After 21 years in prison, former No Limit rapper Mac Phipps is figuring out what it means to be free

Louisiana governor granted him clemency years after investigations raised questions about his conviction for manslaughter

McKinley Phipps is sitting on the couch in the living room of his Uptown New Orleans house. The skinny 44-year-old with a salt-and-pepper goatee, gray sweatpants and a black T-shirt is listening to “I Get Physical” from Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth’s 1994 album The Main Ingredient on his smart TV.

In an hour, his manager is coming over to help fix a toilet and take him to his weekly meeting with his parole officer. Afterward, Phipps will fiddle with the first iPhone he’s ever owned and try to coordinate picking up his teenage stepdaughters from summer school. Then he’ll go to the studio to work on the music that will reintroduce him to the world. That session will get cut short to make sure he’s home for his mandatory 9 o’clock curfew.

This is the new normal for McKinley “Mac” Phipps, the gold-selling former No Limit Records artist. The Camouflage Assassin. The “down south Nas.” And the man who just got home after spending 21 years in prison for a murder Mac says he didn’t commit.

Phipps really didn’t want to perform on the night of Feb. 20, 2000. The 22-year-old had just returned from doing shows in Mississippi and was about to embark on another tour. He was scheduled to perform at a hole-in-the-wall venue, Club Mercedes in Slidell, Louisiana, about 90 minutes east of where he was living in Baton Rouge. Mac was asleep when his dad, Phipps Sr., came to get him to go to the show.

“I think about that moment all the time,” Phipps Sr. said. “I remember him sleeping and thinking ‘I could just let him sleep.’ I felt so guilty about waking him up.”

When Phipps woke up, he decided to go ahead and perform. After all, he owed it to his fans. And there were plenty of them.

The Phipps family gathers in Sheila Phipps’ art studio. From left to right: Nakiyah Imani Pearson, Khaliyah Ari Pearson, Angelique Phipps, McKinley Phipps, Chad Phipps, Tiffany Phipps-Cave, Sheila Phipps, McKinley Phipps Sr., Tybra Phipps, Joshua Phipps and Jeremy Phipps.

Akasha Rabut for The Undefeated

Mac, or “Lil Mac,” as he was known as a kid, was a New Orleans rap prodigy and one of hip-hop’s first child stars. A product of the Broadmoor neighborhood in Uptown, Mac started writing rhymes in the ’80s, battling other kids and adults in the neighborhood. Victory at a local talent show landed him a deal with Yo! Records, where at the age of 13 he’d release his album The Lyrical Midget, produced by then-relatively unknown Mannie Fresh in 1990.

By the late ’90s, New Orleans was becoming the unlikely rap capital of the world, thanks to the business acumen of Master P and his No Limit Records roster of Mia X, C-Murder, Mystikal and the California transplant Snoop Dogg. Master P was scooping up talent across the city and Mac was a top free agent. By 1996, he was an official member of No Limit Records, the hottest label in America.

Artistically, though, the move didn’t make a lot of sense. The rapper was raised on Rakim (“He was my first professor,” Mac says) and sounded like a New York transplant, layering complex rhyme patterns to tell everyman stories about growing up in New Orleans. Mac’s flow, cadence and subject matter earned him an unofficial nickname from his fans: “Down south Nas” or “New Orleans Nas,” a comparison to the Queensbridge MC known for his classic Illmatic album.

Mac’s debut album for No Limit, 1998’s Shell Shocked, presented a shift to an MC that fell more in line with the label’s street-influenced music highlighting gun violence, drug use and misogyny. And it was a success. The album debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard charts, peaked at No. 4 and went gold. It looked like Mac could be the future of the label.

One day, Mac went to the tiny house in New Orleans where his parents and younger siblings Chad, Tiffany, Tybra, Jeremy and Joshua lived, and drove them to Baton Rouge, where many of the No Limit rappers were staying. He showed his siblings a house with a pool in the back and let them shoot hoops on the basketball court and play the NBA Hangtime arcade game.

“Y’all like this house?” Mac asked. His siblings roared in approval. “Well, we living here now.”

The family plays music at the apartment of Jeremy Phipps, Mac Phipps’ brother. Behind Mac (center), from left to right: Nakiyah Imani, Jeremy, Tiffany Phipps-Cave and Chad Phipps.

