A year after his slaying, the Memphis rapper’s connection to the university endures
“You only get one shot at life. One life to live. Make the most of it, put as many smiles as you can on people’s faces. Help as many people as you can, get you some paper. Live life, you and your folks.”
– Young Dolph
Young Dolph cherished personal connections. It showed in his music and in his interviews. It lived in his actions, which were once described as “uncommon generosity.” If there’s one place that covets its connection with Young Dolph — outside of his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, of course — it would be Jackson State University.
Before playing Grambling State in October, JSU solidified its connection to Young Dolph by renaming its football stadium tunnel in honor of the rapper who was killed on Nov. 17, 2021. Young Dolph’s family, including his two children, Tre Tre and Aria Ella, and partner Mia Jaye, were at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Following the game, Young Dolph’s cousin and Paper Route Empire artist, Key Glock, gave head coach Deion Sanders Young Dolph’s PRE ring and quarterback Shedeur Sanders returned the gesture with a custom pair of cleats for Young Dolph’s son. For JSU alumni of the last decade and current students, Young Dolph was more than just the star of their playlists. His music was a safe space, a source of confidence and inspiration. The tunnel at JSU not only represents Young Dolph’s memory, but his connection to the entire community: the football team, the campus, and the city of Jackson, Mississippi.
“It’s not just somebody giving a bunch of money and putting a name on something,” said Jackson State alum and journalist Mark Braboy. “It’s legitimately named after somebody that meant something to the students. Dolph was the real people’s champion. So for him to have that name on there, that’s symbolic. It epitomizes the message that he wanted young Black people to understand: Work hard and hustle.”
Since launching his career in 2008, Young Dolph released nearly 20 mixtapes and seven studio albums. The last three projects, Dum and Dummer with Key Glock, Rich Slave and Dum and Dummer 2, peaked in the top 10 of the Billboard charts. Young Dolph’s music, at its core, was based on survival and the pride that comes with improving one’s circumstances. This hustle-for-yours ethos resonated with those who understood the ambition, history, and pain in Young Dolph’s voice.
Especially in Jackson.
“Even in his early days of passing out mixtapes, I remember him saying he was gonna go down to Jackson and just touch a couple of clubs,” said DJ Mic Tee of Real 105.1, Jackson’s leading station for rap and R&B.
In Jackson, Young Dolph saw an opportunity to build a fan base outside Memphis. The capital of Mississippi, more than 80% Black, and integral to Black history, seemed like the perfect place.
“Jackon’s a place where many down South artists – even Chicago artists – come to get their first real fan base,” said Braboy. “It’s kinda like the same idea as the chitlin circuit.”
For Young Dolph, the city was a place to connect with people who could identify with his story. Folks in Jackson were Black and they were in the Deep South, like him. And he didn’t need to explain what that meant, or what they were up against. And in Jackson State, Young Dolph saw a school that was part of the city’s culture and future.
“Many would say it’s the backbone of the city,” said Alexis Grace, a native Jacksonian and digital media analyst. “[JSU] was the first example of higher education for a lot of kids here, including myself. I remember watching the Boom [Sonic Boom of the South marching band] at a very young age, attending games and seeing people that looked like me do amazing things.”
Grace explained Young Dolph’s connection to JSU like this: “A lot of people might disagree, but Memphis and Jackson have a very similar vibe, yet very different. But if you can make it out of Jackson and Memphis, people who grow up here see that as a success because of the communities’ adversities. I believe Dolph saw that and connected with the institution. Jackson has the potential to be that city if the world would let it.”
Young Dolph’s presence in Jackson, at the clubs, radio stations, and around town became the stuff of local lore. (A similar thing happened during my college years at Hampton University whenever Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson would hoop on campus or around town.) Around Jackson, Young Dolph’s music was played at house parties and local strip clubs; it was part of the soundtrack of marathon smoking sessions, Madden NFL battles, or watching TV.
Young Dolph’s music, especially by the mid-2010s, had become a fixture on historically Black college and university (HBCU) campuses, and most of them are in the South. When Young Dolph spoke of hustling, he recounted his time running the streets. Despite focusing on specific experiences, Young Dolph’s music resonated with anyone who wanted, and worked hard for, a better tomorrow.
His music was especially popular among HBCU students who understood that their education was sometimes undervalued by society. His High Class Street Music series produced underground hits. Records such as “I Need My Medicine” and “South Memphis” were Southern mixtape hits. “Get Paid” is still an HBCU classic, not just because of its effective hook (“Get paid, young n—a, get paid”). The commandment of financial success to HBCU students or alums was all the more relatable in a country that still notoriously underfunds their institutions.
