10/27/2011 08:18 am ET Updated Dec 27, 2011

I Am Not a Victim

I am not a victim. At least, that is what I told myself during the seven years that I sat in federal prison. When my 14-year sentence (for a first-time, non-violent drug offense) was commuted by President George W. Bush in 2008, my new life began. After enduring forced separation from my loved ones, suffering the doldrums of solitude, and witnessing abject abuses of power, I returned home with a new perspective. I saw things differently, strove to acknowledge and respect the details in the moment, and aimed to shed light where the darkness pervaded. I wanted to create something beautiful... every day!

These goals were not easy to attain. I quickly learned that discipline is required to remember the motives that inspire the desire for a better quality of living.

"Do not forget where you have been," I reminded myself. "Do not forget what you have seen. And, most important, do not forget the good people you met along the way -- good people who made poor choices and learned from those missteps; good people who are not as fortunate to see the other side of captivity."

Upon my return to the "free world," there were calls for me to represent my prison time as if it were a badge of honor, or worse, some sort of rite of passage. My friends (my brothers) and I, who were sentenced to decades or more, never felt cool. Not one day. We writhed over the music that glorified our demises -- the messages that infected the ears of the babies (our little brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters) who looked up to us, the occupiers of the belly of a dysfunctional system.

Far be it for me to say what should and should not exist as art. Fortunately, we live in a country where people have the liberties to speak (and sing) freely. My goal was and remains to produce
thought-provoking and catalytic art. I used my time away to confront the issues I avoided for years. What/who was important to me? What was/is my purpose?

The dialogue that ensued inspired me to follow my heart instead of chasing the pocketbooks of my peers. I have vivid memories of going into recording studios in the late '90s (when I was arguably at the pinnacle of my success), making music for everyone except myself. I wanted to make music because I wanted to make money. I studied the charts, listened to what was in heavy rotation on the radio, and mimicked what I heard. And while my collaborative efforts earned me fame and public notoriety, my solo efforts failed (by the commercial standards of the day).

I made the foolish decision of involving myself in a criminal enterprise; and I justified it by telling myself that I would use the money to release my music independently, absent the machinations of a recording label-system that took its artists for granted and reaped disproportionate benefits. That house of logic was built upon cheap, plastic cards. When the wind blew gently, I was buried beneath the rubble.

It has been almost three years now since I walked out of The Federal Correctional Center at Fort Dix, New Jersey. I have worked with children in hopes of deterring them from making the mistakes I made. I have addressed lawyers, judges, and folks in the business sector. I have written articles. I am writing a book. Unsurprisingly, I have returned to making music.

More than a year ago, I reconnected with an old friend from high school, Christophe Charlier. He invited me to his home in Moscow, to see the sights and to perform for the people (I had never been). That simple invitation led to a two-month tour throughout the country, a new film and a new album. We achieved our goals: to collaborate with local artists, give back to the local children and to build cultural bridges.

Christophe and I left that project feeling so inspired that we decided to build a company that replicated the model of marrying creative collaboration across borders with a charitable purpose. Le CASTLE was born.

The music industry is markedly different these days than before I went away. The game has changed and the rules are what we make them. My newest album is being released in three "suites." The first of the three, "The Water Suite" was released a few weeks ago ... but instead of a CD in a store, it's available on iTunes. I recently shot and directed the video for the first single, "Give Me Water", which now lives on youtube and is instantly available to anyone. I am still amazed by these new and easily accessible technologies, challenging me to find new ways to tell my story.

I have a responsibility to tell this story. I have the passion to make something beautiful without compromise. We are more than the sum of our parts. The opportunity to learn and grow from our mistakes are ever present. I have the humility to know that there is still much to learn. I am not a victim.