Akasha Rabut for The Undefeated

But by 2000, Mac had grown frustrated with his No Limit deal, disappointed by the performance of his second album, World War III. He wanted to get back to the music he loved before he joined and launch his own label with his family as his prime helpers. That’s why on the night of the Club Mercedes show, his mother was working the door and his dad and Chad were inside to make sure things ran smoothly. They kissed the younger kids goodbye and went to the show that changed everything.

According to witnesses, a fight broke out on the dance floor during the show. In the midst of the fight, a gunshot was heard, prompting people to run to the exits, but Mac says he stayed behind to look for his mother. Many who weren’t close to the fracas said they weren’t sure the noise they heard was an actual gunshot or a gunshot sound effect from the No Limit music the DJ was playing. Mac, who says he didn’t see the fight start, pulled out a gun he kept for self-defense. (“Man, we in New Orleans, s— happens. The gun was for protection.”) Though he says he never fired the gun, witnesses saw him holding it and pointing it toward the ceiling.

When Mac found out his mother was already outside, he and most of his crew left. His dad stayed behind, though, and saw 19-year-old Barron Victor Jr. on the ground, bleeding. He’d been shot in the arm. A nursing student was tending to the wound. She told Phipps Sr. that Victor would be fine, so he left, too, trailing behind Mac and the rest on the way to Baton Rouge.

Back at the house, everyone was buzzing about what had happened: We gotta get to better venues. What were they even fighting about? We can’t keep doing these kinds of shows. All they knew was that a fight broke out and someone had gotten shot. 

When Phipps Sr. arrived home, he quickly got ready for bed, putting on his pajama pants. But before he could get his top on, he noticed a commotion outside. He walked out to see three police officers with guns drawn, yelling at him to get on his knees.

“W-what’s going on, officers?”

“We’re looking for Mac! He’s under arrest for murder!”

It’s a couple of weeks after Mac’s June 22 release from prison and he’s still not quite sure how it feels to be free.

“The weird thing is I don’t really know how that’s supposed to feel because I really don’t have nothing to compare it to,” he said. “Because I’ve been away for so long that it’s hard to actually remember the feeling of not being incarcerated.”

After all, what is freedom to a man who spent his 20s and 30s locked away and who won’t know life without seeing a parole officer until he’s in his 50s? What is freedom when half of your life has been spent in facilities constructed to eradicate the things that make us the most human? When your body is outside but still feels the echoes of when it was shackled? 

When Mac wakes up, the first thing he does is clean the house because he is used to getting up in the morning and doing mandatory chores. It feels odd to go a full day without having to line up for a head count. Recently, he recoiled when his wife, Angelique, suggested they buy some ramen because he ate so much of it while locked up.

Angelique (left) and Mac Phipps (right) start every morning with a five-mile walk down St. Charles Avenue.

Akasha Rabut for The Undefeated

He’s also adjusting to a hometown that looks vastly different from the one he knew. Maybe no place in America has changed more in the past two decades than New Orleans, where 250,000 people were displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and is gentrifying more intensely than just about any other city in the country.

Just grabbing breakfast at Starbucks is a new feeling and Mac gazes in awe at a shopping center with a T.J. Maxx and a PetSmart that sits between his Broadmoor neighborhood and the Magnolia projects. White people are riding their bikes through parts of town that were previously some of the most dangerous in the city.

But one thing has always been true about New Orleans: no matter how much it changes, the people give it soul. And the people of New Orleans treat Mac like a returning hero. He got a standing ovation from two guys who picked up his trash. The woman at the front office wanted a selfie when he picked up his girls from school. A guy congratulated Mac on his release when he went to get his COVID-19 vaccine. They don’t ask when the music is coming or what’s next. They’re just happy he’s back.

As much as Mac cherishes the homecoming, it’s also part of what made his last few weeks overwhelming. To help keep himself centered, he and Angelique start every morning with a five-mile walk down St. Charles Avenue, ogling the mansions and chuckling at the irony of Mac wanting a fenced-in yard. They cut through Audubon Park to take in the Spanish moss dangling from the trees, dogs catching Frisbees on the lawn and the breeze off the lake.

“When I was in prison, I always thought about just being able to walk around the city,” Mac said while walking down a trail at Audubon. “So, yeah, I guess I feel free out here.”

But “free” is a fleeting concept when you’re still locked in the criminal justice system.

