In 2016, Charles Gardner, also known as Prezi, was acquitted of all charges related to a fatal shooting at a San Francisco nightclub. A year later, Prezi released his first song, “Do Better,” with the hook “Family telling me to do better / I'ma do better / I'ma do better.” And with that proclamation, he spoke the next chapter of his life into existence: the song has over 17 million views on YouTube alone, and has climbed the radio charts, been remixed with some big names in the Northern California rap scene, and has led to Prezi going on tour.
Now, he's looking to make his next move: to put his hood on.
Prezi’s neighborhood is on the southeastern corner of San Francisco’s 7x7 square. It’s a part of town tourists don’t patronize. You won’t see a postcard with Hunters Point Housing projects on it. Fat chance you’ll find a poster, mug or other memorabilia showing the amazing view from Harbor Road looking eastward across the Bay toward Oakland, the glorious piece of land that I call home.
Prezi's not asking for a postcard or mug for Hunters Point. Just the respect and recognition it deserves.
Last week I ventured over to Hunters Point, crossing the Bay Bridge, driving south on 101 and eventually parking my car on Harbor Road. When I got there, I just listened: construction trucks beeped as they worked to renovate the old barracks-turned-low-income housing; birds squawked while flying from the hillside to the ruins of the old Shipyard below; a passing pit bull breathed heavily as his owner gave me a silent head nod. In the distance, I could hear laughter from a group of guys standing about two football fields from my car.
Prezi, who’s about 6'4" with 'locs that drop to mid-torso, emerged and gave dap to every person in that circle before making his way down the block to where I was parked. We walked into a small playground area, and sat on some stairs that I’d later discover were featured on the cover of RBL Posse’s 1992 album, A Lesson To Be Learned, which dropped a year after Prezi was born.
Before I could ask my first question, a lady by the name of Stacy, who introduced herself as the community chef, walked up and gave Prezi a hug. Before she left, she let us know that anytime we want a plate, all we have to do is say the word.
At 26, Prezi is already a bit of historian for this area, the roots of his family tree engrained in the concrete. His grandparents landed in this neighborhood when they moved to the Bay from Texas. Both his mom and pops were raised on Harbor Way. He has three kids of his own now. And though “Do Better” is getting airplay around the world, Prezi hasn’t moved.
He's an exception to the mass exodus of African Americans from the City, where just over 5 perfect of the entire population (884,363 as of 2016) is black, down from just over 10 percent (out of a total of 723,959) in the early '90s.
As the overall population grows, and the black population shrinks, he’s still here. Proudly. Still living in the projects—and still experiencing the feel of being a second-class citizen in a world-class city.
“I just got pulled over today,” said Prezi, with a 1,000-yard stare out toward the Bay. “The police was like, ‘Prezi!? How ya doin!? I been seeing the billboards [for “Do Better”] and everything, it’s nice to see.’”
The rarity of the interaction is amplified, he said, when you consider recent headlines of police shootings in America, and San Francisco in particular. He also said that the officer didn’t give him a ticket.
“It blew me away, like, they’re paying attention,” Prezi said.
It makes sense. Prezi is telling the story of a community that is hard to reach, for some. And hard to get out of, for others. Geographically shunned to the far corner of a booming metropolitan city. Economically separated from the tech jobs in downtown. Environmentally degraded by years of injustice: it’s the former home to a Naval Shipyard, the onetime location of a Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory and the grounds on which a PG&E plant pumped toxins for over 50 years.
When asked what it means to be speaking for his community, Prezi said, “When you’re in this kind of position, you don’t see how big things are, cause you’re on the inside looking out.”
But one moment it started to click was after a show in Humboldt. That’s where Prezi met his favorite rapper, Mozzy. I balked. What? Favorite rapper ever?
“Yeah,” Prezi replied, “‘cause he speaks my life into existence. The trials, the not having this or that, the really coming from super nothing. He put me in a place that no other rapper ever put me in.”
He clarified a little: “Of course I love the Bigs and Pacs, they spoke dope music. But they weren’t putting me into ‘where I came from’. Mozzy was the first rapper that ever put me back in my childhood. Like, damn, I could’ve said that... Some people don’t understand our music, or what we go through. We don’t chose the life we live. We don’t chose where we come from.”
To be an African American, an artist and from San Francisco is almost as rare as it gets. Prezi's legend isn’t just a San Francisco story or another American tall tale; it’s a universal narrative of struggle and perseverance. In the midst of environmental, historical and current institutional hurdles, he simply wants to “do better”. And for that, I commend him.
I took a few photos of him, his community members, and his street sign. Quietly noting to myself that the sounds of the beeping construction trucks are evidence that change is afoot, and the brothers standing in a circle laughing won’t be there forever.
Before I got in the car to head back across the Bay, I finally asked. Why do they call you Prezi?
With a smile protruding out his hooded sweatshirt, he said, “I’m the president around here.”
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.