Yvette Gbalazeh performs street rap on a street corner in Deep Ellum. Two body piercers provide the beat, while a panhandler watches her performance, a protest in support of legalization of medicinal marijuana in Texas.
The 33-year-old marijuana activist usually holds a cardboard sign that reads “Will Rap 4 Weed.” But she didn’t bring it this evening. Instead, she wore a green T-shirt with the words “Will Rap 4 Weed” imprinted on the front. She says it began as a way for her to get weed to eat, then turned into a protest when she returned to Texas but now it’s morphed into a moniker. “Hey, Will Rap 4 Weed girl,” passersby will call.
Gbalazeh chose a cardboard sign to display her message because she felt it would desensitize people not only to marijuana but also the fact that there is a protester in their midst. She wishes more people would protest. She’s been rapping on the street corners of Deep Ellum for more than a year, holding her cardboard sign.
She says she’s not a panhandler but an activist who’s spreading a message, an idea that she hopes will eventually end the persecution of more than 72,000 Texans who were arrested for simple marijuana possession in 2012 alone. It’s a crime in Texas that carries a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine as well as possible loss of license, future employment and housing discrimination because of having a criminal record.
“Overall the cops have been awesome,” Gbalazeh says. “Some were butt hurt because they thought I was a panhandler. So yeah, some officers violated me, and some compliance officers violated me. I just got a case dismissed. I’ve been pretty quiet, playing defense. But I’m getting to start playing offense.”
Gbalazeh doesn’t just rap about marijuana legalization on street corners in Dallas. She also shares her message at city council meetings, criminal justice advisory board meetings and Dallas County Commissioner’s Court where she’s spoken to several county officials about HB 2391, the cite and release law.
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HB 2391 applies to Class A or B misdemeanors. It allows police officers the option to issue a citation instead of taking you to jail for crimes like possession of marijuana in a small amount. But since its passage in 2007, many Texas police departments don’t enforce the eight-year-old law because many district attorneys haven’t adopted a countywide policy requiring local law enforcement officials to enforce it.
One such person that Gbalazeh has spoken to about cite and release is Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. Valdez supports cite and release under a certain amount, yet she also recognizes that it was tried before but encountered several problems, including people giving a false name. But she feels that there is a way to handle it, such as using thumbprint identification when they come to see the judge about their ticket.
“I’m not saying it needs to be forgiven,” Valdez says. “We just need to find a better way to hold people accountable. Jail should be for people we are afraid of, not people we are angry at.”
Dallas Police Chief David Brown told the Observer in early 2014 that he plans to continue locking up pot users until the legislature orders him to do otherwise. And other area police chiefs agree, citing it would take a directive from District Attorney Susan Hawk’s Office for them to do otherwise.
Hawk’s office has yet to announce any plans to adopt a countywide policy requiring officers to follow the cite and release law. But Gbalazeh feels now is the time for the D.A. to take action and implement a countywide policy.
GBALAZEH DOESN'T JUST street rap holding her “Will Rap 4 Weed” cardboard sign as a way to spread the gospel of legalization. She also raps for weed as a way to say, “Hey, someone slip me a blunt so I can eat.” It’s hard to find the right weed in Texas, and it’s not always easy to find at a reasonable price — not to mention that the quality of the product may suck.
“Here in Texas, you don’t have any way to get consistent medicine,” Gbalazeh says. “And you don’t have a way to get the right kind of weed, and you have no way of knowing what kind you’re getting.”
Gbalazeh has been battling an eating disorder since she was 16 years old. She smokes marijuana because it increases her appetite. She first discovered marijuana's healing effects while attending the University of Houston in the early 2000s. At the time, she says she was losing her battle with her eating disorder when she learned that smoking marijuana might help.
Gbalazeh hailed from a good family in Victoria, Texas. Her father was a doctor from Liberia, and her mother was a registered nurse from Mexico. Gbalazeh grew up in a life of comfort, played sports in high school and was a cheerleader in college. She finished high school early and avoided the wrong crowd. But she also needed to eat something.
She says her eating disorder started in her head when she was a child, and she checked herself into rehab when she was 16. That’s when she says she met a doctor who told her to quit taking her pills and just smoke marijuana.