Mac has to abide by a curfew through the rest of his sentence, nine more years, which obligates him to stay within a few feet of his home at night. He can’t be in bars or clubs. He got permission to attend a friend’s wedding that started at 8 p.m. but he’s still trying to get answers from his parole officer about what happens if he’s booked for a performance. Can he travel for a show? It’s easy to get frustrated by the bureaucracy. But Mac handles it with a seemingly unbreakable optimism. 

“Hey, at least I’m not getting head-counted anymore,” he said. “I’ll take what I can get.”

Mac sat in the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s interrogation room bewildered. He was being questioned about a shooting he wasn’t even sure had happened until he’d already left Club Mercedes. 

He wanted to get out of that interrogation room as fast as he could. So, before he even had a lawyer present, he lied, telling detectives that he didn’t have a gun on him. His main concern was a concealed weapons charge. Murder never crossed his mind. 

“I was so confident that I was getting out of jail because I felt whoever got shot was living,” he remembered. “He was going to wake up and be able to tell them who shot him. So, I figure I’m going home.”

Mac’s plan fell apart when a detective informed him that the bullet that hit Victor in the arm, traveled into his chest and killed him. Realizing that he was now facing a murder charge, Mac fessed up that he did have a gun. Now, his plan was to invite the police back to his home so he could show them his gun. They’d see a bullet was never discharged and it would prove his innocence.

The police returned to the Phipps family home in Baton Rouge with Mac in handcuffs.

He led them to his room, where Mac says they saw the gun was still fully loaded and had not been discharged. That wasn’t enough for the police. “They came up with this story that I must have had another weapon that I threw out of the car or something,” Mac recalled.

Mac Phipps (left) poses with his mother Sheila (right) in front of a painting she made of him.

Akasha Rabut for The Undefeated

The police proceeded to tear through the house looking for a murder weapon, the family recalled. They tossed Tybra’s and Tiffany’s clothes out of their drawers. Joshua, who was 8, worried the cops would accidentally let his gerbils out of their cages. Jeremy, who was 10, remembers the shame of watching his school bus drive by, his classmates pointing at the cop cars. The police gathered all of the siblings and started to question them until an aunt pressed them to stop. Tybra remembers wondering who was going to clean up the mess. Then all the kids watched while Mac got walked out of the house in cuffs, his mother screaming that he was innocent.

The door closed behind Mac and the police. No murder weapon was ever found. But it would be the last time the family would see him outside of prison or a courtroom for 21 years.

Here’s what we don’t consider about the suddenness of incarceration. There’s rarely time to prepare. One day someone is home. The next they’re not. Leftovers stay in the fridge uneaten. Clothes stay in the washer. His parents had to clean out Mac’s apartment, crying and trying not to consider the worst. Everyone was looking for ways to prove Mac didn’t have anything to do with Victor’s death. 

After a few days, Phipps Sr. started hearing rumors out of the Broadmoor neighborhood that someone was bragging about killing Victor.

Thomas Williams, 36 at the time, had been a friend of the family and was engaged to Mac’s aunt, and had two kids with her. He helped out with security for Mac’s shows. And now, he was supposedly telling people he committed the shooting that put Mac in prison. Phipps Sr. arranged to meet Williams outside of a gas station.

“You’ve got to do what’s right, man,” Phipps told him. “What if this was your son?”

Williams told Phipps Sr. that he would confess, but he was scared. He disappeared for a few days until his conscience took over. So, with his pastor on hand, Williams went to the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office and confessed. In his videotaped statement, he said Barron was “charging at me with a beer bottle,” causing him to panic and shoot in self-defense.

But the St. Tammany police never charged him for the killing or searched his place for the murder weapon, even after he was arrested for an unrelated firearms offense six months later.

“When they let [Williams] go, that’s when I realized these people are going to arrest and give Mac that charge,” said Sheila Phipps, Mac’s mother. “That’s when I really realized that he’s not coming home.”

Here’s what you need to know about St. Tammany Parish: “St. Slammany” has a reputation for the zeal with which former District Attorney Walter Reed pursued cases, its high conviction rates, and law enforcement’s propensity for roughing up Black folks. (Reed was convicted of federal fraud and corruption charges in 2016 and is currently serving the remainder of a four-year sentence at home.)

And Mac wasn’t just any Black person. He was part of a No Limit group helmed by a brash, young millionaire in Master P who had bought up mansions in Baton Rouge’s most exclusive neighborhood. That put a target on his back.

