Everyone has been talking about Detroit’s infamous Black Mafia Family, the subject of the current Starz runaway hit. In an interview with Tonesa Welch, aka the “First Lady of BMF,” she discloses what it was like going from living the life of luxury to being incarcerated for a five-year sentence for money laundering. Welch, now a motivational speaker and activist, is the founder of Sylent Heat, a non-profit organization whose mission is to help families who are impacted by incarceration. She is featured in the BET+ series “American Gangster: Trap Queens” produced by A. Smith & Co. Productions.
INTERVIEW BY CYNTHIA HORNER
Q. How does it feel to know that women are getting their shine in these television programs and series? For years, we have mainly heard street stories told from a man’s perspective.
A. It feels great because in any field, women are always put second and downplayed. Not to glamorize the street life, but this proves that women are just as smart and powerful as men.
Q. Is it painful to watch stories when you know the backstory intimately and that many of your friends and associates wound up incarcerated?
A.Yes, it is painful. Learning how much my lifestyle hurt and took away from my family and friends was truly eye-opening. I wish some of our friends who have passed away were here to witness the growth and see how we’ve changed our lives for the better.
Q. You are all about redemption at this stage in your life. At what point did you start on the road to redemption and how difficult was that journey?
A. I started down the road to redemption one day in prison when I was about two months in. It’s funny because of all the various jobs you could get in prison, I happened to get assigned the only job working in the chapel. I was talking to a counselor in the chapel one day and suddenly realized that I was responsible for my own actions. I jumped out of that conversation and went for a walk in the yard vowing to change my trajectory, no longer wanting to blame the world and feel sorry for myself. I no longer wanted to be that person.
Q. How would you describe Tonesa and is there a difference between your public persona and your private life?
A. People think I’m very outgoing and love to dance and have a good time, which is true, but at this stage in my life, I’ve learned the importance of quiet time to recenter and stay true to myself and my journey.
Q. What are some of the jewels that you like to impart on the younger generation?
A. Find your passion early and stick with it. Follow your dreams and don’t get distracted by the streets. Listen to your parents who have been around the block a few more times than you. Prison is hard. It’s easy to get into trouble, but hard to get out of it. Believe in something good and pray. Pray a lot. It works.
Q. When the BMF was at its heyday and you were the First Lady, what was that experience like?
A. It was wild and really crazy. Some days I would sit back and be bewildered at what was happening. We could do whatever we wanted and people were opening all kinds of doors for us. It was a high, but it was also terrifying.
Q. Your episode was narrated by Lil Kim. Can you talk about her for a moment?
A. While I don’t know her personally, I loved the narration Lil Kim did on “American Gangster: Trap Queens.” I loved the entire episode so much. A. Smith & Co. Productions did an incredible job of telling the breadth of my story in only one hour.
Q. You served a five-year sentence for money laundering. Can you share a couple of experiences about your time behind bars?
A. When I was in prison, I didn’t clique up and got along with most of the inmates. I had a hard time with some of the staff because they pre-judged me before getting to know me. Going into my sentence, I was told that I would have a hard time because I was an attractive woman with my background. And I did. I was harassed, and a superior told me I just had to deal with it. Thankfully, I spent a lot of time in the chapel and got close to God, which helped me through it.
Q. Falling in love with Terry Flenory eventually led to your landing in prison. Many women fall in love and it can lead to unwise choices. Can you share a life lesson for younger people who will be watching this series?
A. I don’t blame Terry for me being incarcerated. I started on my path of destruction long before him. A lot of us women have misguided loyalty, where we think we have to be incredibly loyal to a man and that’s not true. I had misguided loyalty due to low self-esteem and it wasn’t reciprocated to me. I was on my own. We don’t have to be led by a man. We’re strong and we’re smart all by ourselves.