Ahmad Ali Lewis made a deal with his mother back when he was a student at Palisades High School: He would go to college unless he got a recording contract for his upbeat rap music.
It was a big if. But Lewis, 17, an honors student and top football player, skipped the college entrance exams and signed with Giant Records. "I said, 'S.A.T. -- whatever. I want to R.A.P.,' " he recalls.
His 1994 album, immodestly called "Ahmad," included a hit single, "Back in the Day," a nostalgic riff on his South Los Angeles childhood. In it, he rapped:
I miss those days, and so I pout like a grown jerk
Wishin all I had to do now, was finish homework.
It's true you don't realize
really what you got
til it's gone
And I'm not gonna sing
another sad song, but
Sometimes I do sit and
Think about the years I was raised, back in the days.
Looking back, Lewis said he does not regret his teenage decision, even though his early success was followed by struggles in a music industry he criticized as promoting violence in the African American community. Now 32 and the father of a 4-year-old son, he is still recording songs, but he also is finishing homework.
Ahmad the first-name-only rapper has become Ahmad Ali Lewis the Stanford-bound scholar.
Lewis enrolled two years ago at Long Beach City College and graduated in May as valedictorian, with a 4.0 grade point average. He was accepted as a transfer student by several universities for this fall and chose Stanford.
"When I stepped on campus, something in my gut said, 'Dude, this is where you belong,' " said Lewis, who plans to pursue bachelor's degrees in sociology and African American studies. He said he is "going to be Dr. Ahmad Ali Lewis, the first rapper with a PhD." He quickly conceded, "Maybe someone else has done it, I don't know." No matter, he said, since he expects to get a doctorate in social work and become a professor.
"I love teaching," said Lewis, who recently tutored at an elementary school. "Rapping and teaching are not that far apart. You're rapping, you're talking. You're a professor, you're talking."
Compact but broad-shouldered at 5 feet 7 and 155 pounds, Lewis still has the build of the running back he was in high school. His head is shaven and he has two tattoos: on his left shoulder, a map of Africa containing a woman's face, and on his right forearm, "4th Avenue Jones," the name of the soul-rock-rap band he cofounded with his former wife, singer Tena Jones. When he talks, he waves his hands in the open-fingered style of rap performance.
He speaks of his Christian faith and academic ambitions with enthusiasm, humor and what he jokingly concedes is the "egomania" of a well-loved child. His mother, Paulette Holt, inspired him by starting college when she was a divorced mother of three and also "brainwashed me," he said.
"I always thought I was better than average, that I was handsome, smart and talented. It was a trick," he said. "Being black in America, from the ghetto, you need that extra little bit of confidence. So that's kind of my mission, to give other kids that kind of confidence."
The odds were against him at Stanford, which accepted just 20 of this year's 1,200 transfer applicants. But Lewis was admitted and offered a financial aid package that will cover his tuition and room and board, which total more than $47,000 this school year. He'll also receive funds for books and living costs each year through a highly competitive grant program that the Virginia-based Jack Kent Cooke Foundation offers to community college students transferring to four-year schools.
"Ahmad was really a standout in all the areas," said Vance Lancaster, a Cooke Foundation spokesman. "He is truly a scholar and a humanitarian who just happens to be a chart-topping rapper."
Lewis grew up mainly near 76th and Hoover streets, on a block with a crack house and gangs. His mother arranged for him to be bused out of the neighborhood to honors classes, and eventually to take the hourlong ride to Palisades High.He was both a football jock and a bookworm, with a singing voice that won him attention in church. His Muslim father, John, was a musician as well but Lewis didn't see him much after his parents divorced. When young Ahmad became consumed with rap, his mother panicked.
"I feared him getting involved in drugs, feared him getting involved in a lot of stuff that could have been devastating to him," said Holt, who earned a masters' degree in social work from USC in 2002 and is a therapist for Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.
"I told him, 'if you are going to rap, at least don't use bad language and don't talk down about women.' And he said, 'Mom, that's not me anyway, I don't do that.' So I was able to hear his music. It wasn't church music but it certainly was a positive message."
The few curse words in his songs were mild compared with the obscenity-filled lyrics of other rappers. A 1994 Times review called his first album "mostly upbeat, always insightful and sometimes very funny." One of the album's cuts offered a cautionary tale about a wannabe gangbanger who tries to impress his crew by planning to rob and shoot a shop owner:
"But I didn't do it quick enough, or he thought
of it first
Cause he blasted to the chest, and now I'm restin yellin, "Nurse!"
And holdin on to life, or at least tryin to hold on
In a jailward wearin cuffs
Cause I had to be rough
Cause you gotta be tough"
Lewis admits he wasn't an angel. He smoked pot, drank and partied during his concert tours. He earned enough to buy a car and a house in Long Beach.
But he was also denouncing "gangsta" rap's influence on black children. "We're destroying ourselves, teaching our kids low self-esteem," he said in an interview with The Times when he was 18. And he tangled with music executives who wanted a tougher edge to his unreleased second album and rejected its religious overtones, he said.
The subsequent 4th Avenue Jones group had some success, opening shows for big names such as Sheryl Crow and the Black Eyed Peas. The group then had contract troubles and Lewis became disillusioned with life on the road.
"I got to the point: 'What's this all about? Am I really having a significant impact on people's lives, just showing up in a city for an hour and doing a show and then leaving?" Lewis recalls. "I thought stardom and fame would bring me a kind of a joy. When I attained that, it was empty."
The big money was gone and the house had to be sold. After nine years of marriage, Lewis and Jones divorced, sharing custody of their son, Yeshuwa. The personal crisis led Lewis to community college.
Byron Clift Breland, Long Beach City College's dean of student affairs, interviewed Lewis during valedictorian selection and learned how he had joined a trip to help orphans in Zimbabwe, but had no idea about his music career. Later, Breland's wife realized that Lewis was the author of "Back in the Day," a song she liked so much that she had it included on their wedding video.
"I was shocked and excited," Breland said of learning Lewis' identity. "To see Ahmad break down a lot of stereotypes of folks who go into the music industry in general, let alone hip-hop or rap, and then return to higher education and go to Stanford is a remarkable story."
Next month, Lewis will start spending weekdays at Stanford and weekends in Los Angeles with his son. Music, however, is not out of Lewis' life.
He is writing lyrics for a new album he hopes to sell to a music label. He lives with his mother and stepfather in Carson and composes at a Salvation Army recreation center in Compton where he draws inspiration from its diverse patrons.
In a small office overlooking the noisy gym, Lewis reviews the lines he has written in an old-fashioned notebook. Swaying in his chair, he sings into a laptop over prerecorded musical tracks from collaborators. The autobiographical album, titled "The Death of Me," is meant to be celebratory, he said. In one number, "Smile," he raps:
"Back to college on the low like a panther
Finished as valedict' then went to Stanford
And I ain't paying for it
But I'm gon' pay it forward
Who gets the glory?
You know I gotta say