During his trial, prosecutors harped on Mac’s rap nickname, “The Camouflage Assassin.”


Mac has a slightly more optimistic take on the situation: “I don’t think that I was targeted because I was Black, per se. I like to think that people are not that shallow. But I do believe that everyone is prejudiced. Here’s an African American gangster rapper from New Orleans out here in our town, and this happened. Somebody’s got to pay for what happened. And a lot of the times, it’s going to be the wrong person.”

During his trial, prosecutors harped on Mac’s rap nickname, “The Camouflage Assassin.” They misquoted lyrics, splicing lines from two separate songs to say “Murder murder, kill, kill, you f— with me you get a bullet in your brain,” that painted Mac as someone who promoted killing. They laid out all the guns they found at Mac’s house in front of the jury without mentioning that they belonged to his father, a Vietnam veteran whose job during the war was loading weapons.

The prosecution also cast doubt on Williams’ confession, portraying him as a loyal member of the entourage who was willing to take the prison sentence for the bigger rap star. They also used the fact that Williams recalled being “six to 10 feet” away from Victor when he shot him and evidence that the gunshot was fired at close range to dismiss his confession. He was never called as a witness and later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice because his statement contradicted the coroner’s report.

“The DA did a damn good, but devious job,” Mac said. “He had me on trial and even though I didn’t have a criminal history or anything, he managed to convince these jurors that I was a monster.”

Still, neither Mac nor anyone in his family thought he would get convicted. He’d hired the best lawyers he could, one of whom, Jason Williams, is currently the district attorney in New Orleans. Witnesses had contradicted each other. There was no forensic evidence tying Mac to the killing.

Then the verdict came: guilty of manslaughter by a 10-2 vote. Louisiana was one of two states to allow non-unanimous verdicts in criminal trials in 2001, a law that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional last year.

“I believe that their verdict was based on trying to appease all parties involved,” Mac says now. “The D.A. get his conviction, the family get their justice, and this young man don’t get thrown away for the rest of his life.”

A few weeks later, Mac was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The night of his sentencing, he cried himself to sleep. 

And he thought about his son. 

McKinley Taquan Green was born three months after Mac first went to jail while he was awaiting trial.

“I was in a cell,” Mac remembered. “But I was excited. … I was just so happy and I thought I’d see him soon.”

For 21 years, though, Mac and Green only talked when Mac was able to call from prison or Green was able to visit him there.

Green has spent much of his life on the rough side of Baton Rouge, while watching other rappers’ kids live off the earnings of their parents’ fame. By the time Green was a kid, his father’s No Limit money had mostly evaporated due to legal fees and debts from purchases Mac made before he went to prison – the type of spending one does when he figures he has a long, successful career ahead of him.

“Sometimes I’d be like, ‘Dang I should be rich right now,’ ” Green said. “Maybe I’d be in Hollywood or gone to a private school or something. But I guess God had another plan in life.”

A week after Mac got out of prison, father and son walked to get doughnuts. It was the first time they had spent time alone, just the two of them without guards or glass or time constraints.

“I was in my feelings a bit,” Green said to me later on Mac’s front porch. Green’s cousin had just been gunned down. “I was just realizing how short life is, like, one day you’re here, one day you’re not. I was just ranting to my dad, face to face.”

Like his dad, Green is a rapper. But he sounds more like the popular Baton Rouge sound of NBA YoungBoy with all the trappings of street life. “I talk about pain. I talk about growing up without my daddy. Poverty, struggle, violence, so an environment I came from, that’s really all I know.”

Mac and Green are trying to mend a relationship that neither of them broke. 

“He’s a good kid,” Mac said. “He’s just been through a lot. I think subconsciously he blames me for not being there. We’ve got a lot to work through.”

One day, Green and a couple of his friends join Mac, Chad and some other men for pickup basketball. It takes just a matter of seconds before everyone’s talking trash. Chad talks about how he can kick everyone’s butt even though he hasn’t played in years. Mac says he’s still got it and Green rags him about how he must have played soft rules in jail. The first couple of games of 21 are brutal. No one can make a shot. Everyone is sore and out of breath.

Then the guys decide to play teams. Green hits the first shot to call captain, so he can pick who’s on his squad, a brief moment where he’s king of the gym.

“Ay, I got my daddy first. We ’bout to run y’all off the court.”

