Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Northside series.
You can take the rapper out of Gary, Indiana, but you can’t take Gary, Indiana out of the rap.
Ask Ed Genesis, a Northside rapper, spoken word poet and poetic justice advocate, whose Gary, Ind. roots continue to influence the words and music he puts to beats.
Genesis (whose legal name is Ed Griffin), lived in Gary until he was 17, with a short stint as a freshman at Loy Norrix High School before he decided to return to Gary. In Gary, he learned to rap with his friends inspired by rappers who were famous at the time, such as Ice Cube and Public Enemy, but it wasn’t until he moved to Kalamazoo permanently with a cousin close in age that he had the space and freedom to find his voice, he says.
“There wasn’t any gang violence here,” he says of the Northside in the early '90s. “No one I knew here had a gun. So it gave me the opportunity to really create versus being chased or judged.”
In Gary, a city that is known for poverty, crime and urban decay, sometimes called “Scary, Indiana” by locals, everyone had a gun, Genesis says. His own father was killed by police when Genesis was 2, and Genesis himself was expelled for carrying a gun to school, an experience that deeply disappointed his grandmother.
As part of the gang culture of Gary, Genesis felt he needed a gun, not to hurt anyone, but to protect himself. When his grandmother found out, he explained to her how the schools were. “She said she didn’t know it was like that. She was very sad.” She then asked him what he wanted to do.
“Move to Kalamazoo,” he said.
Ed Genesis performs his rap at many local events. Kaitlin LaMoine Photography
Northside’s Onliest, Ed Genesis
When Genesis returned to Kalamazoo, he says he had a chip on his shoulder, “an attitude.” “I was literally fresh up here,” he says. On a trip to the West Main Mall, he and some friends were approached by police, and in a knee-jerk reaction, he flung up his elbow and was charged for resisting arrest.
Because of what happened to his father, the encounter was his and his mother’s worst nightmare, he says.
“Gary is predominantly black, and Kalamazoo is very mixed,” says Genesis. “Being in a predominantly black city, you don’t experience as much racism there. You would see it if you traveled outside, but it’s not as in your face.”
But overall, Genesis has found Kalamazoo to be a place he can grow and thrive. “Kalamazoo has its own set of problems, but it was way different. It allowed me a chance to actually breathe and create music.
“Gary was about everyday survival,” says Genesis, “but it’s the platform that started everything. A lot of the stories I tell are still from there.”
In addition to his formative stories, Genesis also took from Gary his professional name, the name of the convention center there. “I thought that if I could take anything in Gary, I would take that because for me it represents hope.”
He remembers as a youngster being transported to the Genesis Convention Center from elementary school due to a chemical spill. Children were reunited there with their mothers. Before that, he hadn’t considered the center could become a sanctuary in times of emergency. “And I just never forgot,” he says.
Over the years, the Northside has figured prominently in many of Genesis’ videos, including this backseat freestyle rap posted on MLive
in 2007 where the Northside streets are the background and in “Meet Me North,” a rap whose refrain mentions streets of the Northside in a way that parodies its reputation as a rough and dangerous place.
In the refrain, Genesis raps:
“Meet me on Cobb. It’s going down.
Meet me on Westnedge. It’s going down.
Meet me on Woodward. It’s going down
Sometimes the Northside is treated differently than the rest of the city, says Genesis, pointing out the signs that say: No Stopping, No Standing, and No Fighting.
“I definitely rebel against that and let them know that there’s families living on the Northside,” says Genesis. “I do things like that rap to try to change the narrative.”
In Kalamazoo, even before the advent of baseball player Derek Jeter, and football players, Greg Jennings and T.J. Duckett, Genesis says you could see the potential for African Americans to rise. “There’s a museum. There’s a downtown that’s not rundown. There’s things that brought a lot of hope. I thought, if these things exist, surely something good can happen for me here.”
And good did happen. As a well-connected local rapper, Genesis has developed a fulfilling career as an entrepreneurial artist and social justice advocate, combining a little bit of this and a lot of that.
In addition to rapping at local venues, including at the Black Arts Festival (see a tribute video and rap
of this year’s event) and the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival
, he has also written raps used for television shows, such as “Forensic Files,” and competed successfully in prestigious national competitions, such as in 2009, the BET’s “106 & Park,” formerly one of the premiere TV shows for hip-hop recording artists.
A search online will pull up a prodigious amount of videos, many which feature places familiar to Northsiders, such as LaCrone Park and local businesses. He has several discs, from his debut album in 2006, “A Fifth of Gen,” to his most recent release in July, “February 13th,” which is the birthday of a close friend, Andre Dixon, who passed away several years ago.
The Northside is also where Genesis has chosen to start and raise his family, which includes his wife and manager, Patrese Griffin, son Ed Jr., 21, daughter Genesis, 16, and son Rider, 15. The Northside has become Genesis’ home.