“That is probably one of the hardest things to do is get someone who has an eating disorder to smoke pot and eat without the inhibitions,” she says.
Gbalazeh has been busted several times for possession of marijuana. She says she felt the campus police were unfairly targeting her, yet she couldn’t quit smoking weed because it was saving her life.
But she also couldn’t afford jail time.
“That’s part of the reason why I went to California where it’s legal,” she adds.
LIKE OTHER ARTISTS, Gbalazeh lived on the streets in California, staying in places like Long Beach, Venice Beach, Hollywood Boulevard and other parts of Los Angeles. She became a medical marijuana patient not long after her arrival and began following her musical journey, which led to her performing street rap out of necessity and birthed the idea for “Will Rap 4 Weed.”
She got the idea to hold a cardboard sign from other homeless people. But instead of writing “Will Rap 4 Food,” she decided to write, “Will Rap 4 Weed” since marijuana increased her appetite. And she says people started paying attention, asking her questions like, “Why does it say weed and not food?”
“That’s what started the whole activism,” she says.
Living on the streets was tough for Gbalazeh in California. Thieves stole most of her belongings, including her vehicle in Los Angeles. With her laptop and turntables also getting stolen, she basically lost her livelihood. Not to mention that she lived under constant threat of violence. She didn’t just long for her home state of Texas and its refried beans. Gbalazeh figured out a way to return.
She moved back to the Houston area in 2013, but she didn’t escape conflict. It didn’t take her long to realize that she wouldn’t be able to get her medicinal marijuana as easily as living in California. So she grabbed her “Will Rap 4 Weed” cardboard sign and hit the streets of Houston to protest hers and other patients’ rights for medicinal marijuana.
“Legalize medicinal marijuana in Texas,” she’d tell people. “Legalize it, please. Medicine for the sick.” And some of them responded by listening, questioning and sometimes taking pictures of her holding her “Will Rap 4 Weed” cardboard sign.
She also began listening to people’s stories about family and friends who were arrested and taken to jail for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Some of them dealt with medical conditions far worse than her eating disorders, she says. She knew the Houston PD wasn’t enforcing the cite and release law. She began bringing it up at city council meetings and Harris County Commissioners Court. She spoke with city leaders, county officials and candidates running for county elections.
She calls it her first step, and she feels asking law enforcement officials to enforce an eight-year-old state law shouldn’t be hard. The next step involves asking the D.A.’s Office not to prevent marijuana tickets from appearing on your record, a policy that if enacted could be later submitted as a reasonable bill to legislators in Austin. Ultimately, she hopes it leads to the passage of medical marijuana in Texas.
“But no magic bill is going to drop out of the sky,” Gbalazeh says. “It’s got to be done at the local level.”
Gbalazeh’s “Will Rap 4 Weed” message went viral, and more and more people were approaching her on the street. She was chosen by the Houston Chronicle as one of Houston’s 43 most fascinating people. Local media outlets began running reports about the Will Rap 4 Weed activists, and she performed her street rap on the George Lopez show. She also made an appearance on Jerry Springer’s show “Baggage.”
City and county officials began to listen. Then, in July 2013, former chief felony prosecutor Kim Ogg announced her plan of implementing cite and release as a countywide policy if she were elected to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. But Devon Anderson, the Harris County D.A., beat her to the punch and implemented a pilot program called “First Chance Intervention” in October 2013, a month before the election.
Anderson’s program allows some people accused of Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession to avoid criminal charge and jail time if they complete either eight hours of community service or an eight-hour class. Only people without prior convictions other than a Class C misdemeanor are allowed to participate.
The program is loosely based on the cite and release law.
Gbalazeh still felt like her movement had scored a victory. She moved to Dallas not long after the election, bought a place off Craigslist that she calls the “Art House of Activism” in southeast Dallas and began launching her Will Rap 4 Weed campaign, heading to the street corners of Deep Ellum.
SPREADING HER MESSAGE on street corners in Houston and Dallas is no less dangerous than her time spent on the streets in Los Angeles. She faces hostility from local bar owners and other businesses in Deep Ellum. They call the police. But she still remains, rapping different letters of the alphabet while holding her cardboard sign.
