It’s a gray afternoon in March, and all three members of the hip-hop group 3 Problems are in a courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Each is 18 years old. Two of them walk free: James Johnson, from Ferguson, and Taylor Merriweather, from the adjacent city of Jennings. The third, Terrell Brown Jr., from Florissant, just north of Ferguson, is pleading guilty to a charge of second-degree murder.
“Any noise you make, any outbursts in the courtroom, can only hurt Terrell,” a defense attorney tells the assembled family members. The members of 3 Problems are cousins, and their mothers – sisters in their mid-thirties – are here along with some 20 relatives representing four generations, from grandmothers to babies.
Before the sentencing starts, the lawyer unsuccessfully argues for the charges to be reduced to manslaughter. Meanwhile, off the lobby, Johnson – who raps under the name Swagg Huncho – reaches his hand up under a vending-machine slot to steal a bag of Red Hot Riplets, a type of local spicy potato chip. With a laugh, he gives them to one of his little cousins.
Johnson and Merriweather (a.k.a. Lil Tay) are seniors at a pair of area high schools that received dismal 1 out of 10 GreatSchools ratings. They both have young children who live with their mothers. Johnson and Merriweather live with their mothers as well.
3 Problems are blowing up in St. Louis. Their latest mixtape, A Problem Story, features threats, brags and stories of real-life tragedy over menacing beats and anthemic choruses. The video for the song “For a Fcknigga” is approaching 200,000 views, despite the fact that they’ve never been written about and have no record deal.
Girls lose their minds over Johnson and Merriweather, who sport short braids and lean physiques. They get recognized when they’re out in “North County,” the area above St. Louis that’s most famous for Michael Brown’s killing. At the Michael Brown protests, both in August and November, a number of admirers hit them up for pictures.
The extended family shushes itself as they enter the courtroom, and shortly Terrell Brown – a.k.a. Relly Rell – emerges. He too has the short braids and the swagger of an emerging star, but he’s handcuffed and wearing mismatched orange prison sweats.
In late 2013, a man named Ryan Faulstich was murdered in a dispute over heroin in the neighborhood of Boulevard Heights – that’s South St. Louis, the white half of this starkly segregated city. Brown didn’t pull the trigger, but stands accused of providing the gun, driving the car, taking money from the killer and disposing of the gun. As for the murderer himself? He was killed before he could be put away.
The judge, a middle-aged black man, asks Brown if he has anything to say.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Don’t say sorry to me, say sorry to them,” the judge says, gesturing to Faulstich’s parents, the gaunt mother battling tears. “Because I won’t even remember your name by the time I sit down to dinner.”