Gary Black is frustrated. The 33-year-old rapper has lived in Overtown almost his entire life and hates that Miami's most historic black neighborhood has a bad reputation. Black admits he has seen Overtown at its worst. He grew up in the '90s, when drugs and crime ravaged the streets. But he says the bigger story, the one of the black American dream, is rarely told.
"There's a stigma that everyone in this neighborhood does drugs or that we don't care about our future and don't get along," Black says. "No one talks about all the talent in Overtown, how supportive we are of each other and this community. I'm proud I'm from here."
After all, it was Overtown that molded Black's lyrical prowess. He had survived hard times, battled racist stereotypes, and even served in the military before returning home to concentrate on his music. Under the stage name Hound da God, Black has released more than eight albums. His most recent, Niggodz, comes out at the end of this month. Through Black's experiences, its 13 tracks highlight the accomplishments emerging from black communities against all odds.
"I called it Niggodz to reclaim the derogatory slur and evolve it to empower others on their self and history," Black says. "The term originates from Negus, an Ethiopian ruler. We have to be aware of the strength of our ancestors."
His music calls for self-education and taps into a growing hip-hop genre aiming to inspire and elevate others. By day, Black works as a security guard at the University of Miami to pay the bills, but he spends his nights working till dawn, brainstorming and jotting down lyrics in his notebook.
"I don't really sleep," he shrugs. "I operate functionally on two hours. I don't need it."
Black says he's always been like that. Born in Dade City, he moved with his mother, father, and two younger sisters to Overtown in 1986 when he was 4. His childhood was rife with conflict; he hasn't spoken to his dad and one of his sisters in decades. But life only got worse. Not long after the family moved to Miami, he and his mother were in a horrific car accident. Black was pronounced dead on the scene and later revived. Afterward, he was prone to debilitating seizures. One was so bad that Black fell off his bike and into a coma for six months. He was 8. When he awoke, he had to repeat the second grade.
After that, the seizures stopped. And sleep was optional, he says. It's not insomnia either. At night, his eyelids don't droop. Instead, he's invigorated and ready to hone in on his work. "I write all through the night," he says. "And I read everything I can get my hands on. I like novels. I just finished Kaffir Boy. It's about a young kid in apartheid South Africa."
He sang in the choir in school and learned to play the trumpet and drums. English and history were his favorite subjects, but drawing and writing poetry were his true passions. Black has been scribbling in his notebook since childhood.
"I was writing how I just felt about things and maybe if I thought a girl was cute. I was a pretty shy kid."
Since the coma, his mother has been overprotective. She has always been supportive of his music but thought it was a phase. "Like when I told her I wanted to be an astronaut," he jokes.
It wasn't a phase. At Booker T. Washington Senior High, Black and other students would throw rap battles in the courtyard. Growing up in Overtown, he'd meet other musicians, like Fudakochi Narcisse, a soulternative artist, and Dank, another rapper who still works with Black today. Friends began calling him "Hound" because he would hound other rappers to perform with him or offer criticism.
"We'd follow some of the older guys and hang out with them," Black recalls. "They'd listen and tell me: 'You got talent.'?"
After graduating from high school, Black enlisted in the Navy. He spent the next five and a half years as a plane captain working in Virginia Beach. He met people from all over. "It gives you a broader perspective and that what goes down in your community doesn't happen everywhere," he says.
Even in the Navy, Black couldn't stop rapping. Working on an aircraft carrier was emotionally grueling — he witnessed a friend's decapitation in an accident involving a helicopter and watched a colleague thrown limp across the ship's deck by a plane propeller. Black slinked into his music to cope. On good days, he even competed in battles with bunkmates.
In 2004, Black returned to Overtown. He released six albums over the next six years. He didn't have money to hire a producer and instead wrote over others' beats. He released Nation's Nightmare in 2010. That year, he also produced a music video for his single "Gun Play," a track about police brutality in Overtown.
Despite the initial buzz, the album wasn't profitable, and Black moved to Central Florida for college. He studied music business.
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After graduating, he was more dedicated to his music than ever. He listened to the criticism from his earlier songs. "They said I sounded too angry or monotone, that I wanted to hurt you," Black says. "That wasn't it at all. I wanted people to listen, to feel something important. No one was listening."
Now he believes they are. Black has released three albums since 2014. He hired a producer and even sells merchandise like hats and T-shirts through a company he founded, Ghetto Geekz. He's branching out and trying to write children's books and develop videogames. "Last year I felt like I got it, that I found my lane and niche."
Breaking out in Miami is especially difficult, he says. When he has performed in other cities, like Atlanta and Tallahassee, he has received immediate praise; promoters have asked him to extend his trips to perform more. "Miami is a party city that's obsessed with EDM," he says. "I can't expect clubgoers to stop what they're doing and listen to my tracks. It's a different vibe here."
Yet Black doesn't think he'll leave Overtown anytime soon. To him, it's home. Even if that means keeping a day job.