Tony Tillman: From slamming a rival’s head with a rock to ‘Camden’
Tony Tillman concluded Camden — his album that Reflection Music Group released this August — with an open letter to a former fellow Crip. They lost touch after Tillman became a Christian and left the gang.
But dog I ain’t forgot you homes /
I close my eyes and say a prayer ‘cause I know Jesus cares for you my dude. You not alone /
And though I dropped my flag, know my feelings stretch beyond colors /
Nobody can take that from me, y’all always gon’ be my brothers /
I’m just hoping y’all can see God is there for you when you struggle/
I’m trippin’. Man, I just wish you could see this hope I discovered /
I’m praying for you
Tillman’s final words of Camden, an album with so many stories that it’s basically an audio book, are fitting. The first words that led to his discovery of hope also came from an audio book.
“When I first saw [Tillman], I thought he was a demon,” his former principle, Wilma House, said in RMG’s “Welcome to Camden” documentary.
At 12 years old, Tillman joined the Crips in Camden, Arkansas. A fight outside of his grandmother’s house four years later would not be his first, but it would nearly be his last.
A local rival, who Tillman had exchanged threats with over the phone weeks prior, strolled down the street as Tillman lounged on his grandmother’s porch with friends, smoking and drinking. As soon as Tillman noticed him, he approached and started an argument, which turned into a brawl. Eventually, the rival surrendered as he lay on the ground.
Tillman wasn’t satisfied, though.
He quickly grabbed a large, jagged rock and smashed it on his adversary’s head.
“When that happened,” Tillman told Rapzilla, “the fight was over.”
As his rival was rushed to the hospital to have a plate inserted in his skull, Tillman rushed away from the scene of the crime. Police charged him with attempted murder and issued a warrant for his arrest. Tillman fled for several days with an attitude of “I’m not going alive,” he said.
But then en route to the club on the weekend, cops pulled him over for speeding. They escorted him to jail, where he spent a week and a half before his mother bonded him out.
Incarcerated an hour outside of Camden, police needed to drive him back to his hometown courthouse to be picked up. On the way, whatever was playing on the radio caught Tillman’s attention. Someone was talking about stars falling from the sky.
Over the previous few weeks, dreams about the end of the world had haunted Tillman, who proceeded to ask the cop what the heck they were listening to.
It was an audiobook on the book of Revelation — a book in the Bible, the cop explained.
“I thought the Bible is a book,” Tillman said, confused.
Tillman had heard of John 3:16, but that was Tillman’s entire experience with the Bible. The first person to read him a Bible passage was the narrator of this Revelation audiobook.
In court, Tillman ultimately pleaded out for battery. He faced a 10-year probation and $25,000 fine (plus doctor bills). But on house arrest for the first few months of his release, Tillman would read all 22 chapters of Revelation every single night, and it terrified the once terrifying gang member.
“Every time I would get to the part about the lake of fire,” he said, “it would always bother me I was counted in that number, but I didn’t know how to escape it. I started to become depressed because I was like, ‘Man, how do I escape going to the lake of fire?’
“I heard of Jesus, but I thought Jesus was for Christians. And I knew I wasn’t a Christian, and I never knew you could become a Christian. I thought you were either born a Christian, or … something special happened that makes you a Christian. I’m from the ghetto, and nobody ever preached the gospel to me.”
Tillman soon isolated himself from his friends.
“I was just thinking that, ‘Ima die and go to Hell,’” he said, “and I thought maybe if I be good from this point forward, then maybe God will forgive for all the wrong I’ve done.”
Tillman didn’t know to pray for forgiveness, but he did pray that if God would somehow get him a legal job, he’d stop selling drugs. He applied nowhere, but days later, his step father offered him a gig trimming trees around power lines. Tillman took it and stopped selling drugs, after which the next logical step was to attend church.
There, Tillman learned how to escape the lake of fire. A year after he heard Revelation read to him on the way to the courthouse, Tillman became a Christian.
A decade-plus has passed since then, most of which Tillman has spent in Nashville, Tennessee, where he moved after marriage. But on his newest album, Tillman took listeners back to Camden to show where he came from, as well as the hope that allowed him to come so far.
“I had never met a young man that had so much hate,” Tillman’s mentor, Reverend Moore, told RMG, “and when I look at him today, man, it just …”
Moore, choked up, paused for several seconds.
“It touches my heart.”