Rollie C. Gray Jr. grew up on the South Side of Chicago during the Black Power movement in the ’70s and hip-hop’s golden age. In the late ’90s, he graduated from Grambling State University where he became socially and politically conscious. A storyteller, he says he grew up in a close-knit family and had loyal friends and hip-hop culture to keep him off Chicago’s unpredictable streets.
Gray uses his voice to speak out against injustices and engages fans with stories about cultural, social and political issues. In his latest semi-autobiographical tale, A Mere Reality: A Chicago Hip Hop Story, the story’s main character, Harvey L. Strickland, is a B-boy from the South Side of Chicago who grew up during the golden era of hip-hop, rhyming and battling on the Chi-Town streets prepared him to take over what would become a billion-dollar industry. But it comes with a cost.
Here, Gray talks about his fictional piece and shares why it’s important for Blacks to document their stories.
Why did you write A Mere Reality: A Chicago Hip Hop Story?
I wrote A Mere Reality: A Chicago Hip Hop Story to inspire. The hip-hop culture supersedes religion. It is imperative that we the children of the hip-hop document and tell our own stories.
All the glitter isn’t gold is the story behind the title. America has sold its people, especially Black people a false picture of what is to be an America. Too often we set out to achieve something and once we obtain it we realized it isn’t what it appeared to be. One night while staring at the word America I thought of the phrase “The American Dream” as I continued to stare at the word America the letters rearranged themselves and I saw amerereality.
I want the reader to understand that we must use our talents to make the world a better place. The days of entertaining without substance is antiquated. The two years it took me to write the book, I wrote, wrote, and rewrote debating on how to convey and message of love and unity without coming off aloof and corny.
I began writing A Mere Reality while working for a temp agency as a security guard on the graveyard shift. Working overnight gives you ample time to think and I contemplated every night on how to become an entrepreneur. Getting laid off forced me to take writing seriously.
The morning I got laid off, I went home, dropped my children off to school, meditated, wrote, researched, edited for three hours and I continued that routine until I finished my book.
Is your writing a deliberate decision or gradual evolution?
It definitely was a gradual evolution. There was something in me telling me that there was something out there other than getting up every day while being under compensated to make someone else rich. I always enjoyed writing and throughout my education, I’ve had educators compliment my writing. Working dead-end jobs and career failures, let’s just say that the Almighty has many ways of speaking to [you].
What separates you from others in your field? What is unique to the experience that you create?
When writing I paint an emotional portrait for the reader. When it comes to the subject matter of hip-hop, I consider myself to be a historian/pioneer. I also received my B.A. In political science from Grambling State University. I have a unique prospective on how hip-hop and politics intertwine.
For those considering entering this arena, what skill sets do you recommend mastering? What traits are most conducive to success?
• Don’t be afraid of failure
• Do not have a herd mentality
How do you stay at the leading edge of your craft?
Do you think that there are any widely held misconceptions about what you do?
• Africans Americans don’t read or write.
• All we want to be are rappers, producers, or athletes.
• Black people in America are diverse. White people in America are diverse. The one thing White people have in common is the benefits of White privilege. The one thing Blacks have in common from President Obama to the homeless man on the street is that they have been discriminated against. Again, we must tell and document our history or someone else will.
How do you map out your goals?
I come up with the big picture, determine what to remove from my life that would hinder me from achieving the big picture. Those things may be people, poor habits, negative self-talk, etc. Organize my materials belongings: home, car, office, backpack, closet, etc. When those things are in order, it frees my mind to focus on needs.
How do you measure your success?
I measured my success on my happiness.
Who do you consider to be your peers in your field?
• LaShonda Katrice Barnet
• Tamara Winfrey Harris
• Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates
Who do you see or use as examples to emulate?
Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement
Name two of your top role models: one from your industry and one from outside of it.
• Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates
• Antwan Banks
• Mark Zuckerburg
Name three books, works, performances or exhibits that changed how you view life and/or yourself.
• The Autobiography of Malcolm X MALCOLM X with the assistance of Alex Haley gave me knowledge of self at the age of 13.
• Republic-Plato-gave me a different perspective on what justice is and what is a just man.
• The Alchemist– Paulo Coelho gave me the inspiration to find my treasure.
Why do you consider continued learning important?
My eternal flame is to become a better person and education is the tool to accomplish that.
What affirmations do you repeat to yourself that contribute to your success?
• Learning from my mistakes.
• Forgiving myself.
• Believing and trusting in myself.
• Believing something good about someone, rather than something bad.
What role does technology play in your day-to-day life? How do you utilize it?
Technology allows me to stay plugged in. It allows me to stay in the know, disseminate information from a grass root level, and enables me to give a different perspective other than the mainstream media.
What software, app or other technological innovation has made the biggest difference in your life and/or career?
I can recall writing research papers on loose leaf papers, typewriters, Dos prompt screens, and going to the library to do research. The internet and the Cloud assist with on-the-spot creativity.
Please define your personal brand.
I describe my personal brand as being not pretentious or arrogant; modest — unassuming.
What is your favorite vacation destination and why?
My favorite vacation destination is my mind. … I have a very vivid and lucid imagination. I can go anywhere in my mind.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
The perception the world have of my people.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
• Less negative self-talk
• Be more positive
What does it take to be iconic?
• A little luck
• Do something or create something that would affect everyone positively.
In your estimation, who has achieved that status? Who’s iconic in your opinion?