Describing his life story, Derek Clark sounds like a man who had every reason to give up. But, even when he still was unsure where he was heading in life at 17, a rap he had written with the lyrics “never give up” built the foundation on how he lives today.
Clark was abused early on in his life and abandoned by his parents at 5 years old. He told his story as part of the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club Pillars of America event at Centennial Hall Wednesday.
“Rap saved my life,” Clark said. “It let me get the inside stuff out.”
Clark attended a racially diverse high school as a teenager. He said he struggled with violence and he needed another outlet to get the anger out of him. He described one afternoon when he noticed a group of guys in the middle of a rap battle. Clark decided to jump in and the results, he said, were poor.
“I said I was going to unleash the dragon,” he said. “But then I sucked about three seconds in.”
Clark, however, did not let this moment slow him down. He decided that rapping was something he was meant to do, so he worked on rhyming and diction. Still having difficulty finding his flow, he thought about how he played the clarinet. Clark became a clarinet prodigy at 12 when he competed against people much older.
“I realized I had a gift from the clarinet,” Clark said. “My tongue moves quickly (from playing it).”
Combining that talent with reggae, Clark began getting respect from his fellow classmates. Still, he struggled to keep his emotions in check. Clark was expelled as a senior for fighting. After attempts at couch-surfing, he returned home to his foster parents. They told Clark he could stay with them but he would have to go to counseling.
Clark said at the first meeting he attended, the counselor kept asking him to tell his story. He refused repeatedly until the group started to chant his name. Even on stage, Clark struggled. The counselor said she wanted to see the anger to come out of him and eventually it did. Clark pushed three men down and started going for the counselor.
“I was literally going to hurt her physically,” he said. “She kept telling me ‘Derek, do you know how great you are?’”
Clark said for just a split second he saw the look in her eyes and with people trying to restrain him, he began to weep.
“I sobbed like a baby for two hours,” he said. “There is something about a good, ugly cry that brings clarity. I remember thinking I was never going to let my past affect my future. I had to divorce my past. I decided I wanted to be a hope dealer.”
He got back into high school, became the first member of his family to graduate high school and college before getting into the real estate business at 24. At 30, Clark earned his first million dollars.
Now known as “The Rapping Dad” after a video his children posted where he raps about listening to “clean” and positive music without references to drugs or violence, went viral. Clark said he can share that message through songs.
“It has been an insane ride,” Clark said. “Now people come up to me at the airport and get pictures.”
Brooke Sanford, an 8th-grader at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School, said she thought Clark’s story was something anyone can learn from.
“It was something I feel like people can relate to,” Sanford, 14, said. “I think that people can get out of it is that they can overcome hard things and have a positive outlook on life.”
Adela Diaz, a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School, added Clark is a inspiration.
“It was a really emotional speech and I really enjoyed it,” Diaz, 18, said. “No matter where you are in life, you should never give up because you can achieve your greatest self.”
• Contact reporter Gregory Philson at email@example.com or call at 523-2265. Follow him on Twitter at @GTPhilson.