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  • Writer's pictureVolume 82 Magazine

By God's Grace: Harlem's Ms. Tee Understands the Power of Blessings & Moving Forward

It's no surprise that the entertainment industry continues to be enthralled with the lifestyle that came with selling crack-cocaine during the '80s and '90s. The “crack era” is a time period that is as historically significant as the protests of the 1960s, the Great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance. It’s an unforgettable time that created an unpredictable rise and fall for Black American communities. During the '80s and '90s, it was typical for young black drug dealers to net more money per week than a two-working-parent household could net in a year. It was common to see teenagers and young adults “in the game” owning luxury cars, expensive jewelry, and designer clothes. Some dealers from that culture became so famous that their lives continue to be referenced in movies, books, and music. However, it was unexpected to see the massive amounts of people that became addicted to the drug. And though the “crack era” produced extreme wealth for some, there was also an enormous number of casualties in the form of addiction, death, destruction, dilapidated communities, poverty, and mass incarceration of thousands of Black Americans-those negative things became the ultimate kingpins in that drug game.

As a youth, Harlem’s Tonia Taylor, better known as Ms. Tee, lived in the thick of drug distribution in New York. After ultimately exiting that lifestyle, she penned her life story Harlem Heroin(e): My Love Affair with Harlem Street Life and the Men Who Ruled It. After that, Hollywood started to beckon Tonia to give her account of the 80's and 90's drug era. Ms. Tee appeared on the Netflix production Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy and BET's new season of American Gangster: Trap Queens, where she discusses the perils of the drug game through her personal experiences. Considering everything I know and observed about the infamous "crack era," and after reading Ms. Tee's memoir, I found that getting a woman’s account and perspective would be unique among the male-dominated crack era that created so many good, bad, and ugly things for Black culture.

I met Ms. Tee at Harlem's popular Red Rooster eatery a couple of days after her 52nd birthday. She was beautiful and glowing, and has certainly aged well. Her mellow and effervescent personality didn't mesh with the complexities of her past life and everything that she lost in the streets. Ms. Tee was once engaged to one of Harlem's most significant drug suppliers from the ‘90s (Ace, of “Fritz and Ace” fame), and she has lost many people to drugs.

But it was long before I understood why she was glowing. Ms. Tee explained that she regained her balance in life after relocating out of New York City, earning her Bachelor of Arts degree, sending her daughter to college on a basketball scholarship, establishing a trucking company, launching a media company (Royal-T Publishing), and writing books. Throughout our day together, Ms. Tee and I walked around New York's historical Lenox Avenue, passed through the annual "D-Ferg" celebration, and went to a couple of restaurants. Every few blocks, people stopped us to talk with her. Harlem still has plenty of love for Ms. Tee. She’s a legend because she made it and a legend because she’s one of the few who made it out! Check out our interview with Ms. Tee below:

Volume 82: What made you walk away from the game?

Ms. Tee: Well, in 2000, when my brother Jermaine was killed, that was it for me. You know … all of a sudden, and for obvious reasons, the streets and the game just wasn't fun anymore.

Volume 82: Since you decided to walk away, what's your life been like? What has the past 10-15 years been like for you?

Ms. Tee: Oh, my God! Just trying to figure out what it is that I wanted to do, just trying to figure out what my purpose was, and just trying to understand the things that I've been through and wondering ‘Was it all for nothing?’ And so, within that time, that's when I started writing and then published my book. You know, out of that pain, I became an author. I never thought about writing a book (beforehand), but I was always good at writing. So you know it all came together. It's been very therapeutic. Getting things out, and just knowing that my writing helps other people.

Volume 82: What was the inspiration for your book?

Ms. Tee: Unfortunately, it was my brother's death. I was in so much pain, and it seemed like there was nothing—even moving out of New York City—there was absolutely nothing that I found comfort in. So, being that I had so much in me and had been through so many things in my life, writing it down was so helpful to me. Just getting it out and seeing it on paper or on my computer screen, that's what it was, and it really really helped. It's just amazing how that process helps.

Volume 82: From checking you out on social media, you have a following and a fanbase, but it seems like you have especially been a help aid to women who were in the game. I don't think there are a lot of spokespeople for the women of that era. So how much have you had women come to you and say, ”You've really helped me”. Have you had a lot of that?

Ms. Tee: Yes, I've definitely had women reach out to me, but 82% of my audience is actually men! Men have reached out to me. I had a man reach out to me saying, “Ms. Tee, I made my 14-year-old son watch your documentary. He said 'I really want to get my daughter (who is in her twenties) to watch it. She's going through it because she wants to be in that street life” and he said, “I really want her to sit down and watch it because she's already been stabbed, and I really wanna get her out of it.” I've had men, you know, grown men say, "Ms. Tee, your story humbles me.” One guy said “I was thinking about going out into the streets, but when I watched your documentary, it humbled me.” That makes me feel good. Some men are like, “Salute, Queen. Thank you for your story.” I had a guy hit me up the other day and he said, “Ms. Tee. I rewatched your documentary.” So actually, it's been men, and I'm OK with that because the black man needs help, all the help they can get, and encouragement. So, I'm with all that. We gotta preserve the black man, so it makes me feel good.

Volume 82: It seems like, in your own way, you've always done that. You talked about it in your book, how you were that friend to a lot of men.

Ms. Tee: I've always been that chick, I guess, that they can trust. I've always been that, even today-that logical thinker. Even when I moved out of New York, I had someone call me up like “I had a situation, what should I do?” You know … people respect my opinion, and I appreciate that, because if I can talk somebody off the ledge without-them being overcome by their emotions and getting caught up in something, then I'm happy that I can do that.

