closet in the bedroom, and I could see my siblings there shivering together. I remembered jumping between them to keep them warm. I knew at that moment something had to change.”
Williams began “doing street activities and a lot of things I wasn’t proud of but chose to do in order to make ends meet. I wasn’t afraid to hustle. This was the way to keep food in our mouths,” he said.
“For a while, that was our life. I was too young to pay for rent at the moment.”
When he was age 17 he met Zenother Robinson, the mother of one of his friends. She worked at the Mississippi Department of Human Services and helped him gain custody of his siblings and put them in school.
He said his DHS experience was the “most depressing situation you could be in because when you have females, especially younger females, there are questions and interrogations about sexuality and other personal topics. I just don’t think the system is designed for young men. I went through it, though, in search of guidance.”
But that period also resulted in him being shot while defending his sister in an assault by a neighbor. The bullet ripped through his femoral artery that stretches from the thigh to the leg. He said it took 20 minutes before someone spotted him. That’s because after he was wounded he staggered behind his grandmother’s former home to catch his breath. However, after he leaned on a window his arm went through the glass in panic, and it triggered an alarm that sent neighbors rushing to his aid. After their assistance, it took about another 40 minutes before the ambulance and police arrived.
“At that moment, my life was pretty much written off. I remember that being the longest night of my life. I also remember the fight of trying not to give in to the sleep.” Three times the medical staff declared him dead, but he fought valiantly and survived a harrowing experience. Indeed, it was nothing short of a miracle and God’s grace. He also had maintained his faith.
Still, he doesn’t credit that encounter with helping him overcome his situation. He did, however, see it as a “wake-up call about the world in which we live in.”
Five years after that when he was 23 he began working toward his GED. The same woman who directed him to DHS encouraged him to go back to school.
In just his second week, he passed every subject except math. After four failed attempts at math, a book he purchased from Books-A-Million became his most valuable asset.
“The only way to maintain my focus was to get up every day and study. I had always dreamed about going to Jackson State. There was something about walking over to the next street and hearing the band playing and watching them practice on the field. At the time, the neighborhood didn’t have a representative who said, ‘He’s from the block, or from the ghetto, but can still go to college.’ ”
Williams’ tenacity led him to pursue his GED. “I would get up in the morning and go eat breakfast at Jackson State. I would get fully dressed and put on my book bag to fit in. I would also eat lunch there every day, faithfully, at the same time.” Most times he would buy his meals, but sometimes when he lacked cash “dedicated people in the cafeteria who knew my struggle helped me.”
Each day, while eating breakfast and lunch, Williams would observe the college students. He would sit and monitor their discipline. “They dressed cleanly, but they’re no smarter than me,” he told himself. “I would be mirror-matching myself with them and saying they look just like me. I can get in here, too.”
Eventually, his hard studying paid off because he passed the GED on his fifth try, albeit two years in the making. “It was a breeze this time,” he said.
After getting his results in the mail, the counselor from the GED program immediately took him to Hinds Community College. After two years of sailing easily through the courses, he earned concurrent associate of arts degrees in electronics and telecommunications.
Then, he began his JSU journey. He took a variety of courses over the next 2½ years before he declared a major in interdisciplinary studies. Meanwhile, he was recruited to teach GED classes through the same program where he obtained his. At that moment, he had realized that “God gave me the patience to fully understand the requirements of the GED program just so I could help other young students from the area.” During that time, he also was a mentor for AmeriCorps.
He graduated from JSU in 2016 with his bachelor’s degree, and despite his mother’s addiction, she attended his first commencement. Her son had broken a family curse by becoming a first-generation graduate. “It was tears of joy,” he said.
Other supporters, including Robinson – the one who helped him get into the GED program – were among those who also witnessed his milestone. Another is his longtime love, Samantha Derrick, who helped strengthen his fortitude and resolve even as the pressures of life seemed to cave in on him. Now, his accomplishments have inspired his older sister, aunts and cousins to earn their GEDs and enroll in colleges.
Williams said he’s proud to have had such a major impact in the lives of his siblings. He has a sister helping others through her Christian brand called Blind Mercy; a sister employed in Port Arthur, Texas, who’s also preparing for the GED exam; and a married baby sister and her family residing in a nice home in Biloxi with their recovering mother, who recently moved in with them. Unfortunately, his young brother has been incarcerated twice, but there’s hope he could be released in two years.
Well before his mother settled in Biloxi, Williams sought to locate his father in 2007. It was also an opportunity to take a break from a complicated relationship. Before his grandmother died, she had given him a phone number to connect with his father’s relatives. However, when he called, he never could get an answer. So, he decided to travel to Chicago on Thanksgiving Day of that year with a prayer he wrote the night before, $100 and no guarantee that he would be able to locate his father.
The ticket cost $95, and he paid a sister $3 to drop him off at the bus station. That left him with $2 for travel. During the trip, he paid $1 to borrow another passenger’s cell phone so he could make another call to the Chicago number. He decided to leave a message about his planned arrival – still unsure if it would be retrieved. His last buck was spent on a bag of potato chips.
Williams would read his prayer, but then “doubts weighed in on me,” he added. “I said to me, ‘What are you doing, man? Nobody even answered the phone.’ ” Nevertheless, he kept reading the prayer over and over.
Eventually, he arrived to Chicago at 4:30 a.m., sitting outside until he was the last one at the bus station. “I see these two dudes in a car. We were trying to figure out each other. Then, I heard a voice that sounded just like mine, saying, “Come on, man. Come on and get in the car,” he instructed. “That person, who was with our father, was the eldest of my 20 brothers.” All of the males are offspring of a man who purportedly was a rolling stone.
“When I made it to Chicago it was ‘wow, my God!’ The faith and where it took me was amazing.” When Williams got to the house he was greeted by his paternal grandmother, who was preparing the Thanksgiving meal. They embraced each other. Other aunts woke up to welcome him and then went back to bed. “My father went to the bathroom and cried in private, but I always knew. I just concealed it within myself,” Williams said.
After Williams’ long journey from Mississippi, he tried to rest on the floor, but oldest brother Kirk (also with the same name) insisted on taking him to various stores instead. After an hour of riding around, Williams returned to the home and was greeted with a reception reminiscent of a scene in the “Antwone Fisher” movie. In that story, a temperamental young man was meeting his relatives for the first time and received a heartwarming acceptance at a huge family feast in his honor.
It was a similar experience for Williams, he said. “All these beautiful people were standing around a table full of food and embraced me with open arms. It was a moment I could never forget with people I had never met but had heard of.”
Williams stayed there for several months — until mid-January. He was privileged to spend Christmas and New Year’s Day with his Chicago family. He thought of staying but realized he needed to return for his daughter and other family members. “I didn’t want to do to her what my father did to me.”
After leaving Chicago, Williams has made it a point to stay connected with all of his relatives in the Windy City. They chat often online. Over the years, he held out hope that “pops would develop certain wisdom at his age, but it’s me always trying to direct him. The whole goal is to help him with his faith and boost him to see his daughters. With me being my sisters’ oldest brother I can be their father only to a certain degree.”
Although Williams is content with earning his fourth degree and continuing his other projects, he desires to do more to help others. He said he knows “there are a lot of people from the ghettos who would like to get into college, but society doesn’t grant them those privileges on an even scale.”
Furthermore, he said, “Now, I try to represent those who can’t represent themselves or are not in a position to do so. There’s a lot to understand about the path to an education. One vital thing is to try to stay as clean as possible. And, stay to the right of the road. All things will pass, and you will get to your destinations. No pressure.”
For more information about the multitalented Williams, check out Trembleduzzit, which is his artist name.