| Crime |

After Being Imprisoned at 14, Rapper Keith Wallace Tries to Keep Kids in School

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Keith Wallace’s stepdaughter and mother passed away on the same day. His 12-year-old stepdaughter — whom Wallace called his daughter and helped raise since she was 7 — crossed the street in Hallandale Beach when a car swerved into her, striking her, and then sped off. A few hours later, Wallace’s mother succumbed to cancer — an illness she had kept from her family until a week earlier.

Wallace had been in and out of prison since he was 14 on attempted murder and murder charges, meddling in drugs and gang violence, and couldn’t imagine life being any different. But the day of the two deaths — November 18, 2013 — changed him.

Not right away, of course. The grief was too much. But a few weeks later, he started penning lyrics about what he was feeling. Then, one day after writing the last verse, Wallace jumped in his car, put his iPhone on selfie mode, and started rapping.

“I couldn’t even think. There was so much pain and hurt dealing with my mom and daughter,” Wallace says. “I wrote ‘I Miss You’ as my healing process.”

The video has since racked up close to a million views. Producers now want to work with him, and he has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media.

Wallace keeps shooting video on his phone and posting it on Facebook. In a sharp turn from his past, he doesn’t curse in his music and hopes to inspire a younger generation to stay in school and off the streets. He hasn't been arrested since his conversion 15 months ago. 

Now, it’s all about giving the right message: keeping kids out of prison. 

“Everyone can’t afford to pay for a video production, and I want to tell people you don’t need that,” Wallace says. “All you need is to be genuine and people will follow you because they like you as a person.”

Wallace grew up in Liberty City and found himself getting into trouble since he was 9 years old. At the age, he wanted to be a basketball player like Michael Jordan. As a teenager, he started taking guns to school. According to an arrest report, at 14, Wallace robbed an older woman at gunpoint and then beat her up at Dania Jai-Alai. A few months later, Wallace shot a gun at another teenager outside Attucks Middle School in Dania Beach. He missed his target, but Wallace was charged with attempted murder, tried as an adult, and sentenced to six years in prison.

“It is what it is,” Wallace says. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

That’s because in prison, Wallace began to focus on his music. He’d spend days writing lyrics. In prison, he also became more religious. But when he was released at 20 years old, Wallace went right back on the streets.

The next five years were rough. He remembers being shot in the neck while riding his bike and meddling with drugs and gangs. In 2009, Wallace was linked to a murder. He spent the next three years in jail fighting the charge in court. In 2012, he was released because of lack of evidence. He had been looking at 40 years in prison if convicted but says that did not deter him from a criminal lifestyle. When he was released, he started selling heroin.

Then, a year later, he had the worst day of his life.

“I regressed back to prison, when I would read and pick up books,” Wallace says. “I couldn’t believe a God could love me and let this happen to me. I strayed away for a month.”

Soon, he drastically changed the sound and lyrics of his rap. Now, it was all about mind elevation, a growing hip-hop genre that aims to promote positive messages. After his single "I Miss You," Wallace kept at it. His songs quickly attracted hundreds of thousands of views. He has followers all over the world and performs regularly out of state.

Once he returns to South Florida, though, he tries to give back to the community. He says he speaks at high schools and hopes to inspire students to not give in to peer pressure.

“The message is clear once I tell them about my life,” Wallace says. “They know they stay in school and listen to their mom or dad or whoever is raising them.”

David Michael, a member of Save the Kids, an organization that tries to prevent children from winding up in prison, applauds Wallace for his music — but also for his work giving back to the community.

“His music is an inspiration for people whether they’re in the hood or the suburbs,” Michael says. He too served time in prison, for eight years as a young man. “We need more people like him to show that there’s a better way of doing things. You don’t need to be deemed a criminal your whole life.”

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