At a Houston City Council meeting on Nov. 13, 2013, Gbalazeh told council members that “holding this sign for marijuana evokes a lot of anger out there among the ignorant people.” Her most recent attack occurred at a city council voting stand the week before the city council meeting. She said eight men had attacked her because of the message that she was sharing on a cardboard sign.
Gbalazeh says she’s getting some hostility from some local Dallas business owners because they feel her message offends some of their customers. She’s been asked to move repeatedly. She says her civil rights have been violated, too. Some local media outlets have ran stories about Gbalazeh’s Will Rap 4 Weed movement. But some news consumers were quick to point out that reporters had been duped by a panhandler.
When a blog post about Gbalazeh first appeared on the Dallas Observer’s website last month, readers claimed not only that she was simply a panhandler looking for a handout but also that she harrasses local business owners and employees and customers.
The Observer reached out to some local business owners. Calls were not returned by press time.
“This girl is a problem in our neighborhood,” “This lady is a nut job,” “She’s just another bum in the neighborhood,” other readers quipped in the comments. “She needs to get a real job!”
But Gbalazeh says her job includes invoking her constitutional right to protest what she feels is not just a civil rights violation but a human rights one when it comes to patients receiving medical marijuana when 23 other states allow it. Activism is a full-time job, she says. She has to attend city council meetings, advisory board meetings and other government functions related to her mission. Not to mention her endless dealings with local law enforcement.
She’s so serious about Will Rap 4 Weed that in 2014, she enrolled and graduated from Oaksterdam University, a trade school for the growing cannabis industry. She graduated valedictorian of her class.
“It’s been interesting rapping,” Gbalazeh says. “I’ve had my rights violated. People just don’t get what it means to protest.”
Like a panhandler, she does rely on people’s generosity to fund her movement. In July, she set up a donate tab on her artist Facebook page to save The Art House of Activism where she lives in southeast Dallas. She claims that she needed canned vegetables/fruit, water, DC batteries and fans. She also needed to raise $1,300.
But she continues to work all day trying to further her movement. She even posts videos of her interactions with police officers on her Will Rap 4 Weed Facebook page as well as links to media articles about her movement and other information related to cite and release. She recently shared a news article about the Bexar County District Attorney supporting cite and release for low level offenders. “San Antonio is going to enforce Cite & Release before Dallas?” she wrote in the August 18 post. “Look at how awesome their DA is. He’s open and willing to discuss the topic. Let’s see how Susan Hawk is for Dallas.”
Last year, a Texas House committee conducted hearings related to the implementation of the cite and release law. Hays County Sheriff Department reported that writing tickets saved time and money for the county.
Gbalazeh wanted to find out if police chiefs in Dallas County where implementing their own version of cite and release or simply taking people to jail. She wanted to know if they knew about the law and if they would follow a countywide policy implementing the law. She spoke first with Highland Park Police Chief Rick Pyle.
Pyle told Gbalazeh that if a person is arrested for a Class B or A misdemeanor, they don’t need to be written a citation but needed to go directly to jail. She asked him what would happen if the person was a cancer patient coming from chemo and had a joint in the car? “Well, obviously you can’t make a 100 percent blanket statement about everything,” he said.
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Pyle tells the Observer in a follow-up interview that he felt Gbalazeh presented herself as representing the sheriff’s department when she called him. (She denies this.) He acknowledges that his officers would take offenders possessing a small amount of marijuana to jail. “But obviously if there was a mandate [from the D.A.’s office] that we had to release, we will follow the directive,” he says.
One police captain told Gbalazeh that his officers will sometimes write a citation for drug paraphernalia — a Class C misdemeanor — when they catch someone with a small amount of marijuana, and another police chief needed her to explain the cite and release law. One did his best to get off the phone with her, and another told her he didn’t want to tell his officers what to do when it comes to policing,
But most of them agreed: “Whatever our D.A.’s office tells us to do on a arrest we will do.”
“Since there is not a county wide policy, a blanket wide policy, you have different police chiefs interrupting the cite and release law all the wrong way,” Gbalazeh says. “The law was written to avoid this.”