Boston Rapper Takes on His Most Violent Enemy Yet: Wall Street
Boston rapper Antonio Ennis has already battled gang members, rival artists, police departments and a prison stint. Now he’s turning his energy to the real enemy in minority neighborhoods: Wall Street.
Boston rapper Marco Antonio Ennis had just survived another battle with the most dangerous gang in the U.S., and it showed. Ennis, whose hip hop name is Twice Thou, was waiting to take the stage at a performance in Jamaica Plains, Boston, two weeks ago, and he was already sweating.
“I’m exhausted,” he confessed, braving a smile. He revealed a handful of gold-crusted teeth, testimonies to the era when Ennis was one of Boston’s most notorious gangster rap artists. He launched into a quick rundown of his last 24 hours.
First he led a headline-grabbing protest at the home of Edward DeMarco, the anti-homeowner director Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Then he caught an overnight bus from Maryland back to Boston, where he learned that the police had just arrested a mother and her 10-month-old child during an eviction blockade that he and other organizers with City Life/Vida Urbana had planned. He headed to an emergency meeting, where Ennis realized that the jailed family’s mortgage was owned by the very same man whose lawn Ennis had just crashed. (“Retaliation,” he said later. “I wouldn’t put it past these guys to just pick up the phone and call up the police.”) Finally, he rushed to perform a preview of his 16-track album, The Bank Attack--a rhyme-fueled rallying cry for the millions of homeowners facing foreclosure.
With the album out Tuesday and thousands of upcoming evictions in his hometown, Ennis has no interest in chasing chicks and sipping Cristal. After decades of living the thug life, the seasoned rapper is now wielding his rhymes to fight the real enemy in minority neighborhoods: Wall Street. If his album takes off, it’s poised to become not only a sound track for the growing housing movement, but also a revolutionary challenge to a music industry thoroughly corrupted by corporate interests.
“It wasn’t called organizing”
For most of his career, Ennis, a former member of the infamous rap groups Almighty RSO and MadeMen, wasn’t one to spurn the street life.
“I had no interest in housing except buying a house,” Ennis said. He sums up his pre-activism activities in a few words: “It wasn’t called organizing.”
Growing up in a low-income neighborhood of Dorchester, Boston, Ennis began smoking at 11 and selling before 20. After dropping out of Dorchester High, he devoted the next two decades to dealing drugs and winning rap battles. Life moved fast: there were shootouts and singles; an 18-month sentence for gun possession; a brief deal with Tommy Boy Record; and the controversial recording “One in Da Chamba.” He launched a clothing company and began designing duds for industry heavy-hitters like DMX, but even his legal entrepreneurism inspired the ire of police departments after his line of “STOP SNITCHING” t-shirts became so popular that America’s Most Wantedclaimed they were a tactic to intimidate witnesses. (Ennis denies the allegation, but even if it were true, he’d like to know how that would be any different from the cops’ own code of silence.)
By the time he hit his mid-30s, Ennis’ street life began to unravel. In 2000, he was stabbed three times backstage at the Fleet Center after his group opened for Ruff Ryders.
“I decided it was enough of being on the front lines,” Ennis said. He was normally never one to back down from a fight, but the sight of his oldest daughter, Jhakia Ennis, then 13, in tears at his bedside made him think twice. “I called my crew and said I was done with this shit.”
The danger comes home
In 2011, a neighbor and family friend knocked on Ennis’ door and broke the news: He’d read in the paper that Ennis’s three-bedroom home, where he lived with his younger daughters, was in foreclosure.
“Home is...comfort, security and happiness / Tears of joy, wipe away with a handkerchief,” Ennis raps on the album’s track “Home Is,” which he co-wrote with his daughters. “A house is not a home if no one’s livin’ there / Clothes on your back and food in the Frigidaire.”
The neighbor dragged Ennis to a meeting with the group City Life/Vida Urbana. If this was going to be some type of AA meeting for homeowners, he was out of there, Ennis thought. The microphone master sat in the back and kept his mouth shut.
He didn’t know that City Life was one of the most established anti-foreclosure organizations in the country, whose meetings are often compared to “religious revivals” for once shame-filled homeowners. What impressed Ennis, however, was that the group focused not on healing but on direct action. Rather than cope with the impending eviction, the goal was to fight it.
