Over the past weeks, fans of legendary Atlanta rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris had the opportunity to see him in action as he welcomed 16 individuals into his company and put them through a series of tests on BET’s The Grand Hustle. One contestant stuck out from the crowd immediately. Learn more about the entertainment industry’s veteran hustler, Yonathan Elias, as he talks family, motivation and working with mogul T.I.
Let’s talk about your upbringing.
So I’m the first generation in the United States. My mom is from Eritrea and my dad is Nigerian. I had a very strong cultural upbringing. Me being first-generation, all of the America history and American culture I had to learn on my own because my parents were very strong and very gung-ho about pushing me to know the culture and keeping their culture built into our lives even though we’re American.
I kind of had a little rough upbringing when it comes to being bullied. I had a very strong family background, my family supported me. My dad worked very long hours to support the family. My mom sacrificed her whole life to raising me and my brother. She knows six languages. She could have literally been a millionaire but she sacrificed all that to make sure that we stayed in school, she was even in the PTA. So my parents did go above and beyond with raising us. I used to get bullied for being African and for how I looked; a skinny scrawny big rabbit tooth kid. So that was kind of rough and I feel like I held a lot of that in which is probably why I might have a little temper when it comes to people disrespecting me in my adult ages. When it comes to my family, they definitely did everything they could to make sure that we never asked for anything. So I do appreciate them for that.
In addition to your family, what motivates you to keep striving for the best?
Honestly, my number one thing I always have to say is my family. Not only my mom and my dad because like I said our culture is so strong in the family and but being a very close-knit family. My aunt and uncles are basically like my fathers and mothers as well. Some had to escape the war in Eritrea and Ethiopia and for them to do all of that sacrificing, putting their life on the line for their legacy and for the kids to come. So honestly, that is all my motivation, there’s nothing else. I’m honestly doing this more for them even more than for me because I want to make sure they understand that everything that they sacrificed, it was worth it and I just want to make them proud. I couldn’t even think about anything else, of course, I want to be successful for myself but I really just want to make them proud.
On BET”s “The Grand Hustle; thousands of people applied but sixteen were chosen, how did it feel hearing that you were one of the people that were about to move forward and be on this show, how did that feel?
So I applied online. It literally took me three and a half hours to finish that application because it was so many questions and it was all essay form questions. It was ridiculous to the point where I gave up like three times. I feel like that right there was the first challenge of the actual show because it was insane. I then got an email with a request for a Skype interview. I got a call saying that they love me but they wanted me for the second season. They said that I was first in line if someone didn’t pass the background check for this season. I’ve had so many no’s in life, I learned how to kind of cope with it. I got booked for a gig on Saturday and the casting crew hit me up right after I got booked asking “can you come in tomorrow on Friday?” They offered to fly me out there for the last interview because someone didn’t pass the background check and they liked me. I’m like well I can’t I’m under contract. I was like I can come Sunday and they’re like yeah that probably is not going to happen because they need you here for like five days because we have to meet up with a psychologist, do all kinds of tests and interviews. I was like well you know its unfortunate, I’m sorry I can’t do it. They’re like okay. They call me back thirty minutes later and said the producers don’t care. They’ll fly you out early Sunday morning. That right there made me feel like, wow this is my time. I felt like it was just God testing me, just kept on throwing these obstacles but at the end of the day, he was like this is you. I couldn’t even tell you the joy I felt to know that thousands of people applied for this position and out of thousands they picked sixteen and I was one of them. Sixteen people picked out of thousands of people with big personalities when you got people who aren’t used to living alone with people just interacting with people they don’t like. So to have to go through that you’re seeing forty minutes of forty- eight hours of taping. It’s a lot of stuff that you don’t see.
So what are some of the main things that you’ve learned about yourself during this process and what are some things that you’ve learned from T.I. that you feel will help you in furthering your career?
I have been in this industry for twenty years and every challenge that T.I. would come down and give us in the morning, my first reaction in my mind was I can’t do this. There’s no way I can do this. I felt you need years of experience to do the things that he has us doing but what I learned for myself is you do your research, you put your best foot forward, you will succeed, and you will do it even if you don’t win. I felt like even the challenges that we did not win, I still won individually because I did something I thought I could never do. I now had the experience. So that right there showed me not to think that you know everything and whatever field you’re in, no matter how long you’ve been in that field, know that you’re always going to learn. This is serious stuff that he has us doing and that goes to show exactly what I learned. He showed me that I can be a Renaissance man. I can do behind the scene and not just in front of the camera type of stuff. I can be an executive.
What is some advice that you would give to the future generations or those that are striving to do more in life and those that are hustling to be the best and they could be?
Never give up. No matter what happens, no matter what anyone says. It’s unfortunate that some people don’t have a close family. If you do have a family that’s close to you, keep them happy. Like with my family, they are like go and get your masters degree. I don’t need a master degree to be on TV but I went to Howard University got a 4.0 and still did what I wanted to do. So I made them happy but I still made myself happy. At the end of the day, you need to go out and live your dreams because you only have one life. Our job is to prove it to the people that doubt you, so never ever give up.
The Grand Hustle airs on Thursday’s at 10 pm EST on BET. Make sure to follow Yonathan Elias on Instagram.