“Just so you know, I didn’t want to talk to you today.”
Brad Jordan, better known to millions of hip-hop fans as Scarface, had just parked his black Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat at the Alice McKean Young Neighborhood Library in the greater Third Ward area of southeast Houston, an early voting location for the December 14 runoff election. It was a week until election day, and the 49-year-old rapper/producer wasted no time letting me know he considered spending time talking with me a distraction from his campaign to represent District D on the Houston City Council.
That’s right: Scarface is running for city council. Jordan was one of the first to throw his hat in the ring after current councilman Dwight Boykins announced in June that he would run for mayor instead of seeking reelection. Jordan’s first move was hiring Boykins’s campaign manager, Dallas Jones, who has helped elect the district’s last three council members. “We had dinner, and over the course of about two hours he convinced me that he could win,” Jones told me. “I kind of leaned back in my chair and went, yeah—let’s shake some things up at city hall.” In the November general election, Jordan came in second out of sixteen candidates, forcing a runoff with the first-place finisher, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz. Jordan’s celebrity certainly helped him make the runoff—his campaign signs say “Brad ‘Scarface’ Jordan,” after all.
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That celebrity was in evidence outside the library, where he greeted each person individually as they arrived to cast their votes. “Good morning, how you doing? I’m Brad Jordan.” Most seemed to recognize him as Scarface. If someone wanted to chat or take a selfie, Jordan happily obliged. In between such standard retail politicking, Jordan explained why he was running for office after three decades in the music business. “If you listen to my music, you know I’ve always been the voice of the people and for the people,” he said. (A sample lyric: “On my block we dodge the nigga-haters and the cops,” he raps on 2002’s “On My Block,” which includes references to five streets in the South Acres neighborhood where he grew up.) “I actually address more problems in my music than any elected official, and I have a bigger platform.”
Which raises the question of why Jordan would want to trade that platform—through which he’s sold millions of records as a solo artist and member of the legendary Houston rap group the Geto Boys—for a position as city councilman, a part-time job that pays $63,000 and is mostly about fixing potholes and picking up trash. Jordan himself seems ambivalent about making that choice. Despite publicly declaring that “Scarface is dead” and saying he wants to devote the rest of his life to politics, he has tour dates in at least seven states in December and January and told Texas Monthly he plans to continue performing if he gets elected.
Jordan knows being a council member involves a lot of mundane work; he’s especially fixated on stopping illegal dumping, threatening to impose “astronomical fines” for the infraction. But he says he also has a bigger vision for the position. He wants to use his city council seat to fight the systemic racism he believes has kept District D down for decades. “Houston ain’t made no progress,” he said. “I’m not comfortable with how politics are being run at this point. I’m not comfortable with how my community is being served at this point.” (Strangely enough, Jordan isn’t the only member of the Geto Boys seeking a seat on the council; Willie D tried to run for District B but missed a filing deadline.)
District D encompasses a vast swath of Houston, stretching from the edge of downtown south to Beltway 8, from the yuppie apartment complexes of Midtown to the shotgun houses of the Third Ward. It includes the Museum District, the Texas Medical Center, and the University of Houston, as well as some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, like South Acres. Although parts of the district are rapidly gentrifying, it remains heavily poor and African American. Its residents have long felt ignored by the Houston political establishment. In its endorsement of Jordan, the Houston Chronicle cited the rapper’s ability to elevate the district’s concerns thanks to his celebrity.
When asked about the biggest problems facing the district, Jordan cited a lack of economic opportunities. In 2017 he cofounded the Positive Purpose Movement, a nonprofit that supports career education and second-chance programs for formerly incarcerated community members. As council member, he wants to promote skilled trades, citing the example of his grandfather, a master plumber. He also wants to capitalize on the district’s rich cultural history by creating jazz, reggae, and film festivals in the mold of Travis Scott’s recent Astroworld Festival. Such festivals could conceivably help pay for city services by generating vital hotel occupancy tax revenue.
“Let’s tap into our biggest assets,” Jordan said. “Travis Scott is the biggest rapper in the world right now. Beyoncé Knowles is from here. We have a lot of things going for us in this city—we’re not just an oil town.” As for gentrification, Jordan said he doesn’t mind outsiders building townhouses or setting up businesses in historically African American neighborhoods as long as they don’t price out longtime residents by driving up property taxes. “If you build a $400,000 structure next to my structure, don’t tax my property at $400,000. That’s the way it works, but it’s not fair. As a city council member, I’m going to be an advocate for stopping that.”
The Harris County Appraisal District establishes property values in Houston, and Jordan seemingly can’t do much as a city councilman to keep appraisal values low. As with other policy issues, he’s long on passion and short on details—perhaps no surprise for a first-time politician. Jones said that managing such an unconventional candidate has required some adjustments. “At the beginning, I was like, you need to do this, you need to say this. And somewhere along the way I’ve learned that no, he has to be Scarface. He can’t be everybody else.”
That includes his dealings with the media. Jordan’s unlikely city council run has been covered by outlets ranging from Billboard to the Washington Post, but Jones said Jordan hasn’t sought the spotlight. “He’s not a media hound. We’ve gotten all this coverage, but we’ve turned that much more coverage away. He would not have done this interview with you today, but I was like, this is free press! What are you doing?” Jordan has only reluctantly engaged in other conventional campaign activities like participating in candidate forums and speaking at black churches.
He’s at his best on social media (where he recently raised $22,000 in one day on Instagram, where he has 260,000 followers) or speaking to voters one-on-one, like at the library. After an hour of stumping outside the polling place, Jordan drove across the street to a shopping center parking lot, where volunteers with the Houston Black American Democrats were getting ready to block walk. Jordan’s opponent in the runoff, Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, showed up a few minutes later. Evans-Shabazz, who chairs the board of trustees for Houston Community College and serves on the local NAACP branch’s executive committee, is a far more traditional candidate. “I didn’t just wake up in the morning and say I want to run for District D,” she told me. “I also have the time and energy to do this. My opponent is more than just a rapper, but he is a rapper. In fact, he’s going on tour later this month. So I’m just wondering where District D is going to fall on his priorities list.”
When I repeated this criticism to Jones, he noted that Houston City Council is technically a part-time job; current council member Michael Kubosh also works as a bail bondsman, for instance. “Will Carolyn be giving up her real estate license?” he asked. For his part, Jordan sees his unconventionality as an asset. “If you’re comfortable with how business is run downtown, then by all means vote for someone who’s comfortable,” he said.
After half an hour it became clear that the block walk—billed by organizers as the biggest in the city—was only going to attract about ten people, including the candidates. Jordan decided he had better uses for his time, so he quietly slipped away from the crowd with Jones, who was trying to persuade Jordan to make the requisite round of church appearances the next morning. Several pastors had invited him to address their congregations. “I just want to worship in peace at my own church,” Jordan grumbled. “Why are you giving me a hard time here?” Jones shot back.
In the end, Jordan agreed to speak at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in the Third Ward. But he remained leery of media coverage, telling an Associated Press reporter not to film him. Jordan is determined to win this election on his terms or not at all. “No way in this world do I want to be a politician,” he told me. “I just want to save my people.”