The story of sin and redemption is a cliché. But there's a grain of truth to a cliché, and the truth is a buff and charismatic man standing with a classical guitar before a group of students at Manor Excel Academy. He is the rapper, filmmaker, speaker and author known as SaulPaul, he of the "Tower to Tower" CD and DVD, with a sequel on the way in the spring.
Known to his family and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as Adam Neal, he's a one-time street kid from Houston who got into the University of Texas on a scholarship, fell back into old habits, flunked out of school and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Paroled after two, he got a job counting screws for $6 an hour at a factory in Houston, took classes for a semester at Austin Community College, got back into UT, graduated with a film degree in 2002 and met the woman who would become his wife.
"When I was in college, I hated it," he tells the students. "When I was in prison I was like, `Man, I wish I had a test to take today.' Life is the sum total of the choices you make. I wasn't in prison because I was black. I wasn't in prison because my mama died. I wasn't in prison because my daddy ran off. I wasn't in prison because of the Man - I never even met the dude. I was in prison because I made bad choices."
The story of SaulPaul's misspent youth is as predictable as his later success is improbable. He remembers being on UT's West Mall for commencement, watching the sun go down, looking at the UT Tower, remembering when he was in prison, looking at the guard tower through layers of Plexiglas and razor wire. Now he's playing 250 to 300 dates a year, making up rhymes and songs on the spot - with impeccable flow, it's worth noting - in schools, jails, clubs and at South by Southwest Interactive.
In three months earlier this year he traveled to eight states. Although he still has a house in Canyon Lake, he's been mainly living in Atlanta lately, working on his next CD, "Tower to Tower 2," to be released on his birthday and wedding anniversary, March 22. There are plans to turn "Tower to Tower" into a feature film with SaulPaul directing and his wife, Bianca Neal - very much a partner in pretty much everything SaulPaul does - producing.
That's not a cliché. That's close to statistically impossible.
He never knew his father, his mother was killed in a car accident when he was 3, he was raised largely by his "soft-hearted" grandmother and had big-time H-town drug dealers in his extended family. Arrested as a junior for counterfeiting money, he received deferred adjudication. He managed to graduate from MacArthur High School, moved into Jester Hall at UT, majoring in partying and little else. He knew he was smart, but he didn't know how to study.
Already on probation for the counterfeiting charge, SaulPaul, now 34, soon enough lost his scholarship, flunked out and was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary, counterfeiting and credit card fraud.
"That's what I was convicted of," he says one afternoon sitting outside a coffee shop in the Domain. "That's not all I did."
True to prison stereotype, the guy didn't have to wait long to see a bloodletting in a prison in Beeville. "First day I'm there, dude gets stabbed," he said. "Welcome to prison."
It's also where he developed his religious faith. One day, as he tells it, he started reading the Bible simply because it was the only book available to him.
That was a turning point, although he didn't realize it at the time. His aunt and grandmother had brought him up in church, but they didn't speak his language there.
"Prison wasn't the wake-up call," he says. "I was already on probation. When I went to prison I thought that was normal. When I picked up the Bible, I understood I was born with a purpose. Statistically, you look at people who get out of prison, the parole rate is 20 percent. I had four felonies at the same time and I got out in two years. To me that was a miracle. And then I got back into UT. The fact I got readmitted to UT was another miracle. And then I got into the film school, which is one of the best in the nation. That was another miracle."
But, as he tells it, none of those later miracles were likely to have happened had he not picked up the Holy Book.
"God left a love letter to the world," he says. "Ever since I followed God's rules, I've found success. I live my faith out loud."
Upon his release, it wasn't a straight path to the straight life, however. After a night of partying, he had a car accident that could easily have killed him. But he was determined to not go back to prison. Eventually the straight path prevailed. So: graduating UT, telling his story to most any crowd that would listen, meeting Bianca, whom he would marry in 2006 and, significantly, going back to Houston to interview family, friends and school officials. In Austin, he interviewed his parole officer and his UT adviser. The resulting documentary film is not unlike David Carr's "Night of the Gun," in which a one-time ne'er-do-well revisits his past with candor.
Bianca Neal was a producer on the film project. She was finishing her master's at UT's Department of Radio-Television-Film when she met SaulPaul, who was then doing production work at Austin ABC affiliate KVUE. They met after a friend from Campus Ministry introduced them, and SaulPaul asked Bianca to join him in speaking to students at Garza Independence High School. They were collaborators before a more personal relationship took off.
