Story and Photos by Ken Krayeske • 1:25 AM EST
I. Rahim Harris, founder and publisher of the new monthly newspaper, Street Smarts, relaxes in reflected sunlight after an interview at Tisane, Monday, April 27, 2009.
Two major newspapers - dailies that were more than a century old - closed their doors in the past month.
Newsrooms face cuts in every state. Reporters are looking for work. So who goes and starts a newspaper in this climate?
American originals like I. Rahim Harris.
"It's the crazy people who make the cool things happen," said Harris, the publisher of the new Street Smarts, a monthly newspaper aimed at the urban market in Southern New England.
The first edition of Street Smarts – Drugs, Guns and Money - hit the streets at the beginning of April, and Harris said people hungry for his content gobbled the print run of 14,000 copies. Street Smarts is online here.
The next edition about sex will arrive in stores and locations across greater Hartford on May 3. Harris bought a van to distribute Street Smarts, but he has no specific list of places where it can be picked up.
He has a grand vision for the paper, and in five years, he wants to be able to sell it for millions. To get there, he is teaching himself how to sell ads, and how to write, publish and distribute the paper.
I found my copy at Green Apple on Farmington Avenue. After reading it, I was astonished – I wanted to know who on earth, in the middle of a recession, enters into a market that common knowledge seems to say is dying?
Harris was waiting for me at Tisane on Farmington Avenue with his business manager Andre. Harris, 28 going on 29, wore a white shirt and a tie. He and I talked for 45 minutes, and his fire is contagious, his tone refreshing and his story almost unbelievable.
He comes from a broken family in the original Stowe Village. He dropped out of high school, and rented his first apartment at age 14. He was a runaway, in and out of the juvenile detention centers run by the Department of Children and Families.
"Everything was a hustle," Harris said. He doesn't know if he will write an issue about the DCF, but he has no love for the state as a parent.
"If it tickles my fancy, I'll write about it," he said. "Those place they put you in made me worse. I learned how to steal cars and how much crack costs in Long Lane."
Playing in the street game, Harris sold drugs, and rapped. He took the street name "Shock Da World." The streets were a dead end though.
He obtained a GED and joined the Army in 1998, when he was 18. Stationed in Fort Leavenworth, then San Antonio, he got kicked out of the Army when he smacked a white captain who called him a "nigger."
He ended up back in Connecticut, confronted by Hartford’s seeming nowhere.
"I moved. I left. I moved to Rhode Island," he said. Once in Providence, he realized that Hartford generates a parochialism, he called it "separation anxiety."
His career as a rapper started to take off. But even with a record deal (listen to his raps here), he admits he was still doing dumb stuff. Harris realized that he wanted to do something more.
"You could spit as many knowledge raps, they don't make money," Harris said. And, he added, knowledge rappers get ignored, and don't earn any airtime.
"When someone reads something, they take it to heart," he said. A magazine was too expensive, so he focused on newsprint.
Harris had never heard of MetroBridge, the now-defunct teen news project at the Hartford Courant, nor was he aware of my former endeavor, Echoes from the Streets.
Yet Harris saw an opportunity. "I smell money," he said. "No newspaper touches my crowd." Within the businesses serving his community, he sensed a chance to sell ads.
Papers shutting down? "They're leaving the ad space to me," he said.
The Courant charges too much, he said. "I know how much it costs these papers to get printed up," he said. "My plan is to cut everyone's throats, and undercut the competition."
He spent two years planning the first issue. The recession wasn't going to stop him. "I call it people scared to spend money," he said. "If a crack addict has money to get high, people have money to spend."
Learning the software was tough, but he has a vision for the paper.
"I want to make stories you can't find on the internet," he said. "I want pictures and graphics that you can't walk past."
Street Smarts looks one way, but actually is another way, he said.
"To a negative person, they want to see the bad stuff, like the guns and drugs," he said. "But when you open it up, it's a positive outlook. I'm tricking people. I want to keep it to my audience."
He expresses anger with the older generation of the African-American community, saying that they needed to help him and his peers, but failed them.
"Instead of learning how to sell crack, why didn't anyone say 'this is how you sell mortgages,'" Harris said. "I'd be selling mortgages right now."
He disparaged the pro-black movement, too.
"I'm pro-people," he said. "Pro-black is hate-mongering. They say a white man did this to us. Yeah, they started it off, but we are finishing it."
Street Smarts, then, is a vehicle to impart knowledge in a way that rap music cannot do. He acknowledges that the next issue of Street Smarts, the sex issue, will feature bootylicious photos of scantily clad women.
But, he said, people won't listen to their enemies. They listen to their friends.
"I can't change the whole world," he said. "But I can change a couple of people's minds."
Hartford needs a paper like Street Smarts, he said.
All of this sounded so impressive coming from a man who grew up in the DCF gulag, where dozens of the kids he grew up with are now in jail. How did he get to this point?
"I'm my own person," he said.
Yeah, I know. But how did you find it?
"I don't know," he said.
He abides by a moral code he wants to share. Somewhat shaped by Christianity, but Harris is not a practicing Christian. He offered pointed criticism of the Catholic Church's hypocrisy on wealth to demonstrate why he avoids organized religion.
Yet he doesn't think that people should get married unless they have dated for a year and have a solid foundation. The Kama Sutra sex tips he will print in the sex issue will be accompanied by a warning that they are for married couples only. Shock Da World, then, sees himself as a shock jock.
"I say stuff to piss you off," he said. "You can't fire me. I'm my own boss. I can do whatever I want."
And all this is possible, he said, because of the American dream. His long-time girlfriend and her family came from Cambodia, where they lived in huts. Now they live in houses, he said.
"The American dream exists. You want to be somebody in America? Be original," he said. "You'll make a million. And you'll make that American dream. I want to be as original as I can be."
That, then, is the kind of man who starts a newspaper when everyone else in the print news industry is running for the hills.