Big Smurf finds old life hard to shake
Former gangster tries to stop violence through music
Jonathan Demetrius Norman figures he's been shot at 300 or so times. He's been wounded by gunfire four times. He shot a man for the first time at age 18 - which landed him in jail during his graduation from Lincoln High School - and he's seen his cousin, girlfriend and countless friends die from gunfire.
Big Smurf, as he was known on the street, is no longer a fan of gang life. For the past 13 years, he's traded gang violence for music, hoping to appeal to youth through their language and 'stop the violence.'
That was the idea behind a concert he scheduled for June 4, dubbed 'Making Peace through Music.' He'd sunk $15,000 into promoting the sold-out show and scheduled Messy Marv, a big-name West Coast rapper, from California with supposed Blood gang ties, to headline the show.
Norman, 39, used to be a member of the Kerby Blocc Crips, named for the Northeast Portland block where they lived. His Smurf nickname came from his appearance: 'I was very short, and I and always wore a lot of blue,' he says. 'My junior year, I was only 4-11. When I got shot, I grew eight inches while I was in the hospital (for over two months).' He's now 5-foot-8.
In 1998, he took on the name Smurf Luchiano as a member of the rap group Gangsters on the Move, and also founded 2Real Records, which produced five albums during the years.
If the rappers from different sides could come together at the concert and shake hands, Norman figured, it would send a powerful message to young black men that they ought to put down their guns too.
Instead, the June 4 concert at Northeast Portland's TA Event Center was canceled just hours before it was to start. Portland Police had concerns that the show would be a magnet for gang violence, considering that the trend rises every summer.
'North Precinct met with the management and expressed our concern that having an event there was going to have a gang presence,' says Sgt. Pete Simpson. 'Ultimately the venues make the decision, based on our input.'
The TA Event Center, 355 N.E. Multnomah St., does not have a liquor license and therefore poses problems for police because it's unregulated, Simpson says. Two weeks after the Messy Marv concert was called off, there was a shooting during another rap concert at the TA center.
'Where problems usually start is promoters have no vested interest in the venue, no oversight, nothing to lose,' Simpson says. 'They come in and there's not adequate security, or inconsistent security, or they search some people but not others, and market events directly to gang members and gang associates.'
Therein lies the universal debate, about whether gangster rap promotes gang violence or is simply an outlet for self-expression, a way to reach out to youth by speaking their language and often a way out of the inner city.
In fact, 10 years ago, Norman took a former rival gang member, Mark Miles, aka Meezilini, off the streets and into the recording studio, mentoring him and producing his 2010 album, 'Voice of the Streets.'
They've toured the country, spreading a message of nonviolence and 'never losing sight of your dreams.' Their music is one of just three rap groups from Portland that are nationally distributed, through rapbay.com.
Simpson says police are just protecting the peace. Portland has seen 50 gang-related incidents this year, on track to surpass last year's 98 shootings.
'He's trying to make a life for himself promoting night clubs and hip hop concerts, which is involving gang members,' Simpson says of Norman.
'So how far out of the gang life is he? I like him, but you want to start a new life away from crime and gangsters, then do it. But you can't keep one foot in one pool and one foot in the other pool. It will never work.'
'Some stuff is set up for entertainment purposes, some for learning purposes,' he says. Yes, some rap music does talk of violence, he says.
But a lot of it is exaggerated. After each of his videos, Norman says, he delivers his own public-service announcement to that effect. 'I say what you see here is entertainment,' he says. 'Stop the violence.'
One of his biggest successes came from the soundtrack for the 2006 documentary, 'Killingsworth.' The film, directed by local videographer Tom Olsen, one of Norman's classmates at Lincoln, portrays the early years of Portland's gang history, including the killing of Norman's younger cousin, Anthony Branch Jr., aka 'Lil Smurf.
The album is nominated for soundtrack of the year at the fourth annual West Coast Hip Hop Awards, scheduled Aug. 19 at Portland's Roseland Theater.
Norman is hoping for a win. He wants police and anti-gang advocates to see he's on their side now. Namely, he'd like to be off the police bureau's list of designated gang members.
He asked as much during the July 8 mayor's twice monthly anti-gang task force meeting.
Gang enforcement Officer Russ Corno replied that there is 'no official, permanent list,' and people can be purged from the list after four years of inactivity - excluding years of incarceration, parole or probation. As of July 7, there were 749 designated gang members on the list.
Norman says he deserves a second chance. His last conviction for a gang-related crime was in 2001, when he served two years for the state racketeering charge. A jury acquitted him of a federal conspiracy charge after he spent those two years in jail.
In 2009, he served several months on a domestic violence charge that Norman insists was trumped up. Since his release in October, part of his probation is that he can't leave the state for five years. So he's stuck. He has to live here, yet he can't pursue his career.
'I just want to live my life,' he says. 'If I can't survive around here, it's going to be hard for the kids.'