Alphayaya H. Barrie graduated from Seton Hall University's Stillman School of Business on Monday, May 21, 2018 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The 35-year-old rapper's long journey to graduation, however, has not been an easy one.
Originally from Somerset, NJ, Barrie went from what he describes as "a life in the streets," where he took "penitentiary chances," to becoming a Seton Hall graduate currently entertaining 15 job offers.
Father dead, mother sentenced to prison
The father who named him after the strongest men he knew (his father's uncle "Alpha" and his brother "YaYa") died when Barrie was just eight years old. When he turned 17 and was finishing up his junior year in high school, his mother was incarcerated in federal prison with a sentence of nearly five years.
On appeal, the court found that she had been harassed and unduly sentenced for refusing to testify against the targets of the investigation. Although ultimately released that day, the process took close to 2 ½ years and for Alphayaya Barrie, the damage was already done.
"When I lost my father, it was hard but my mother saw us through. When I lost my mother to prison, I lost everything I had and spiraled out of control."
'Taking penitentiary chances'
Shipped off to live with an aunt and uncle in Columbus, Ohio, the young man lived the life of someone who had nothing to lose. Though his aunt and uncle tried to instill in him the value of education and discipline, Barrie says he "was preoccupied trying to live a life that was not meant for me." Barrie adds, "My uncle was to become Paramount Chief Alimamy Dura III of the Safroko Limba Chiefdom in the northern province of Sierra Leone. Like my grandfather before him, and his father and his father before that, he is a respected and revered leader. He gave me great advice daily, I just had lost too much to listen."
With his mother released from prison and established in a new home in the suburb of Parlin, Barrie returned to New Jersey to stay with her. But he quickly met up with friends and took to the streets and began his interstate wanderings.
"New York, Newark, New Brunswick, Trenton, Baltimore, D.C., Virginia and Atlanta were all my hoods, but the streets are no place to call home," he said. "I was getting some traction in the rap game, getting good gigs and even started my own record company, Interstate Runna. But I was still plying my trade, and the years went by and I took more penitentiary chances than I care to remember."
Although he continued to stay with his mother, most of his time was spent outside the home, in the streets, on the interstates— and taking those chances.
"My mother became frustrated. She lived in fear of getting one of those phone calls that so many of my friends' mothers have gotten over the years: collect from jail or 'please come down to identify the body.' She saw my real potential and she knew I wasn’t doing anything with it. I could hear her, but I couldn't see myself differently. I was lost in the streets."
'I smell blood'
In December of 2011, Barrie woke to his mother insisting that she "smelled human blood." She had had a dream, and started checking with every family member to see if they were okay. She told everyone, especially Barrie, not to go out. Strangely, Barrie's right eye began itching out of control. He took note of his mother's premonition (but not her direction) washed his eye, then took off for a rap gig in Maryland.
"Everything that could have went wrong on the way down did. I should have known. And when I saw people I knew in the club, it felt almost like I was making my peace, saying my goodbyes," said Barrie.
When he walked out of the club at the end of the night he saw six guys surrounding his cousin. When he stepped in and tried to stop them, the fight quickly turned to him. He remembers being hit in that same itchy right eye with a blunt object and part of the ambulance ride to the hospital where five and a half hours of surgery, 135 stitches and a week in ICU would come next. They saved his eye but told him he would never see out of it again. Doctors said that if the blinding blow had been an inch higher he would have died on the spot. They also told him that the first thing he said when he was brought in to the hospital was "Please don't call my mother."
The process of recovery was a long one, and it wasn't just the physical aspects he had to battle. "I became depressed and extremely volatile," he said. "I moved in with my mother and she took care of me. And although I date my new life to the day my right eye was blinded, it took time to recover; time to emerge from what became a long dark night of the soul. I spent my days studying CNBC, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist—and vengeance."
Eventually, his mother told him point blank: "You're not my son anymore. When they took your sight, they took you."
At a crossroads, Barrie decided to get help.
The road back
"In some ways, I had to lose sight in my one eye in order to gain vision," said Barrie. "And when I really looked at it, it didn't take a fortune teller to see where I was headed. It became clear to me that I needed to change direction, and I needed to put down the thought of vengeance. It was consuming me."
Through therapy, the help of his family and his best friend as well as his religious beliefs that emphasized forgiveness, at the age of 29, Barrie came to terms with his past and started making new plans for his future. He enrolled in Middlesex County College and commenced his formal study of business administration.
On his way to an associate's degree, his accounting professor, Christine Wathen, suggested he consider Seton Hall. As an alumna of the school herself, Barrie says her encouragement meant the world to him as he began to think that there might be a place for him in South Orange as he further distanced himself from the streets. "I was always a Pirates basketball fan, and Stillman is one of the best business schools in the nation, so what better place to continue my education than at Seton Hall?"
The rest, as they say, is history. More than a few years older than his classmates, Barrie naturally emerged as a mentor to his younger peers and as a classroom leader. As a member of Black Men of Standard, a support organization whose motto is "As we rise, so does the standard," he formalized his mentorship role as he worked with young primarily African-American students and became the group’s liaison to Seton Hall's interim President Mary J. Meehan and interim Provost, Karen E. Boroff.
"As a Catholic university, we pride ourselves on being a school of opportunity," said President Mary J. Meehan. "Seton Hall is ranked among the top 25 private universities in the nation for our students' upward financial mobility. And although I have no doubt that Alphayaya Barrie will be among that number, he is part of an even bigger point of pride for Seton Hall: the path to redemption through hard work and education."
Provost Karen E. Boroff agreed, saying "In addition to my position as provost here I am a professor in the Department of Management at the Stillman School of Business. I had the honor of teaching YaYa the Principles of Business Management. It quickly became apparent that Mr. Barrie had a lot to offer in both the world of business and as a mentor to his fellow students. His experience spoke volumes, and his desire to use that experience to help others was a joy to behold."
As he now prepares for his future after graduation and considers both the decision he made to move forward with his life and the one he will have to make concerning those 15 job offers he has already received, Barrie notes, "I had to forgive — both others and myself — but not forget. Sometimes, you have to take a few losses in order to make a major comeback. And at Seton Hall I was given the chance to use my experience to help others. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I look forward to recreating that experience in my working life." His mother, Jane W. Dura-Barrie, considering her son’s hard road to redemption said, "Thank God Almighty he made it."