In contrast, Genesis says, Gary was a place people hoped to leave. “People made it out of Gary,” he says, citing Gary’s most famous musical phenoms, Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five, Deniece Williams, considered one of “the great soul voices” by the BBC, and Jessie Powell, a Grammy-nominated R&B singer and songwriter. “But that’s how they say it. They made it out. They’re not part of the community. They’re not connected.”
Genesis is grateful, he says, to live in a community where he can do what he loves, and still feel connected.
Conscious, but edgy: finding his voice with a toothpick in his mouth
"In a crowded room, best believe I do stick out
I can flow and never take my toothpick out."
One of the first things you may notice about Ed Genesis is the toothpick in his mouth. He raps with it. He smiles with it. He has his temperature taken with it. He even eats popcorn with it. “How do you not choke?” he’s often asked.
“I only take it out to sleep,” he says.
It's a habit he picked up in elementary school. He says if he didn’t chew toothpicks, he’d probably bite his nails. Recently Diamond Toothpicks learned of his fixation and sent him a case of 800 toothpicks. “I actually freak out when I don’t have them, “ he says. “That’s something my wife and kids like to point out.”
The grandson of a Methodist preacher, Genesis was inspired by watching his grandfather preach.
“He was respected in the community. He cared. I just wanted to emulate him in some way,” says Genesis. “I knew I wanted to share with people, but I didn’t like talking or preaching. Then there was this thing called rap. (I decided) I think I can do that.”
His testimony is unique, he says, and he’s been told he stands out among other rappers. “I don’t feel sorry for myself, but I also don’t blame myself for everything.
“I get teased a lot,” he says. “My friends tease me about ‘the struggle.’ No matter what I’m rapping about, I mention that we have to do better. The world is not as we intended it to be. It’s not preachy. It’s very vulnerable. I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
Over the last several years, Genesis has migrated from rap to spoken word poetry, though rap will always be his main form. “The poets tell me there is no difference” between the two, “only the beat,” he says, and he agrees. “If something is touching you and you feel the need to create, poets search for a rhythm within the words.
“A lot of my raps are performed as spoken word a cappella because I like to get people’s attention. They hear the words differently. I started being asked, ‘Are you a poet?’ No, that’s actually a rap, but I like to work between the lines.”
Some people have photographic memories, but Genesis has an audio-graphic memory. He never writes his raps down. “I say them and I just know them. It’s a gift. It really is.”
CHAMPS for Justice: healing through art
While at a recent training regarding mass incarceration, an issue Genesis feels strongly about, he was challenged to bring “his whole self to the table” by the workshop leaders. He had to ask himself what did he really believe? And an answer arrived: art heals.
Out of that training, Genesis launched his idea, Creative Healers Artists Musicians Poets Storytellers (CHAMPS). “If you do any social justice work, you usually have a lot of artists at the table, but we often leave the art off the table. I started to activate other artists and realized we have something here.”
Genesis is not a stranger to social justice, but to reach out through art in collaboration with other artists is a new avenue for him, though in some ways, he’s been advocating through rap his entire career. As an activist, he is also a Criminal Justice Reform Organizer for Michigan United, an organization that fights for the ability of working families and people of color to have a voice in decisions made for neighborhoods and by governments.
“Art touches everybody,” Genesis says. “When nothing else translates, especially to the youth, they can all connect by hearing that song or seeing that movie. I love the fact that art gives you a chance to penetrate different areas without being super-political. You can say a lot more with art than just talking about it.”
Recently returned from We the People
, an event to support the state’s diverse populations and regions which took place in Idlewild, Mich., where he introduced CHAMPS, Genesis was feeling charged. There he had the opportunity to convene with people from around the state, and also the surprise chance to meet Jane Fonda.
Genesis says he particularly likes working with youth, as he does frequently at Lakeside Academy and the juvenile detention centers in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Starr Commonwealth.
“Probably the most rewarding job I do is working with youth,” Genesis says. “It’s emotional, first and foremost. I don’t think when you’re young that you should have to wear shackles. You’re dressing like the adults that are locked up. You’re trying on the clothes that you’ll be wearing the next five or six years.
“But it’s also very meaningful. I touch people. They call when they get out. They say, ‘I want to do better.’”
Genesis also mentors for Speak it Forward, a spoken word and social justice group formed by Kinetic Affect’s Kirk Latimer and Gabriel Giron, who encourage all to speak their truth.
“They’re awesome,” Genesis says. “They started a foundation to help speak it forward and teach the youth what they do.”
Whenever times have become challenging, Genesis says, there’s been people in his corner who encourage him, who remind him that he has something original to say.
“I love what I do. And I love touching people with what I do.”