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Exclusive: Judge Greg Mathis on executive producing American Gangster: Trap Queens and why it’s important to amplify these voices

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Judge Greg Mathis is the executive producer on American Gangster: Trap Queens. Pic credit: ©ImageCollect.com/s_bukley

From dropping out of 11th grade to gun charges, in the space of 15 years Detriot native Judge Greg Mathis famously went from jail to become the youngest elected judge in Michigan’s history.

When his mother visited him while behind bars to reveal she had been diagnosed with cancer, she begged her 17-year-old son to change his life, and that he did.

“If nothing else will change you, that will,” the Judge explained to Monsters & Critics in this exclusive interview.

Going on to pass the prestigious bar exam, his fight continued to the Supreme Court as his law license was withheld for over three years due to his teenage criminal record, even though it had been expunged.

Making history with his Emmy-winning court show and lauded for his advocacy for urban youth and equal justice, Judge Mathis is partnering up with BET+ to executive produce American Gangster: Trap Queens.

Narrated by rap icon Lil Kim, the true-crime series takes viewers to the scenes of notorious crimes, ranging from illicit drug networks to multi-million dollar white-collar schemes, and into the minds of America’s most notorious female criminals.

Understanding the power behind a cautionary tale, Judge Mathis explained, “I’ve received those types of compliments over the years, people have told me I helped change their life.”

Also recognizing the value of adding representation with these tales, he added, “Well I said, let’s get some women. We can show their journey, from the streets and the life of crime then overcoming it. Showing, as a cautionary tale, that all of us have been to prison. Ultimately, that’s what happens, but then there’s a day after prison that you can begin to change your life.

“So that’s what the concept is, a cautionary tale with an inspirational ending, that will relate to the people who need it.”

In a conversation with Monsters & Critics, Judge Greg Mathis talks about his own redemption story, amplifying the voices of women, and the brand new season of American Gangster: Trap Queens.

Check out our full interview with Judge Greg Mathis below

Monsters & Critics: You famously went from jail to judge in 15 years. Take me back to that moment where your mother visited you in jail and what ultimately sparked that move toward public policy?

Judge Greg Mathis: Having been a street youth, high school dropout in the 11th grade, in and out of the juvenile [system] before being tried as an adult with a gun, my mother came to visit in my final stint in the county jail for nine months and begged me to change my life.

She revealed to me that she had cancer, she had just been diagnosed with cancer and asked if I would change before she died. If nothing else will change you, that will.

M&C: I know you probably get it all the time, that after hearing your story, people feel motivated.

Judge Greg Mathis: That’s the best part of this job. In addition to having fun, anybody that watches the show, they know I have fun. I didn’t know until people started telling me. Even the studio, like our second or third year on, I was trying to be like Judge Judy, mean as hell. Then the studio said, well seems like you got a lot of humor, be who you are.

So I began to just be who I am and entertaining quips comes to me. Laughing and having fun, but I also inject social commentary, and as you say, inspiration. I give a little wisdom and open the eyes of those who might need a little more information and exposure but you gotta entertain first to get the people to watch.

M&C: People won’t receive pure information. The fact that you wrap it in humor and social commentary, it’s a more digestible way of receiving information.

Judge Greg Mathis: We all know that people get uncomfortable. Both African-Americans and white society get uncomfortable talking about race.

Well, I’m able to do that like comedians do and an effort to tell people that we’re all the same, let’s come together. We should know each other’s culture because then we’ll like each other more and we won’t be afraid of each other. But if I preach it like I’m preaching to you, they’ll turn the channel.

M&C: So let’s talk about American Gangster: Trap Queens, why is it important to give women like Tonesa Welch a platform to tell their stories?

Judge Greg Mathis: I found as you say, the stories of overcoming the odds in the inner city is something that other people need to see. They need to see a cautionary tale with an inspirational ending.

Because I’ve received those types of compliments over the years, people have told me I helped change their life. Well, I said, let’s get some women. We can show their journey, from overcoming the streets and the life of crime then overcoming it. Showing as a cautionary tale, that all of us have been to prison. Ultimately, that’s what happens, but then there’s a day after prison that you can begin to change your life and turn from that and perhaps not return.

So that’s what the concept is, a cautionary tale with an inspirational ending, that will relate to the people who need it.

Monsters & Critics: While the show is friendly, it does shed light on systemic and racial disparities. What’s one thing you want to make sure the viewers know?

Judge Greg Mathis: Under-education in the inner city, and poverty, creates an environment where many of the people feel a sense of hopelessness [and] despair. Hopelessness in the sense that I can’t get out of my condition because I don’t have the tools. Because this public school system is failing me and won’t give me the tools.

Oddly enough, people in the inner-city living in poverty have great common sense and they know when they’ve been neglected and abandoned by America. That’s their belief, that’s their feeling, that’s their general perception of their condition when living in poverty. That society has abandoned us and society has not educated us equally.

This society is based on competition and so if you are under-educated, and the privileged received an excellent education, you’re at a competitive disadvantage. So my advice is to empower yourself through an education and that will allow you to overcome your obstacles by creating options for yourself. Then don’t give up when they close the door of opportunity because that’s what happened to me, and that may happen to you.

I didn’t give up, I didn’t punk out. I was a street guy, I was a tough guy [and] I didn’t stop being tough when I went to college. This bar exam told me that they won’t give me an opportunity, I stayed tough and kept appealing until that day came down.

M&C: Do you have a favorite trap queen this season?

Judge Greg Mathis: This season, it would probably be Tonesa [Welch] because I’ve known her for a number of years and know the circle that she ran in for some 40 years.

M&C: What are you most looking forward to sharing with fans this season?

Judge Greg Mathis: Well I want them to see the journey to recovery for many of the litigants that come on. The drug journey and that is, we send people to rehab.

Last week, I committed to paying off personally the college loan that is keeping a young man from finishing his last semester in college. And so, those are the types of things folks are going to see, in addition to our regular entertainment and fun.

American Gangster: Trap Queens is produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions and is now streaming on BET+. Also check out our other interviews with the first lady of the Black Mafia Family, Tonesa Welch, and Grammy-nominated producer Stevie J.

Brianna is Bay Area-based reality TV lover and writer who has...read more

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