Fat Joe tells kids ‘If you want to be successful, no one can stop you.’

Fat Joe
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, Joseph Antonio Cartagena aka Fat Joe visited the Mott Haven library to speak to the students of Brilla public charter schools.
Photo ET Rodriguez

On the welcomingly warm Wednesday morning of Nov. 15, the 7th and 8th graders of Brilla Public Charter Schools in the South Bronx filed into the Mott Haven Library and quietly took their seats.

As they awaited a surprise celebrity visit, library manager Tiffany McCrae played hip-hop songs from Bronx native musicians to give the students hints of their guest of honor. The mystery was over once he stepped through the door and the students gasped and giggled with applause and awe — it was Joseph Antonio Cartagena, known more commonly by his stage name Fat Joe.

He took a seat at the front of the room beside a table of books, one of which was his memoir, “The Book of Jose.” In it, Cartagena chronicles his life growing up in the dilapidated streets of Mott Haven circa the ’70s and ‘80s and traces his trajectory from poverty to multi-million-dollar fame.

“When I was young, nobody really came and talked to me,” said Cartagena. “We didn’t have nobody that looked like us, who came from where we came from that became successful, that could inspire us, so it’s very important for me to come out and talk to you.”

Released last November, “The Book of Jose” chronicles the life of Joseph Antonio Cartagena aka Fat Joe and his rise to fame from the squalor of 1970s Mott Haven. Photo ET Rodriguez

Cartagena’s visit was the second within the “Celebrity Story Time” program — an initiative created in March by the Mott Haven Library in conjunction with Chef Melba Wilson, cookbook author and Food Network personality, as well as owner of the famous Melba’s restaurant in Harlem. The program is part of the New York Public Library’s ongoing efforts to promote reading and access to knowledge for young people, particularly teens.

Currently, Bronx County ranks 11 on the top 50 most under educated counties in New York State and number one in New York City with about 27% of the population having less than a high school diploma.

“For me, reading was my escape,” said Wilson. “We were so poor we couldn’t even afford the other O and the R in the word – we was just po’.”

Wilson explained that as a young girl, she picked up Norman Vincent Peale’s 1952 book, “The Power of Positive Thinking: A Practical Guide to Mastering the Problems of Everyday Living.” Through reading, she was able to expand her imagination and belief in herself, which would fuel her creativity for cooking and make her the entrepreneur she is today.

The 7th and 8th grade students of Brilla public charter schools in the South Bronx listen attentively as Fat Joe addressed the group and explains the importance of education and reading. Photo ET Rodriguez

For the library manager, it was especially important to have Cartagena visit due to his upbringing in the neighborhood.

“Let’s have the kids in this community be inspired right in their neighborhood,” said McCrae.

Beyond his frequent meet-and-greets and holiday food giveaways, Cartagena’s clothing and sneaker store, Up NYC at 2490 Third Ave. in the Bronx, provides mentorship to the neighborhood youth and after-school programs that teach computer knowledge and literacy.

Cartagena held a Q&A with the students after his words of encouragement with quotes like “Smart kids – don’t make fun of them” and “Who run the world? Girls!” He asked a student in the audience what he wanted to be when he grew up to which 13-year-old Carlos Hanson responded, “engineer.”

Cartagena was gifted with his very own library card colorfully emblazoned with the words “Wild Style” – a term coined by the late graffiti pioneer, Michael Christopher Tracy, called “Tracy 168,” who recently passed in September.

Joseph Antonio Cartagena aka Fat Joe admires his limited edition library card honoring the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. He received the card at the Mott Haven library on Wednesday Nov. 15 while speaking to students about the importance of education and reading.Photo ET Rodriguez

As an extra surprise, DJ Khaled FaceTimed Cartagena to tell the students, “You the best!”

The visit ended in photo-ops for all and pizza for the students as well as NYPL pencil cases and bookmarks.

“Once you come up, which I know you are, don’t forget where you came from,” said Cartagena. “It’s your job to inspire the next era that comes after you.”

Reach ET Rodriguez at etrodriguez317@gmail.com. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes