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PHILADELPHIA – Leslie Pridgen always wanted to be heard.
Growing up in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s poorest cities, there were times he felt invisible.
“I wanted to be seen. I wanted people to hear me,” he said. “It was definitely hard. It wasn’t an easy thing. It just motivated me to keep pushing.”
After his parents split up, Freeway turned to selling drugs while he was in high school to help make ends meet, fighting his way from notorious North Philly to become “Freeway,” one of city’s best-known rap artists, – a journey that was as rough as the Philly streets that forged him.
“When I was coming up, the corner boys was the successful people,” he said. “That’s who I had to look up to.”
“It was pandemonium. Everybody was out for they self. Everybody was trying to get money,” he said. “My mom and dad did the best they could do, but it wasn’t much. I wanted more.”
And corner boys, the front-line lieutenants of the drug trade, like the young men depicted in HBO’s landmark crime drama, “The Wire,” were indeed out in full force – and continue to be. Although there’s a perception that the crack epidemic is over, Freeway said not much has changed.
“The reality is crack is in full effect. It’s everywhere,” he said. “I’m pretty sure if we walk two blocks down [from City Hall], there’s people outside that use drugs, use crack. People outside selling crack. It’s everywhere.”
It’s not just drugs and gun violence wrecking havoc across the city. According to Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health, nearly 26 percent of residents live below the poverty line, with child poverty around 36 percent.
“[Even] if you take the drugs out of the community, people are still going to be hungry, still need things, still want things. They’ll just find another hustle,” he said. “We really have to be on top of these kids, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the streets.”
Having lost loved ones to gun violence, and even serving jail time for drug possession, it’s those same streets that Freeway uses to paint his lyrics.
By his early 20s, Freeway had caught the attention of Jay Z. He officially launched his music career at the mogul’s Roc-A-Fella Records, making a splash onto the scene in 2003 with the hit single "What We Do,” which outlines the drug game and perils of the street life.
“That’s what I was really going through at the time,” he said.
Freeway, a devout Muslim, said his time behind bars coupled with his faith turned him from the path he was on.
“I used to sell drugs for a living, and that’s how I made my money, I was hurting people and that’s all I knew,” he said. “God gave me a shot, god gave me a chance to do something positive and it’s a blessing, and I want to keep moving forward.”
Today, he’s an independent artist with his hands in a number of projects. One of them is the documentary “Pull of Gravity,”which follows three former inmates as they transition from prison to life in Philadelphia. And last winter, Freeway launched his All Natural Best Beard cream.
Able to overcome the pull of his environment, he’s now talking about his life experiences and trying to influence others to do the right thing.
“Coming from where I come from, I feel as though it’s important to touch the people. I know I believe in things that I can see; things that I know is real,” Freeway said. “People see me, I’m from the hood, and I made it out. I’m successful, and if they can see me and touch me and talk to me and hear my story and I’m right there in their face, then maybe I can inspire them to do the same thing.”
With a number of high profile citizen deaths at the hands of police sparking protests in Baltimore, New York and Ferguson, Missouri, Freeway felt compelled to get involved on the ground. He visited with the family of Freddie Gray and marched through Washington, D.C., alongside actor Danny Glover.
“It makes me sick to my stomach. It doesn’t make any sense,” he said of the violence. “These are our people being treated unjust, and it’s not right. Somebody has to do something. Somebody has to stand up.”
While he awaits his soon-to-be released album, “Free Will,” Freeway’s life remains in perpetual motion.
“I’m a child from the ghetto. I made a difference. My life was [expletive] up. I turned my life around,” he said. “If I can do it, every and anybody can do it, too.”