Mac’s prison stories come and go through the course of the day. The guys who were obsessed with Days of Our Lives and the one old head who would say “You keep watching them stories enough, you gonna be a story.” The time he was in north Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina and the prisons sent up a bunch of incarcerated men from Orleans and Jefferson parishes who had beefs with each other. The head of security asked Mac to calm everyone down, so he and two friends bought almost a hundred cigarettes to pass around and ease everyone’s nerves.

Mac Phipps plays the drums at Buck Jump Studios. He went into prison as a rapper, and came out as a more complete musician.

Akasha Rabut for The Undefeated

There were constant arguments over LeBron James vs. Mac’s favorite player, Stephen Curry, and the way their Finals battles had the sports fans at Elayn Hunt Correctional in a frenzy. There was the guy who held his intestines in his hand after being stabbed 11 times. The way Mac hated sleeping so close to the other men in the large rooms at Hunt. The four months of work-release at a shipyard where he spent 10 hours a day as a “yard slave” as he describes it: hanging off the side of a ship painting, or at the bottom of a ship watching to make sure the welders didn’t start a fire. The $10 an hour he earned before the state took 64% of it.

He remembers how he felt like he needed a knife at Winn Correctional Center, but Elayn Hunt was safer. How the week he spent at Angola made him feel hopeless. The fan mail. The music he wrote. The music he wished he could be making. The way he wanted to see his brothers and sisters and parents.

Mac went all 21 years in prison without a single write-up or reprimand. “They made me look like a monster in that courtroom and I told myself I couldn’t convince those 12 people I was innocent, so I’d convince 12 million people I’m innocent by my actions.” He took to mentoring young men with the same passion he had for music, running classes to help young men cope with anger, depression and other emotional trauma.

Mac was also part of Elayn Hunt’s music crew, performing cover songs, remixing his old hits and occasionally making music of his own. Mac went into prison as a rapper, and came out as a more complete musician. When the piano player was transferred to another prison, he learned to play the piano. When the bass player also got moved, Mac picked up that instrument as well.

One day in 2012, administrators at Hunt invited Mac to perform for the other men in the facility. It wasn’t anything unusual. But this time the show opened with an announcement. Someone was going to get a lifetime achievement award for his service work while incarcerated. The speaker started: “This man has been mentoring young men … performing for us when we need a pickup … ”

“And I’m listening and thinking, ‘Man, this dude has done a lot,’ ” Mac said. “Then he finally said, ‘… and he’s a former No Limit Recording artist.’ And I’m just sitting there with my mouth wide-open and everyone looking at me. It’s the greatest award I’ve ever received.”

“My mindset was always to get out,” Mac said. He spent years reading through his case files looking for ways to appeal. “Being motivated by myself and my family and our hope in what would come around the corner is what kept me sane. Because I think if I would have ever just accepted the finality of being in prison, they’d have to shoot me. I would jump the fence. You know what I mean?”

In 2014, the Medill Justice Project and Louisiana State University published an investigation into Mac’s case. They found conflicting witness accounts. They talked to Mac’s best friend and manager Russell Baker, who said he was with Mac when the shots were fired but was never called to testify. In 2015, the Huffington Post published a series highlighting inconsistencies in depositions and witness accounts that could have helped Mac but were never shared with the defense.

“My mindset was always to get out. Being motivated by myself and my family and our hope in what would come around the corner is what kept me sane.”

— Mac Phipps

For instance, jurors heard Nathaniel Tillison, the victim’s cousin, testify that he looked Mac “dead in his eyes” as he shot Barron. But prosecutors didn’t tell Mac’s lawyers about testimony from Jerry Price, who placed Tillison outside the club during the shooting. Yulon James, the nursing student who tended to Victor, testified that she saw sparks flying out of Mac’s gun, but later recanted that story, telling The Huffington Post that she had been threatened by St. Tammany authorities. Four other witnesses said they were intimidated into either testifying against Mac or staying silent about evidence that could free him.

The new evidence revived the family’s hopes that Mac would be exonerated. But Warren Montgomery, who was the district attorney at the time, told The Huffington Post that there was “nothing new for me to look into” in 2016. It became another in a long list of false starts – the ignored calls for retrials, the attempts to have the verdict overturned and the clemency attempt that was rejected in 2016. In 2020, NPR’s Louder Than A Riot podcast dedicated three episodes to Mac, the trial and his fight for freedom, once again bringing his story to the national stage.

