Cleveland hip-hop artist, once facing 10-year sentence in human trafficking case, gets 8 months in prison

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CLEVELAND, Ohio — A local entrepreneur who once boasted in hip-hop music videos about running a lucrative sex ring was sentenced Monday to eight months in prison on a felony prostitution charge.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Alicia Paolucci told a judge during a sentencing hearing that the videos showed 34-year-old Dawud Sami had no remorse for his crimes that led two women to contact the Cuyahoga County Human Trafficking Task Force last year.

“He was exploiting these women in plain sight,” Paolucci said.

Sami said the videos were part of a persona he created under his rap name Original GP and were a performance art — they did not depict his real character.

“It’s a bad image, but it’s entertainment,” Sami said.

Sami pleaded guilty last week to promoting prostitution, a fourth-degree felony. The plea deal saw Cuyahoga County prosecutors drop a first-degree felony human trafficking charge that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Rick Bell initially sentenced Sami to nine months in prison. But Bell shaved off a month after he asked Sami if he had anything else to say and Sami told him the sentence was fair.

Sami will get credit for three months he spent in jail after his arrest, meaning he’ll have to serve only five months in prison.

Sami was charged in December 2022 after investigators initially said that he ran a large human trafficking ring out of his East 185th Street recording studio and clothing business, Red Karpet Entertainment. In a news release the following month, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said that Sami was accused of branding women with the business’ logo.

Paolucci said that Sami used his music videos, which featured women wearing designer clothing, counting cash and riding in luxury cars, including a Maserati, to lure others to come from around the country and model for him.

Paolucci said some of the women learned when they got to Cleveland that they were expected to advertise themselves as prostitutes. Sami expected them to earn at least $1 million per year for him. She also said many of the women were battling drug addictions and that “people associated with” Sami would often feed their drug habits.

One of the victims told investigators that she thought she was getting one of her other tattoos finished when one of Sami’s associates used a tattoo gun to give her a Red Karpet tattoo in the business’s basement.

But Sami’s attorney, James Hoeflich, said that much of the evidence that the state used to paint Sami as a human trafficker “did not bear out.”

He submitted screenshot photographs from other music videos that showed that more men than women got tattoos of the Red Karpet logo. He argued that people who worked for Sami voluntarily got the tattoos as a point of pride. He said the state had no evidence that the women were forced to get the tattoo as a brand that made them Sami’s property.

Hoeflich also said that Sami moved to Las Vegas several years ago and has not been involved in Red Karpet’s operations.

Sami, who practices Islam and does not drink, said that his music videos were the result of a persona that he created as part of his music career and built on the success of other artists who rapped about guns and drugs. Sami said that the songs gave him his “big break” and earned him a record deal and a touring contract. But he said it has brought difficulty as he has sought in recent years to use his music to promote a more positive message.

“It’s a gift financially, but it’s a curse as far as your character because people are only going to know you as that persona,” Sami said.

Bell pointed out that it was Sami’s persona that brought the women into his life.

The judge also created a point of levity when he told Sami that he was musically talented.

“As they say, you know how to lay down a beat,” Bell said, eliciting laughter from Sami’s supporters in the back of the courtroom.

Ron Neal was among Sami’s supporters in the back of the courtroom. He said after the hearing that Bell’s sentence was fair, but he said it was “out of pocket” for the prosecutors to play Sami’s videos, which were several years old.

“They were still trying to put on a human trafficking case,” Neal said. “They reached for that one.”

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