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Stain of Mass Incarceration: Exposing the Wound of My Father’s Life Sentence

One woman shares her experience, struggle and thoughts as the child of an incarcerated father.

27 years ago on my 14th birthday my father took my sister, Miko, and I out for lunch. We decided to dine at the newly opened Hard Rock Cafe. The music was blaring from the sound system. The walls were filled with an assortment of music memorabilia. I sat for a good 15 minutes in awe and amazement. While Miko and I glanced over the menu, my father left the table for a brief moment. He came back to the table with 2 members from the hip-hop group Whodini & R&B singer, Bobby Brown. I was in complete shock! They all sang an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday to me. OMG - I was floating. This was one of my best birthdays yet. I looked over at my father and he just smiled. Little did I know that in the months ahead our lives would be changed forever.

THE WAR BEGINS
Nine months later, on December 6, 1988, my father, William Underwood, was arrested. Shocked and completely numbed by the news of his arrest, it took Miko and I six months to actually visit our Dad. While sitting in a tiny visiting room waiting for his arrival, he finally appears. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit and his hands and feet were shackled. All I can remember is him hobbling over to sit down next to us. Miko and I burst into sobbing tears. We were completely devastated and traumatized by the appearance of our Dad chained up like a slave. By the time he finished consoling us, our time was up. The visit was over and he was gone – again.

After that my life became a blur. From what I remember, my thoughts were: Why was Daddy there? What did he do? When is he coming home? None of it made sense. Two years later, he was sentenced to a mandatory minimum 20-years plus LIFE without parole. In disbelief, my range of emotions were: "What? Life? Nooooo... you mean, Forever? He's never coming back? Ever?" The news of his sentence punctured a wound so deep in my heart I could hardly breathe.

SEE ALSO: Hillary Clinton Wants To ‘End The Era Of Mass Incarceration’

Feeling completely abandoned, my hurt turned into anger. I rebelled against school, my Mom and life. How could my father be locked away forever? He was a music enthusiast. He ate, slept, and breathed music. My father was a prominent music promoter from the late 70s up until his arrest in 1988. He promoted top acts such as Michael Jackson, Ray Charles, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kenny Loggins, Wham, New Edition and Guy. He managed the R&B funk band, Slave and lead singer Steve Arrington. He later went on to discover and manage R&B singer, Johnny Gill, ultimately aligning Johnny with the boy band, New Edition. All I ever saw my father do was talk about music, listen to music and hold meetings with music industry artists, executives and up-and-coming celebrities. Some of these people even testified on behalf of my Dad in court, including recording artist Keith Sweat and an Atlantic Records executive who willingly flew over from London to give testimony to support my Dad during his trial.

I remember being on the phone with my Dad after his sentencing. He said, “Ebony, this sentence means no matter how long I live, no matter how much my life has changed, no matter what steps I take to better myself, no matter how many laws have changed – I can never, ever, leave prison alive. I am going to fight this injustice." I listened intently to each devastating word. Yet, I still didn’t understand. How could anyone be sentenced to die in prison? My Dad was incredible. My Dad defied the odds and made it out of poverty. He raised my sister and I in the suburbs. My Dad was fun, not evil. He was full of life. My Dad was educated. He was an Ivy Leaguer, having studied at Columbia University. My Dad was successful. My Dad was influential and had many influential friends in the world of entertainment. In my heart-of-hearts I knew something was wrong. But, what could I do? I was 16 years old. In retrospect, there was no way I would ever understand the magnitude or severity of his sentence.

VISITATION
Visiting a correctional facility is no cakewalk. We have always had to travel at least 3 hours or more to visit my father. Over the years, Dad was relocated to different maximum-security federal prisons in several states including Indiana, Georgia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, upstate New York and a medium-security in New Jersey. I've seen grandmothers get turned away for wearing open-toed shoes, girlfriends and wives having to take down beautifully-styled hair that was pinned up because bobbie pins are not allowed in the visiting room, baby bags filled with diapers not allowed, women gathering in the bathroom to cut the wire out of their bras because you must get past the metal detectors without anything beeping, including the wire in your bra. The worst experience was a special trip my younger brother, Justin, made to visit Dad. At 5 years old, he was the only one of my 3 siblings present during my father’s arrest – a traumatizing experience to witness at such a young age. After years of not seeing my Dad, Justin flew 3000 miles from California to NY and we drove 18 hours down to the correctional facility in West Virginia that was nestled in the mountains. We arrive ready to visit and Justin gets denied visitation because he was wearing khaki pants. The prison guards tell us there was a Wal-Mart 20 miles away. There was no GPS at that time. We weren't familiar with the area. Plus, it was already Noon and visitation at the prison ended at 3pm. So, Justin waited in the car while we visited with Dad. I was gutted. After so many years of watching people being turned away, I have a standard outfit for visitation - jeans, sneakers and a long-sleeved sweater or shirt, no jewelry, no belt.

SEE ALSO: John Legend Launches FREE AMERICA Campaign To End Mass Incarceration

Nonetheless, there is a brighter side to all of this. The beauty of seeing family connection. Once in the visiting room, the prisoners have to immediately check-in with the guards and only then are they able to sit down across from their families. At this moment is when you see ALL the LOVE emerge. You see the surge of excitement arise as a child runs up to their Daddy. You see fathers hug their sons. You see fathers kiss their daughters. You see parents grab and squeeze their incarcerated sons’ faces with joy. You see wives and girlfriends embrace their men. And for a few hours, that correctional facility is filled with an abundance of real LOVE brought about by human connection. The importance of connection cannot be understated.

THE POWER OF CONNECTION
The connection we’ve maintained still bewilders me. Especially when I think about the quarter of century we have spent on this journey. My father has always remained Daddy and my Mom understood and respected that. My parents are my two greatest teachers on this planet. Both inspire me with their resilience, persistence and determination. My Dad has not allowed prison to change him for the worse. He maintains and strengthens ties with all four of his children. Although he did not have the ability to attend any of our school graduations, visit us in our own homes or witness the births of our children, he remains a committed father. For example: I was unable to visit him during my pregnancy, but the day after I delivered my son, my Dad had a big, beautiful bouquet of flowers sent to my hospital room with a special note. I cried. He sends birthday cards, Valentine's Day cards, Mother's Day cards and Christmas Cards and he calls us almost everyday. He has even developed and maintained a solid connection with his grandchildren despite never once meeting them outside prison walls. He empowers us all to continue to educate ourselves. At times, he even informs us about the latest current events and technology. For instance, he is really fascinated with Nano technology. He has been talking to us about this scientific study since 2000.

ERASING THE STAIN
The injustice that Dad promised to fight has finally reared its ugly head and it’s called Mass Incarceration. His conviction was one of the first under siege of Mass Incarceration. Thereafter, it propagated itself and STAINED the entire nation, making the U.S. the most incarcerated nation in the world. Today, there are over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States and the rippling effects are the 2.7 million children impacted by the loss of their incarcerated parents. The effects of Mass Incarceration are so severe that The Obama administration and frmr. Attorney General Eric Holder forged a sea-change of reform in the criminal justice system. President Obama even began a White House Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, which my eldest brother, Anthony, and I had the pleasure of attending on more than one occasion. The issue is so pressing that the political parties have come together and Mass Incarceration has become one of the primary issues that there is Bipartisan support for. The racial disparity against black males is so prevalent that entertainer John Legend noted in his Oscar winning speech that “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” In addition, the New York Times recently published an article “1.5 Million Missing Black Men” http://nyti.ms/1P5Gpa7 identifying the rise of missing black men with the increased prison populations. I believe, however, the biggest weapon against Mass Incarceration has been the monumental power of the worldwide web and social media. It has given my siblings and I a place to create awareness, advocate for our father’s release and share our story. We created a website, a petition, 2 hashtags: #HopeForFathersDay and #UnderwoodShouldBeHomeByNOW and we are working on a documentary, “Hope For Father’s Day.” You can view the trailer to the documentary and sign the petition on our website: www.INPRISON.net.

SEE ALSO: John Legend Wants President Obama To Get More Involved In Criminal Justice Reform

My father’s ability to maintain some semblance of normalcy and still laugh, baffles me. Especially when, for years, no opportunity for relief availed him. Interestingly enough, my father's favorite quote is from Paulo Coelho's book The Alchemist which reads, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” As he promised me, my father fought against the injustice of Mass Incarceration and never gave up, even when nobody believed him. Yes, he made mistakes at a young age, should he be forever condemned to die in prison due to Mass Incarceration? I think not. Chiefly because my father, at the age of 61 years old sits in a prison cell with a clean institutional record and an out-dated prison sentence. President Obama is the ONLY one who can grant my father relief through clemency. I pray that Mr.Obama will help heal my family’s wound. Justice must be served!

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To learn more and support Ebony Underwood's aim to improve America's criminal justice system, visit INPRISON.net.

Photo Credit: Ebony Underwood

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Ebro Darden caught the Internet's wrath after calling out Kodak Black for sexual assault during an interview.
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We're Looking At Y'all: Hip-Hop Won't Have A 'Me Too' Moment Because Of Apologists

Ebro Darden — the host of Hot 97 FM’s radio show Ebro In The Morning — caught the ire of the Internet Wednesday evening (Dec. 12) after a clip from an interview with 21-year-old rapper Kodak Black made the rounds. The longtime radio personality merely admonished and acknowledged the rapper’s recent sexual assault cases, including one that he is currently awaiting trial for. While Ebro noted he wouldn’t be able to go into details since the case is ongoing, he did take a moment to acknowledge that sexual assault is serious, and the discussion will not be ignored in the future.

“Respect to everybody involved in that case, we can’t get into details today… We take sexual assault here serious,” “El Viejo Ebro” exclaimed. “We can’t get into details, but we hope to have you back so that we can have a deeper conversation about that. It’s a serious topic, we’re hearing these stories a lot.” No more than two minutes later, the interview was over, as a visibly uncomfortable Kodak, legal name Bill K. Kapri, stated that the media is “entertained” by “bullsh*t” before leaving.

For some asinine reason, Ebro — a man whose job it is to interview musicians about life and their craft — was the one getting the heat for bringing up the allegations. The uproar was not given to the alleged sexual offender, but to the host acknowledging the wrongdoing by the alleged sexual offender.

Label booked him. I didn’t force anything. I was attenpting to make sure a huge issue was not ignored. https://t.co/vnl0JqeLfi

— El Viejo Ebro (@oldmanebro) December 13, 2018

Earlier this year, Buzzfeed posed the question: “Will Time Ever Be Up For Abusive Men In Hip-Hop?” Due to the fans, some media personalities and the higher powers continuing to insulate these artists and avoiding discussion of the elephants in the room, it won’t — at least for the time being.

Fans of the Florida MC ignorantly tweeted that Ebro is likely working “with the Feds” for bringing up the sexual assault allegation, which proves that time will not be up anytime soon for men who allegedly abuse women in the game.

Due to many fans’ beliefs that hosts and journalists should “stick to asking artists about music” — and not the controversial lives often documented and discussed more than the careers that provide them bread and butter on the table — time will not be up. A similar “demand” came up earlier this year, when Laura Ingraham said LeBron James should just “shut up and dribble” instead of using his platform to discuss politics.

Then, there are media personalities like Peter Rosenberg, who during the Kodak interview aimed to deflect from the situation at hand by asking about the moon landing of 1969, in order to make Kodak feel a bit more comfortable (although his status in the hip-hop game despite his documented wrongdoing certainly makes some uncomfortable as well).

We also can’t ignore the woman on the panel, Laura Stylez, who chose to stay silent instead of using her platform and her voice to stand up for the women allegedly affected by Kodak’s behavior, or women in general. As a woman, her silence rubbed me the wrong way entirely.

These two, however, are not the only problematic personalities. DJ Akademiks, YouTuber turned host of Complex’s Everyday Struggle, often discusses his relationship with embattled musician Tekashi 6ix9ine.

“I’m a little sad… but these are the decisions that got here,” Ak, real name Livingston Allen, said in a recent episode of the YouTube series regarding Tekashi’s recent high-profile racketeering arrest and possibility of life in jail. However, he continued to acknowledge that the young man is his n***a, and has not appeared to call out Tekashi for the allegations against him in terms of sexual misconduct.

It doesn’t appear he’s discussed his homie’s sexual misconduct charges head-on since 2014. Even in this particular interview, it appears that the 27-year-old was being more of an apologist for his friend, stating that “[he] could tell [Tekashi] was young, and obviously not thinking straight.”

Is this insulation of musicians who lead perilous lives a way to hold on to the clout these personalities have obtained? Or, is it realizing that if they stop defending these artists as a way to defend those who are hurt, they’ll lose a legion of equally as troublesome fans and followers in the process? Why not attempt to discuss the difficult topic at hand with as much discretion as possible, instead of getting a biased view of the story for clicks?

I know that as a woman in hip-hop, hip-hop doesn’t always love me back, but if this isn’t a slap in the face? To have this conversation occur in the same week that Cyntoia Brown was told she had to serve 51 years in prison for defending herself against a potential rapist, it’s infuriating to have to write about the blatant disregard and disrespect for the well-being of women in society in a field that I hold dear to my heart.

Due to the “separating artists from art” thought-process, especially in such a male-dominated industry and genre, it’s unsurprising that this is the response Ebro received for calling out wrongdoing.

This is the same thought process that allows R. Kelly to continue to tour despite well-documented instances of sexual misconduct for 25 years.

This is the same thought-process that causes music fans to lash out at Vic Mensa for “vehemently rejecting the trend in hip-hop of championing abusers”; although many would argue that he wasn’t the proper messenger to convey such a statement, the intentionality in the statement was appreciated by many.

On a grander scale, this is the same apologist thought-process that placed Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and Donald Trump in the White House… and look at how well that’s going.

If we continue this trend of protecting the men in the game and not putting the well-being of the minority consumers of the genre into consideration (such as women and members of the LGBTQ community), hip-hop could be headed to a very murky place. While I don’t always agree with Ebro Darden, I applaud his effort in attempting to start a conversation that can’t continue to be ignored any longer, especially as a man with a platform in the hip-hop media space.

As hip-hop fans, we should aim to hold these artists accountable for their lyrics, comments and behavior. We can’t argue that they’re not hurting anyone through these things just because you don’t feel threatened, because best believe, someone does.

Whatever side of the fence you’re on, Ebro, Vic and other men attempting to hold these artists accountable is a small step on a long journey. While it’s clear that consumers are more interested in the music these people put out than the lives they lead, it would behoove all of us to take a long look at the state of the game beyond the bars and beats.

READ MORE: Ebro Calls Out Kodak Black For Sexual Assault During Interview

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Will.I.Am Is Wrong About The State Of Hip-Hop

“It’s become the lowest-hanging fruit.”

That was Will.i.am’s assessment of hip-hop in an interview with Rolling Stone over the weekend (Dec. 1), and another troubling quote in the ongoing fallacy that rap is somehow a lower form of art. It’s the same trope many rappers – especially those who tend to steer towards white audiences – lean on when they want to “evolve” or “grow” as artists. Kanye West would rather design water bottles than dabble in the slums that are rapping. Tyler, The Creator wants to score movies because rap isn’t good enough. Miley Cyrus is going back to country because “Come sit on my d**k, suck on my c**k” and “Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my c**k” music is just too vulgar for her.

Even if part of Will’s point, that the bar for entry into hip-hop is low, is true, the situation is more nuanced than that. The bar for entry has historically been low, which is how you end up with “Ice Ice Baby” running the world in the same year Ice Cube told us about AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, or 69 Boyz’ “Tootsee Roll” doing the same while Nas gave us Illmatic and Biggie gave us Ready to Die.

If anything, the bar isn’t any lower, the net is just wider. Hip-hop has expanded so far beyond its Bronx house party origins that calling it worldwide feels like an understatement. If aliens are picking up Earth’s frequencies somewhere, there’s a good chance they’re hearing some hip-hop whenever they do. It’s that big.

In the ancient rap world Will speaks of, the one where he was part of a Los Angeles backpacker group that existed far, far away from the mainstream, rap was not a privilege, it was a necessity. Most of the black men and women who lunged towards rap did so as an escape and last resort. They did so from impoverished conditions, with few options and even less hope. Rap was a way out and, for some, the only way. It was truly life or death as their choices were either make it big by telling your story or return to your desolate conditions to live out the rest of that story. So they persevered.

This, of course, led to the golden era of rap, but plenty of sameness as well. Many of the stories were the same, even if the lexicons between regions were different. As rap continued to evolve, so too did the stories, and the perspectives that were introduced into the zeitgeist.

Eventually, we grew to a place where rap became a privilege and not a necessity. Now, after generations of rappers setting trends and generally being the coolest people in the room at all times, kids were aspiring to be rappers, not just resorting to that profession when they were out of options. Now, kids could study their favorites their whole lives and work towards being that. Suddenly, and perhaps unintentionally and with a ton of misinformation, rap was a desirable profession. Jay-Z rapped because he had to. It was that, or sell drugs and play that story out. J. Cole raps because he heard Jay-Z and wanted to follow in those footsteps. That’s growth of a genre of music and of a culture as a whole. That’s admirable, not scornful.

With that new influx of hopefuls came a whole new set of perspectives as well. If rappers in the ‘90s had to be the coolest and hardest mothaf**kers in the room, rappers in the 2000s changed that just a tad. Before then, rap only had Will’s perspective, the cool cousin who got all the girls and wore all the best clothes. When folks like Kanye started striking platinum, rappers could be Carlton as well.

In this era, the perspectives widened even more as the talent pool got exponentially bigger. As always, music and technology walk hand-in-hand as well. At the same time all those aspiring rappers began to come of age, technology advanced to a place that made it easier for them to try their hands at achieving their dreams. Computers made music easier to make, functionally not artistically, and the internet made it easier to spread it around. Before, if a young Chris Wallace wanted to make it rapping, he had to find a state of the art studio, pay large sums of money to record several songs, and then do the footwork towards getting attention from record labels himself. Now, Malcolm McCormick, a son of an architect and a photographer, only needed a computer, a microphone and an internet connection to rise to worldwide rapping fame.

In the world we live in now, we don’t get just Deebo’s story in rap–we get Craig’s, Smokey’s, Joi’s and Big Worm’s, too. Hell, we get Hector’s and the Pastor’s, too. And if we fall deep enough into a SoundCloud wormhole I bet we get Mr. Parker’s story, too. For all the complaints about Lil Yachty and the like, we still have Kendrick Lamar and his gravity. If you hate Lil Baby, you can find J.I.D. on the same playlist on your streaming service of choice. All of them exist, and none spite the other.

And this is all a good thing. Where hip-hop was once a specialty store, a Foot Locker of sorts where you could buy new sneakers and maybe even some socks and a shirt, now it’s a whole mall. You can get anything you need in hip-hop, as long as you’re willing to go find it. Foot Locker is still there, but you can go to Macy’s or PacSun, too.

With all of that comes plenty of music we don’t understand or value, but that doesn’t mean that music isn’t good or important. Mainstream has always gravitated towards a more accessible, or dumbed down sound when it comes to hip-hop. Some of the greatest rappers of all-time have capitalized on this trend and made careers out of that. That is why it’s called the music business. But that doesn’t mean the artistry isn’t there still. The current generation’s mastery of melody and cadence is just as impressive as the complexity and poignant lyricism of eras past. It’s just impressive in different ways. Jordan won one way, LeBron won one way, and now Steph Curry and his buddies are winning in another. But the game is still putting the ball in the hoop and preventing the other team from doing the same. The game is still telling our stories with an immaculate collection of sounds and organizing them into a song.

All of hip-hop comes from the same rebellious spirit that was encapsulated at those Bronx block parties in the ‘70s. All of it. Everything is about that youthful energy, and counter-culture. In taking the traditional, and changing it enough to invent something our own. Sure, we might not all enjoy the Lil Pumps and Tekashi 6ix9ines of the world, but somebody younger than us does, for sure. And sees it in the same light as we saw our heroes. Trend-setting, rebellious deities, speaking for us and telling our stories. They all come from the same place, even if they don’t sound the same. The bar is not lower, the net is wider, and the window into understanding the youth may be a little more opaque than it used to be. But that’s what age does to the eyes and the ears.

The constant degradation of hip-hop, its culture, its values and most importantly its sounds, is beyond problematic. The people who belittle the genre in an effort to hold it down, are the same ones who dabble in it every time they need a boost in popularity or the coolness factor. Hip-hop is the culture where they find their looks, their sounds, and everything else. We can’t let them work to depreciate the value of the culture they so often steal from.

It’s a classic case of gentrification, but this is a soil so pure it can’t be salted. This is a neighborhood so culturally rich, its natives can’t be run out of town even in the harshest of conditions, because we know once they buy up all this land they’re going to try to price us out. Don’t let them tell us hip-hop is the low hanging fruit when we know it’s the whole damn tree. If they can’t reach the sweetest of fruit at the top of the tree, that’s their fault. Not ours.

READ MORE: Stop Playing Into Female Rappers' Catty Feuds And Demand The Bars

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Bow Wow Threatens Revenge Porn And We All Should Be Disgusted

Shad Moss, still known as Bow Wow, took an ex-lovers quarrel too far when he threatened to leak a sex tape between himself and former fiancée, Erica Mena.

Fueled by a seemingly innocent comment from Mena, Moss fired back undermining the media personality, insinuating she was promiscuous and had accumulated more than 500 sexual partners in her lifetime. Brushing the comments off, the mother-of-one shot back saying, "You mean the 500 bodies you stayed eating between my legs standing up little man."

Clearly emasculated by the clap back, the "Let Me Hold You" rapper went on Twitter begging fans to warn Mena before he used revenge porn to expose her.

 

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#BowWow still has words for #EricaMena 👀

A post shared by The Shade Room (@theshaderoom) on Nov 17, 2018 at 9:44pm PST

Revenge porn or "non-consensual pornography" is defined as the distribution of sexually graphic images of individuals without their consent. This includes both images originally obtained without consent (e.g. by using hidden cameras, hacking phones, or recording sexual assaults) as well as images consensually obtained within the context of an intimate relationship," according to Cyber Civil Rights.

The two began dating in 2014 while co-hosting the now-defunct BET video countdown series 106 & Park. Before the year came to an end, the two were engaged and even posed for engagement photos with People magazine in February 2015.  The couple called it quits nearly nine months later, leaving speculation as to what caused their so-called fairly tale relationship to end.

Speaking with Global Grind after the breakup, Mena hinted towards the rapper's behavior in the relationship. “I could have gone public about our breakup a month ago,” she said after the rapper began teasing images of him with the mother of his daughter Jovie Chavis.

“He does this to make headlines. Just leave me alone, I moved on; why are you still in your feelings? He’s literally posting about Joie to get on my nerves and it’s not working. He’s posting it to fuck with her head and to try to get a reaction out of me. Listen, I walked away silently. He’s an abuser.”

Mena revealed Sunday (Nov. 18) that the rapper was reportedly suicidal which led to the end of their relationship. “I left him after he tried to kill himself with my son in the house,” she said while sharing messages from one of the rapper's associates. “He’s been trying to link with me ever since.”

From an ethical standpoint holding on to explicit videos and joking about exposing them to cause emotional or physiological distress to a person is morally disgusting. But more than anything, it violates Georgia and Calif. Revenge Porn laws.

It also qualifies as a felony that could result in one to five years in prison and a possible $100,000 fine.

Degrading a woman for her sexual choices is one thing, but as the father of a 7-year-old girl, Moss' primary concern outside of being the host of Growing Up Hip-Hop should be showing his child how a man properly treats women. Releasing a sex tape with somebody who almost became her step-mother is nothing short of ridiculous.

Mena then responded noting that she had been in contact with Lisa Bloom, a popular civil rights attorney known for working with women who have been victims of sexual harassment.

 

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#EricaMena seems unbothered by this alleged tapey tape!

A post shared by The Shade Room (@theshaderoom) on Nov 18, 2018 at 6:02am PST

What's most ironic is that last month (Oct. 2) Bow Wow released an emotional video to bring awareness to domestic violence, but is attempting to inflict sexual violence by threatening to release sexual images without the video participants consent.

It's a low blow which speaks to the rapper's mental health. It also showcases the casual toxic behavior that happens in the industry. The millions watching it all unfold on social media will more than likely follow suit.

READ MORE: Bow Wow Tackles Domestic Violence In New Video ‘Broken Heart’ 

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