Still, Mac and his family persisted, sending in another appeal for clemency. And in April, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards granted Mac clemency.  In June, he was released on parole. 

It’s important to note that clemency is not the same as exoneration. The punishment for a crime is lowered, but he’s still technically guilty. Without a legal exoneration, McKinley Phipps will always be the man convicted of killing Barron Victor Jr.

“Well, a decree from the state would be great,” Mac said. “It would be a stamp of saying that we agree that he was done wrong. But more importantly, I want to prove myself to the family of this young man who lost his life. And that has been one of the motivating factors in me walking the way I walk in prison, and accepting my personal responsibility in the situation. I didn’t have anything to do with this young man getting killed. I wasn’t involved in the fight that eventually led to his death. But my responsibility was, this was my event. And one of my security guards killed this young man. So in essence, I failed to adequately provide a safe environment for the patrons of this event. That was my personal responsibility. And for that, I emphatically apologize to the victim of the family.”

The two men, who Mac says never met, will forever be linked to that one night when they happened to be in the same room. Victor, who was engaged to be married, never walked out of the club. Phipps, 22 at the time, spent two decades in prison. Innocence might seem immaterial when so much has already been lost. But it’s easy to dismiss the value of innocence until it’s been taken away.

Mac’s immediate focus is figuring out what the rest of his life will look like.  Of course, there’s a pull to return to music. A song called “21 Summers” includes a harmony he’s been working on for years with verses that pay tribute to everyone who helped him while he was away. Mac is still looking for the perfect beat for the song, so for now he sings it to himself while creating his own makeshift production, beating his chest and snapping his fingers. He smiles while he sings it, reciting music that’s not reliant on the pursuit of fame or album sales. 

Mac Phipps (on stage) meets with the Son of a Saint mentees.

Akasha Rabut for The Undefeated

“I will say this emphatically, nobody ever told me what kind of music to do, ever,” Mac says of his No Limit music. “It just wasn’t the music that was true to me, and it was marketable and I’ve had money and that didn’t bring me fulfillment. It’s time for me to take the camouflage off and be myself.

“I don’t care if I never make a dime doing music,” he continued. “I’m gonna do it regardless. But also, I love mentoring. So, if I can get a job doing what I love to do, then I’m not really working, you know what I mean?”

Mac has started working at Son of a Saint, a nonprofit mentorship group for fatherless boys. He went there twice in the two weeks after he got out – as many times as he’d been in a recording studio.

“What y’all wanna do for a living?” he asks the boys during one visit. 

One kid makes beats. “They any good? You gonna make a beat for me?” He’s not talking to them or lecturing. He’s just asking about what they want to do with their lives.

The kids, aged 12 to 19, weren’t alive when Mac went to prison. They don’t know anything about him, but they perk up when he mentions Master P and C-Murder and the No Limit crew he worked with. They start asking questions about new rappers such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar.

“My favorite J. Cole song is ‘Love Yourz,’ ” he says. “Because he says, ‘there’s no such thing as a life better than yours’ and that’s the truth.”

He’s 20 minutes into the conversation before he tells them: “OK, let’s get this out of the way. I just got out of jail two weeks ago.”

“Those kids got something out of that conversation,” said Bivian “Sonny” Lee III, founder of Son of a Saint. “There are going to be a few boys who come out of this feeling connected to him.”

Mac starts to walk out of the auditorium, but he has to stop every few steps. A kid is asking a follow-up question. Then another. They’re transfixed. Not by the No Limit legend. They want to hear from the guy who asked them about their dreams. 

“I think the government is very crooked!” Khaliyah Pearson, Mac’s 17-year-old stepdaughter, is on the edge of her couch, her brow furrowed and her curly hair bouncing as she makes her point. She and her 15-year-old sister Nakiyah are talking about how Mac’s case has informed their thinking about criminal justice. “They show favoritism to certain people. They don’t like rappers.”

“They’re anti-Black,” Nakiyah adds, her hands clasped together and her voice getting higher. “They used McKinley’s words against him!”

For the next five minutes they’re unstoppable, a tornado and a hurricane laying out how their stepfather was wronged.

Then Khaliyah Pearson shows me a picture of her next to J. Cole from a show he did in New Orleans a couple of years ago when Mac pulled strings to get her backstage. The girls talk about the videos Mac would make for their birthdays, the teddy bears he bought and letters he wrote. How he calls them Honeybee and Butterfly.

And the day their mother told them she was dating a man in jail.

Back in 2014, Mac’s mother met with Angelique Pearson, who had moved to New Orleans from Las Vegas and had started doing public relations for artists while also helping get media attention for people in prison. Pearson agreed to meet Mac and hear his story.

The phone calls turned into visits that turned into daily conversations. Until finally, Mac asked her: “Do you think I’m attractive?” 

Pearson had a policy of not dating her clients, but Mac wore her down. “Of course I found him attractive,” she said. “I was head over heels for this person, but I wasn’t going to admit it and was trying to keep it business or whatever.”

Mac and Pearson eventually created a relationship out of visitations, dropped calls and dashed hopes that he’d get out of prison soon. Then they faced the challenge of getting Pearson’s kids on board. Khaliyah and Nakiyah were in elementary and middle school, respectively, when Pearson told them she was seeing someone who was incarcerated.

“I was nervous because I wanted them to like me, and I didn’t want them to think I was the monster the courts said I was,” Mac remembered. “And this won’t work if her kids don’t like me.”

Pearson drove the girls to prison to meet her boyfriend.

“All I knew about jail was scary criminals, but everyone there was so nice,” said Nakiyah. “And once she explained to me he didn’t do it, we believed them.”

On Aug. 11, 2018, the 35th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop, Mac and Angelique had a wedding ceremony in the yard at Elayn Hunt. Mac’s best man was his best friend, C-Murder, the fellow No Limit artist who is serving life in prison for a murder he also claims he didn’t commit.

The Phipps’ wedding on Aug. 11, 2018. From left to right: Khaliyah Ari Pearson, Jack Whelchel, Nakiyah Imani Pearson, Mac Phipps, Angelique Phipps, Tiffany Phipps-Cave holding Olivia Cave, McKinley Phipps Sr., Sheila Phipps and Joshua Phipps.

Angelique Phipps

Mac has now officially lived with the girls for a few weeks after being their stepdad behind prison walls for three years. Watching them is like watching a family who was never apart.

“I love these girls,” Mac said, smiling. “So there wasn’t even a thought in my mind about what this would be like. I was just like, ‘OK. I’m going home to be with my daughters.’”

The family gets dressed and heads out to the art studio Mac’s mother runs outside of New Orleans. It’s a small room adorned with images of activists such as John Lewis and Colin Kaepernick, as well as portraits of Mac and other men incarcerated under suspicious circumstances as part of her “Injustice Xhibition.” This is where Mac, his parents and his siblings will all be together for the first time in 21 years.

On the surface, it’s a happy reunion. Mac is the center of attention, taller than everyone else and cracking jokes. But everyone is unsure about how a reunion like this should feel. 

“I’m still angry,” Joshua Phipps said. “Yeah, he’s out, but you all took 21 years of his life. Our lives could have been completely different if he wouldn’t have gone to jail. I’m ecstatic that my brother’s home, but part of me is still angry.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You should be happy now. It’s over.’ But he shouldn’t have been there,” Jeremy Phipps added. “I haven’t gotten over it. Him being out now doesn’t balance all that out.”

St. Slammany could have destroyed the Phipps family. 

“All of our dreams felt dead,” Tybra Phipps said. “Because they wanted everything dead. I took on hard physical jobs because I wanted to avoid the reality of how weird our lives had gotten.”

Eventually the family would spread across the country. Tybra in South Carolina and Atlanta, Tiffany in New Jersey, Joshua in Florida, Chad in Boston and Los Angeles, Jeremy in L.A. Anywhere they could go to get away from what was done to them in Louisiana. Everyone but Chad is back living in the New Orleans area just in time for the family to be whole again.

“When you get your life turned upside down, what can you do other than change something?” Chad said. “It’s not necessarily running, but to change something. All of us were looking for change.” 

They hope that eventually the pain will subside. That they’ll realize this isn’t an extended visit where Mac has to return to prison at the end. A few days before the reunion, Joshua called his mother to ask what time everyone was getting together and she had to remind him that he could call Mac himself. Tiffany calls Mac’s phone just because she can without waiting for a call from prison.

For now, it’s just about trying to hold on to the moment.

After an hour or so at the studio, the siblings gather in Jeremy’s apartment across the hall. He pulls out a keyboard, saxophone, bass and microphones. Each sibling grabs an instrument or a mic and they’re a makeshift band. Playing, laughing and singing. Making it up as they go along.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.