“Dolph’s music on JSU’s campus is its theme music,” said junior business administration major and native Jacksonian Reonna Russell. “Anytime you hear his songs, you have to sing them word for word. His music has helped and inspired so many people on campus, and you can feel that. [It] sets the tone for determination and being successful.”
After years of grinding, Young Dolph headlined JSU’s homecoming concert with Gunna in October 2018. Two years later, he was at the height of his musical career. His album, Rich Slave, debuted as the No. 4 album in the country in 2020. The title, he explained, spoke to “the reality of being Black in this country.” His March 2021 album with Key Glock, Dum and Dummer 2, won critical acclaim. And his connection with Jackson State was visible far beyond the city’s limits. Young Dolph was a significant reason Shedeur Sanders chose to attend JSU. He posed with the homecoming court. Later that same day, Young Dolph and the Jackson State football team celebrated in the locker room with his record, “100 Shots.”
A month after the video of Young Dolph and the team went viral, he was gone. The news of his slaying rocked the campus that week before Thanksgiving. They had just seen him. They had just partied to his music. And for many students who had their undergraduate experience disrupted by the pandemic, seeing Young Dolph on campus represented a sense of normalcy again.
“The day he came to homecoming, so many people came to see him and take pictures with him and record videos,” said Russell.
In Tennessee and Georgia, Nov. 17 was designated the Adolph “Young Dolph” Thornton Jr. Day of Service, and organizations in Memphis and Atlanta will hand out winter kits and feed homeless people. Meanwhile, the #DolphDay hashtag will encourage music fans to perform acts of kindness. Across the nation, 14 barbershops will be providing free haircuts through Young Dolph’s IdaMae Family Foundation and The Confess Project of America, which trains barbers and stylists to become mental health advocates in the Black community.
William H. Kelly/Jackson State via Getty Images
In the year since Young Dolph’s death, questions still remain about why he was shot upward of 22 times outside of Makeda’s Cookies in Memphis. Hernandez Govan was indicted on first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder charges in connection with Young Dolph’s slaying. Two others, Justin Johnson and Cornelius Smith, were arrested weeks after the killing.
The grief unleashed in the wake of Young Dolph’s death hasn’t gone away. Last week, Mia Jaye, Young Dolph’s partner and mother of his two children, posted an emotional Instagram video detailing the struggles of life after Young Dolph, including the toll on her son.
“[He] is growing into manhood, he looks to the man in his life to show him how,” Mia Jaye wrote on Instagram. “And considering that he had the best, dopest, most solid father any little Black boy would dream of having … It ain’t a mentor around who can replace what he had …”
Death robs us of a lot of things, including love. It can also include important lessons. With the scourge of gun violence in America as pervasive as ever, hip-hop continues to see many of its own fall victim to it.
“While gun violence is prevalent, it’s important that we celebrate Black men. I believe that’s why the Paper Route tunnel is so significant to the city of Jackson,” said Grace. “It’s bigger than rap. It’s bigger than the lyrics. It’s a lifestyle … [Young Dolph’s] acts of philanthropy live on [and] they’ve inspired many communities.”
To appreciate Young Dolph’s music is to enjoy the story that inspired it. The highs, lows, ups, downs, beefs and everything in between. It wasn’t necessarily how he boasted about coming from nothing or how he could out-stunt perceived haters — that was, for the most part, rapper bravado. Young Dolph’s music had substance, it sticks to ribs like a Southern Thanksgiving spread.
One of the most painful aspects of Young Dolph’s death, much like rapper Nipsey Hussle’s before him, is his love, support and advocacy of community. The ones Young Dolph endeared himself to. The ones he cultivated with his music. And the ones, like the people at Jackson State, who continue to carry on.
For current students like Russell, that tunnel is in honor of Young Dolph — but it’s also a portal for future generations.
“He was a sign of hope when there was none. Young Dolph connected with the youth of Jackson State and supported [us],” said Russell. “The fact he influenced our generation to attend an HBCU when that wasn’t the impactful narrative — it’ll make a generational impact.”
DJ Mic Tee loves Jackson. He’s been broadcasting in the city on Real 105.1 for the past year. Like Young Dolph, however, Memphis is home. DJ Mic Tee is a longtime fixture in the Memphis hip-hop scene and is currently an assistant program director with K97.1. He’s also the official DJ of the Grizzlies. He saw the impact Young Dolph’s slaying had on both cities, and he appreciates the way Jackson and JSU have honored the rapper.
“Being an HBCU in the capital of Mississippi, that tunnel just adds to his legacy,” he said. “For Jackson and JSU to do that before any college-level team across Tennessee really says a lot.”
He paused for a moment. “To acknowledge him as a humanitarian and an artist — from Memphis’ standpoint — we appreciate the hell outta that.”
Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.
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