17-year-old with autism is living rap dream, but at what cost?
Antonio Henderson-Davis stood on the sideline during the Edison High School homecoming game, his punishment for missing football practice.
Edison lost by 20 that night, but their opponents spent 20 minutes after the game posing for photos with Antonio, a reserve defensive tackle who never touched the field.
Soon after they jumped off the bus that afternoon, the teens from Redwood Valley High in rural southwestern Minnesota had one question: Where's 50 Tyson?
Moments like that have kept Antonio's family, teacher and coach shaking their heads. They still find it hard to believe that a 17-year-old with autism has gone from an unknown in north Minneapolis to a larger-than-life Internet rap sensation.
Antonio hosts parties and performs at trendy nightclubs. Celebrities sport his 50 Tyson T-shirts. Comedians refer to him in their routines. There was even a rumor floating around school that a Hollywood starlet wanted to book him for her birthday party.
All this from a teen who sneaked his sister's camera into the bathroom to record nonrhyming, stream-of-consciousness raps and posted them on YouTube, drawing millions of hits.
Hundreds of thousands of people post to video-sharing sites each day. A minuscule number have their lives forever changed. Antonio is one of them.
"He's more of a gift from God to the world, to really inspire kids that have autism," said former NBA player and music producer Troy Hudson, who signed Antonio to a contract. "He's done what people already said he couldn't do."
But his football coach, Mike Minnema, wonders about efforts to stretch Antonio's 15 minutes of fame. He asks: Are people supporting him or looking to benefit from the unlikely success of a vulnerable, trusting young man? It's a question that Antonio's family and teacher struggle with as he pursues his dreams o stardom.
When Antonio first posted videos, schoolmates poked fun at him. Even his nickname was, it seemed to some, intended to ridicule; people said he looked like a cross between rapper 50 Cent and boxer Mike Tyson.
Now, months later, students walk the halls at Edison wearing 50 Tyson T-shirts with Antonio's likeness and catchphrases on the front. He's also the unquestioned star of a record label with an uneven track record and the chief client of a manager who has clashed with the rapper's parents.
An education like no other
Antonio spends most of his day in a six-student classroom at Edison with a teacher and two aides. His lessons focus on reading and social skills. He spends most mornings in vocational training at a Minneapolis bottling company.
The high school senior's handwriting is child-like. On the Friday before Halloween, his class watched the animated film "Coraline" and carved pumpkins under the watchful eye of a substitute teacher.
There are more than 700 students with autism in the Minneapolis School District, and more than 12,000 in Minnesota. Antonio is getting an education and exposure like no other, his teacher-case manager Shanda Copeland said.
In the four years they've known each other, Copeland has worked to help people understand Antonio's autism, from football coaches to his former boss at McDonald's. He quit that part-time job to focus on his music career.
"He feels really good about what's happening for him," Copeland said. "He's the sweetest kid, but he's incredibly vulnerable."
As 50 Tyson, Antonio has been thrust into a world he probably doesn't fully understand. Many people with autism misinterpret social situations; Antonio often doesn't know if people are laughing with or at him, his mother and Copeland said.
From his popular videos, people recognize him in restaurants, the Mall of America and the bread aisle at the local grocery.
In Room 329 at Edison, Copeland works hard to keep the focus off 50 Tyson, but Antonio's rap persona has slowly crept in.
After hosting late-night performances on video-streaming websites, he often falls asleep in class, snoring at his desk, Copeland said.
Banking on success
The online performances are part of Hudson's plan to keep Antonio fresh in music fans' minds until his album release next year. He advanced Antonio $20,000 when the teen signed with Hudson Records. As part of their two-year contract, the former Minnesota Timberwolves point guard also started a website to market Antonio as the "face of autism."
"He's already a celebrity," Hudson said. "He can be a brand to the world for ages."
Since signing with Hudson, Antonio has gone from rapping and singing in his mom's bathroom and back yard to a sleek studio in Brooklyn Center, where he spends weekends recording tracks for the album.
That doesn't mean things have gone smoothly. Antonio's parents, Clarette Davis and Tony Henderson, have clashed with his management, Hudson and Nikki McComb, on everything from money to scheduling.
"People all over the world were trying to use this boy," McComb said. "I've done nothing but bend over backward for this kid."
When McComb signed on as his manager, she brought along her daughter, a Fridley High School student who now performs with Antonio.
In attempts to get Antonio more exposure, Hudson and McComb lobbied to pull him from school for weekday shows. Hudson even offered to hire a tutor to take on the road. Antonio's mother declined.
Coach Minnema wonders if people who've flocked to Antonio have delusions about a high school senior who may be more of a spectacle than a star.
"Who's looking out for his best interest?" he asked.
According to Hudson's website, $1 from every T-shirt sold will benefit Autism Speaks, a New York-based advocacy group; The organization has yet to receive a dime, a spokesman said last week.
To date, Hudson hasn't found breakout success in the music industry, but Antonio could change that. Hudson said he sought out Antonio for the chance to help a young man achieve his dreams.
"This kid knows music; he knows the industry," Hudson said. "One day he wants to own his own label."
Hudson told his star artist that anything is possible, and people have bought in. Antonio's parents see potential for a book or movie deal. Their son wants a big house with a recording studio -- just like the rappers on television.
"I'm doing fun with my music, working hard," Antonio said. "I thought I couldn't do it, but then I just did it ... That's how I came up famous."
'He's not ashamed'
Antonio's family worries about what happens if his career sputters.
"I would have never expected this to happen," said his sister, Toniyetta Davis. "He found something he loved. I don't want it to turn into something bad."
For now, the fame has boosted Antonio's confidence, inside the classroom and out.
"He knows what he's got, but he's not ashamed of it," his father said.
The teen shakes off those who mock his raps and ballads. Posts on his Twitter account urge people to learn more about autism.
"I don't let people tell me that I can't rap," he said. "There's haters out there."
People with autism need support, not pity or scorn, said Sherrie Kenny, director of the Autism Society of Minnesota.
"We want you to see the person's gifts and talents, not the label 'autistic' and what they can't do," she said.
Inside the halls of Edison High, Antonio has become a reason for pride.
On a recent morning, Copeland paused mid-step, straining to hear the Spanish II class next door. As the teacher quizzed students on a story they wrote, Copeland could make out "50 Tyson" from the stream of Spanish. The English translation, in part, is a simple rendering that Antonio hopes has a fairy tale ending:
"There was a boy. The boy was called 50 Tyson. 50 Tyson was 17 years old. 50 Tyson lived on the North Side. He wanted to be a rapper."
Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491