"His story is, at least in the beginning, like so many others," Neal said. "The change is how he went on to be successful. And I knew there were young kids going in the wrong direction, not knowing there was hope to turn their lives around. We talked about making a film to show people it's possible."
For some of the interviews, he found it best to not be in the room. "When my aunt started crying in the film, that was the first time I realized what I did hurt her," says SaulPaul. "It was eye-opening."
The aunt is Claudia James. Her son, Pedrick, was "the rapper in the family" according to James, and sometimes he and the future SaulPaul would collaborate, but SaulPaul wasn't into writing much.
James says losing his grandmother on Independence Day between 11th and 12th grades was "a big loss" for SaulPaul. And like any adolescent, he wanted to be popular and felt pressure from his peers. When he went to prison, she wouldn't let him give up on himself.
"When a lot of people go to the penitentiary, they think, `That's the end of my life,'" James said. "I pushed him to get into education programs, continue using his mind. The hard road is a better road to me. Don't give up. He went forth and he did it. And he apologized to people. A lot of people don't want to do that. Their pride messes them up. You're not supposed to give up on yourself because you make mistakes."
One man on the right side of the law saw a determination and intelligence in SaulPaul the first time he took him to lunch and heard his story.
"He turned his life around," says Travis County sheriff's deputy Derrick Taylor, who works in community outreach and service and has done programs with SaulPaul. "I wish more people would stop blaming society for their situations. He's done a very good job. I think people need to look at his story and follow in his footsteps."
"What I remember is he did everything I told him he needed to do," says Othell Ballage Jr., SaulPaul's UT adviser. "And it wasn't until after he told me he wanted to do this film that I discovered he was in prison. I didn't have a clue. That's amazing."
It was also at UT where SaulPaul, on a whim, entered a talent show and discovered he could rhyme on the fly.
"I went up and made up this deal and said, `Gimme a word,'" he recalls. "Everybody sat there with their mouths open. And I thought, `Maybe I'm onto something.'"
He was. And as someone who grew up on music videos and considers himself a storyteller, making movies as well as music was a desirable career. He picked up guitar while studying electronic music production when he put up a flier offering to trade his personal training services for guitar or keyboard lessons. Soon enough he was off to Mars Music (now out of business) for a Yamaha classical guitar. Not typically the first choice of hip-hop artists.
"I take it to hip-hop gigs, and dudes are going, `Where's SaulPaul the rapper?'" he says.
But it's portable and that, along with an iPhone, a mike, amp and loop station are pretty much all the guy needs to put on a show. Clubs make up roughly 20 percent of his gigs. He says playing half-empty clubs to a crowd that's half paying attention isn't ideal.
"And then, the next day, I got 1,000 kids in a school and I get to play for an hour."
So here we are back in Manor. SaulPaul calls out for words around which he can come up with lyrics: peninsula. Ostentatious. Sunshine. Procrastinator.
"What's the biggest word you can think of?" he asks the students.
Several as one shout, "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!"
SaulPaul stops, deadpans, says, "Did you rehearse that?"
(In fact, this happens quite a bit, and he's ready. Although he says he's never seen "Mary Poppins.")
He lays down a beat and loops it. He calls a girl named Victoria up to sing, "I just wanna be successful, successful, successful" and loops that. Then guitar. Then he's rhyming "changing faces" with "ostentatious," "peninsula" with "Florida." The students are delighted.
SaulPaul weaves his story in between songs, telling students, "I get paid to make music. I pay taxes with music. That's mind-blowing to me. How many of you would like to get paid to do what you love? That's the hustle. That's the hustle."
He tells them of travel to exotic locales a very long way from Manor, of having, in a single very long day, "breakfast in Jerusalem, lunch in London and dinner in New York City."
At the end of the show SaulPaul, a little sweaty, poses for photos and gives away a couple of CDs. The principal, Christopher Harvey, semi-jokingly mentions wanting to record with him. Then, as ever, there's the next gig to think about.
He'll keep going, says the ex-con turned rapper with a classical guitar, the man who changed his name and converted to Christianity on his own road to Damascus, just as the original Saul did, "until the whole world knows."