Volume 82: Looking back on all of it, I'm sure you feel like you are blessed. Just everything that you've endured, to still be standing despite many other people in your life who are now in their final resting places or incarcerated for life. What do you feel like your biggest blessing was?

Ms. Tee: OMG, if there was a word bigger than blessed, that would be it. But I think my biggest blessing is just being able to inspire people. You know, I sometimes think “Why did I survive?” I know people who were set up and robbed and they didn't make it. I know people who have been shot … in fact, a friend of mine was shot right in the same area I was shot in ([Ms. Tee references her friend who was shot and killed right in front of her before the gunman then shot her. Ms. Tee survived, but her friend didn’t.] I guess me getting up and thinking on my feet at that age and saying, ”Listen, I can’t die like this,” you know? I think my blessing is just being here to be able to inspire people and encourage people, and like I said in my book, to discourage people from a certain type of lifestyle because it's not what people thought it was! You got the cars, the money, everything. But if you die today or tomorrow, what did all that mean? Absolutely nothing! So many people had a whole lot and left it all here. You know, and life goes on. When you're dead and gone, life continues to move. It doesn't stop because you're not here. So, you know, I live my life now just trying to make it count. You know and I just want to always (whether I'm here or not…(I think I've laid the foundation to where if I was to leave here today or tomorrow), I left something that people can be inspired by.

Volume 82: I think a lot of people have a misconception about your generation because you all dressed nice, you had the cars, you had the jewelry, and you had a certain lifestyle. You appeared to really be relishing in it like it was a lot of enjoyment. It seemed like it was a happy time that everybody was celebrating, and I think some people have a misconception and say you were all just thugging out and being irresponsible promoting all this negative stuff, but I don't think they understand that it's kind of something that came your way.

Ms. Tee: And I get it. I definitely get what people are saying from the outside looking in. I get it, but, we were a product of our environment. And we made the best of what we had or how we could make money. I mean history tells us that the government set up the war on drugs for that purpose, but then we used it for our benefit, they want to condemn us for it. I have a problem with that. You know, they intentionally put drugs in our communities, guns in our communities…You know, yes it did hurt a lot of people. Drugs killed a lot of people, but the fact that we actually used it and made money off of it, then they condemned us-I just don't understand that. And people like me and others, we took our experiences and we now understand what was so wrong about it. You know, and we don't glorify it anymore. We try to explain why it was bad. So yeah, we were just doing what we thought was OK to do. We were young and didn't really know any better, and a lot of people got into the game because it was a way to feed their families. They were poverty-stricken. So they used the game to feed their families and make a better way. That was the only way they could do it with a lack of education or knowledge, because a lot of us come from communities where we lack knowledge. If we would have known better, we would have done better, of course!

Volume 82: I think there are a lot of women who think they can be equals to men in the streets or I can do this “boss chick” thing or I can hold my man down when he's in certain positions. Do you feel like there's another side of it that people don't understand?

Ms. Tee: I will say nowadays, women have leveled up. I believe that. I've seen it. And from an entrepreneurial aspect, you know, it's OK. It's OK to be the breadwinner as a woman. Listen, there's nothing wrong with being that person and taking care of the family, taking care of your man or encouraging your man to do better. I don't have a problem with that. Some people might see it differently, but it's OK. It's enough out here for everybody to make it. It just depends on what you wanna do, what your skill sets are, and whatever they aren't, we all have an opportunity to be better. It really makes me feel good when I see black women leveling up, doing better and able to do things, not counting on a man to do everything. So, I think it's great!

Volume 82: Some people seem like they are not able to walk away when it's time. What do you feel like people should look for as far as a signal for when it's time to walk away?

Ms. Tee: It's unfortunate because the money and the fame of the streets kind of clouds people's judgment I've known so many who could have walked away. But the greed and the fast money just makes you think that I can do this another six months. Then that six months turns into another six months of that street life, and then all of a sudden it’s been a year since you think you should have stopped. Now, you're either in jail or someone has killed you for the money or just out of jealousy. But I think it's greed, you know when you're in that life your judgment is definitely clouded. That money and street fame is like a drug itself, because everybody wants to be on top. Everybody wants to shine, until you're shining and then you realize that you don't really want to be in that position. so yea, it's just unfortunate.

Volume 82: Yes it is. As far as BET...

Ms. Tee: There were a few people who threw my name out there and BET got back to me for their series called American Gangster: Trap Queens. Being a part of that, I think it's good. I think it will be good for Harlem, and it will be good for our culture so people can understand the way we did things here and why. The only reason I agreed to do it is because (I'm never bragging about what happened at all) but it's more of a cautionary tale about how it affected our community, how it affected us personally, and why it shouldn't have been done in the first place. So when BET pitched it to me as a cautionary tale, I was all in, because again, I'm not here to brag about that lifestyle because it's really nothing to brag about! Because I want people to understand that, I want my people to want to live. All this killing and shooting out here, it does something to me, and I don't like it.

Volume 82: Anything else your audience should watch for?

Ms. Tee: Listen, I'm trying to do it all. I have a production company, Royal T Media & Entertainment, and I'm working on a scripted story with me and Brian Glaze Gibbs and some others. I just want my people to win. I want to tell a story that's always going to help others, and I'm just trying to be great and leave a legacy behind. I work off the universe all the time. I let the universe work. But whatever happens, happens! If nothing else happens, I've been blessed and I'm good. I'm content. As long as I wake up, everything else is a bonus. I just want to say thank you to everyone who supported me and will continue to support. I'm humbled and I'm so appreciative to everybody.

Related Content: To read our conversation with Alpo Martinez, click here.

Related Content: To read Azie Faison's story, click here.

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1 Kommentar

Natalie Montgomery
31. Aug. 2023

I forgot that you had interviewed Ms

Tee, SMDH! A lot different than your interview and the video on the release of her book.

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