A taste of real violence
The following week, Ennis volunteered to help at an eviction blockade. The family was Haitian, and the household was filled with children and extended relatives they’d taken in after the earthquake. Ennis and other volunteers amassed in front of the home to stop the police from removing the family. This tactic is a staple of anti-foreclosure organizing and one that City Life had successfully employed to stop hundreds of evictions. That day, however, the cops began tearing through the crowd and fighting with the family members with such aggression that the family’s grandmother had a heart attack right there in the driveway.
“I was just standing there with tears streaming down my face, saying, ‘Is this really happening?’ The grandmother is lying on the ground with the ambulance coming, a baby is crying her heart out, the police are coming to blows with the family. It was chaos. That made me say, ‘This shit is real.’”
Ennis had witnessed plenty of fistfights in his life, but this was different: violence sparked not by street gangs or rap rivalries but by the mechanisms of Wall Street’s crony capitalism.
His own foreclosure on the horizon, Ennis began working for City Life full time. Orchestrating marches and rallies came naturally to the stage performer, and he led thousands in protest through the streets of Boston and at Bank of America’s shareholder meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. He became the canvassing coordinator at City Life since his hood was the inner-city area worst-hit by foreclosure.
The mic calls
Wielding a whole “new box of lyrical toys,” Ennis recorded the single “The Bank Attack,” an information-packed condemnation of Wall Street and call to action for homeowners.
“Close our bank accounts, oppose their policy / Loan mod programs don't work, it's a lottery / So what do we do when the banks attack? / Stand Up!.............Fight Back! / And we don't want no Cash For Keys / We, want an end to this catastrophe...rapidly,” he rapped.
Not all of his industry friends were happy to hear Twice Thou spitting rhymes about loan modifications. When one of his former rapper friend saw single’s music video, which features Ennis and other City Life organizers canvassing, marching and dancing during the group’s meetings, he joked that Ennis has traded chicks in bikinis for senior citizens.
Ennis knows he’s still going after the gangsters who are wrecking havoc in his neighborhood. Sure, these ones prefer Ferragamos to Timberlands and sign their checks with an Anglo-Saxon title instead of an acronym-heavy alias. But in death, displacement and neighborhood destruction, the corner gangs are no match, Ennis says, for the Wall Street banksters.
“They caused a housing crisis in the community / Sellin' bad loans like bundles of dope / They called it "Suicide Mortgage", oughta come with a rope,”Ennis raps in the album’s track, “Bankersville, U.S.A.”
Any challengers in the house?
Ennis’ album isn’t only a condemnation of the banks. It’s also a mirror that reflects mainstream rap for what it is: an art form that has been shamelessly corrupted by consumerism, sexism and the glorification of violence, all to the detriment of inner city neighborhoods.
“Jay Z’s lifestyle isn’t your lifestyle,” he said bluntly. “In ’78 and ’79, rap was based on credibility and respecting real culture. Now hip hop is used to promote things.”
Ennis knows that the album will be blackballed by the mainstream channels (“radio stations are owned by corporations,” he said) and will face challenges in reaching his own neighborhoods. If it does gain success on the street, however, it has the power to shift youth culture in inner city communities away from corporate-promoted black-on-black crime and towards a unified political resistance.
Meanwhile, to hip hop moguls like Jay Z, Kanye and Russell Simmons who have made millions off stories of the street, Ennis has only one thing to say: If you say you still care about the hood, prove it.
Ennis is calling for investors for his newly launched program, the Buy Back Initiative, which would purchase repossessed homes from the banks and sell them back to the original families. Seized homes tend to sell for a fraction of the previous mortgages, but big banks, eager to punish homeowners who have defaulted, never turn around and resell the house to the homeowners. Enter Ennis’ new program, which would buy the houses at the auction price and then resell them to the families without any predatory shenanigans.
This type of program has already been successfully modeled by Boston Capital Group, a community bank that works with City Life. It’s also a much better use of hip hop’s exorbitant proceeds than buying G6 planes or flashy diamond rings--especially for industry heavy hitters like Simmons who claim to support social justice and Occupy Wall Street.
“If at the end I can say, ‘We bought a bunch of homes. We put a bunch of people in homes that would otherwise be on the street,’ then this would all be worth it.” Ennis said.
Watch the music video to the Bank Attack:
Correction: An earlier version of the article misrepresented Ennis' involvement in the rap scene after 2000.
Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and the author of "A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home," forthcoming from Zuccotti Park Press.