The Block Beat multimedia series is a collaboration with The TRiiBE that roots Chicago musicians in places and neighborhoods that matter to them.
Herbert Wright III, better known as rapper G Herbo, didn't ask to be born to the ghetto. No child ever does. Only someone looking in from the outside would try to glamorize that life—someone who doesn't walk around wearing a target that won't come off. Raised in the east-side hood known as "Terror Town," Wright remembers being about eight years old the first time he saw someone killed in front of him. His mother was there too, and they didn't say a word to each other. Despite his age, no one ever stepped in to suggest counseling for him.
"I never heard of anyone that gets therapy. Like, who gets therapy?" says Wright. "If you was white and you saw a murder when you was eight, you probably would have been in therapy for, like, four years."
Wright, now 22, has grown up to be Chicago's street-rap messiah, speaking to the inequality and injustice faced by the black community with a prophetic fervor that can recall Tupac's. But outside his music, he doesn't have those hard edges: he's warm, funny, and down-to-earth. Last month the Triibe met him at the shuttered Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville, where he sat on a folding chair in a hot classroom and reminisced about some of the happier days in his childhood.
Wright says he was a "talkative bad boy," and he still has a bit of the class clown in him. But he didn't have many chances to just be a kid. The only place he could go where trouble wouldn't find him was the Rebecca K. Crown Youth Center in South Shore, not quite six miles from Overton. After school, he and his friends could get warm meals and sometimes free clothes at the center. He went on CYC field trips to Six Flags Great America—a big deal for a kid from an east-side family without means, who would've had trouble making the 40-plus-mile trip to Gurnee. In the summers he hooped in the center's basketball league with his best friend, Fazon Robinson—who became the namesake of Wright's debut mixtape, 2014's Welcome to Fazoland, after he was shot and killed in 2010.
"I won my first MVP trophy there playing basketball. I'll never forget," Wright says. "I was probably ten or 11 years old. That was the best feeling in the world. I'm playing on a team with Fazon—people that's years older than me. I wasn't even the best player on the team. I was just playing my heart out."
Wright wants to help other black youth in Chicago create good memories, like the ones he cherishes from Crown. That impulse is what brought him to Overton in the first place. It's one of the 50 public schools closed by Rahm Emanuel in 2013, and Wright is working with Joseph "JB" Bowden and Mikkey Halsted—his mentors and managers at Machine Entertainment Group—as part of a project that will revitalize the two buildings on its four-and-a-half-acre campus.
- G Herbo on the campus of Anthony Overton Elementary, with the school’s former Child Parent Center in the background
Bowden, 44, is partners with real estate heavyweight Ghian Foreman (also president of the Chicago Police Board) in the Washington Park Development Group, which bought Overton in 2014. Foreman is spearheading the redevelopment of the main school building, and for now he's keeping mum about his plans. But the Machine folks are driving the work on the Anthony Overton Child Parent Center, a smaller structure on the far side of the school's parking lot, and they're willing to talk: by late spring or early summer 2019 they hope to have the Child Parent Center serving the community again, this time as a tech incubator and multimedia center. And Wright is more than just a figurehead attached to the project to win over black youth—he's contributing a percentage of the money he makes at his shows, including those on the tour that will bring him to Joliet in November.
Wright's team envisions the single-story building at 4935 S. Indiana as housing music studios, offices, audio and video editing suites, and merchandising, booking, and management services for musicians—a sort of buffet of things record labels usually provide, from which artists can buy what they need. It will also offer free programs for kids, apprenticing them to professionals and training them in a variety of skills: music production, graphic design, audio editing. The ultimate goal is to steer them into jobs.
Bowden hopes the businesses will make enough money to support the free programs, so that they can be self-sustaining instead of relying on grants. "That allows this to stay here forever," he says. "Not like how they decide to cut this budget and this budget and all of your funding is gone and this goes to shit."
Wright knows firsthand how important a multimedia center could be to young people. "When we give the kids this, it's what will really make the difference," he says. "Having somebody that you feel cares about you could be the difference in saving a lot of these young kids' lives."
- G Herbo and a young boy shoot around in the gym next to Overton Elementary.
When Wright was 13, cuts to the After School Matters budget prompted Chicago Youth Centers to shut down the basketball program he was in at Crown. Nothing like the proposed Overton incubator existed for him, and he had nowhere else to go. "I couldn't go to my grandma house and mother house, because people were literally trying to kill me that used to hang on their blocks," he says.
Wright took to the streets, and gangbanging became his new pastime. "The stuff y'all look at us like outlaws for, gambling, that's how we have fun," he says. "We might shoot dice and come up on $20. That's how we finna eat for the whole week." When Robinson, then 18, was killed in 2010—the result of a fight with a friend over a dice game—Wright was just 14 and still in eighth grade.
The closure of the CYC basketball program left Wright to survive in an environment that offered little to no opportunities for black youth. "When we was going to the center, we weren't getting shot at," he says.
By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Wright had begun to earn a reputation as an offbeat rapper—one who used his words and his guerrilla-style YouTube videos to paint vivid pictures of life in his Chicago hood. Around that time, he was shot in the leg while out with his friend Marvin Carr, aka rapper Capo of Chief Keef's Glo Gang. Though Carr wasn't hurt in that incident, in July 2015 he would be killed in an apparent drive-by.
In summer 2012, Wright released his breakthrough track, "Kill Shit," collaborating with rapper Lil Bibby, a friend he'd met at Crown. He became an overnight Chicago sensation, and by the time he turned 17 that October, he'd dropped out of school. But he didn't make up his mind to leave gang life till two friends—rappers Armani and Young Hustle—introduced him to Bowden. The older man took Wright under his wing and helped him realize that his talent could get him off the streets. Wright also met Foreman, who's been a friend of Bowden's for ten years. And because Halsted was looking for Wright, hoping to work with him, he ran into Bowden—leading to the formation of Machine Entertainment Group.
- G Herbo in front of Overton Elementary
Wright knows how lucky he's been. "I had people like JB who wanted to see me win. I was really people's favorite rapper, and I was out here risking my life every day," he says. "I had to really take the time to myself and say, aight, this is gon' be the difference if I really make it or not. I can't be in the streets no more. I had to lose friends. I had to lose a lot of stuff. That was one of the toughest things I've ever did in my life."
Unfortunately, leaving the streets isn't just a question of changing your own life. "You gotta commit sins just to take care of your mother, your father, your sister, your little brother. And then you got people trying to kill you for that," Wright explains. "Then you're like, 'Fuck it. I don't even want to do this shit no more. I'm about to get a nine-to-five.' They still gon' try to kill you. You done gave the streets away and everything, but the streets don't forgive and they don't forget."
In February of this year, Wright was arrested for aggravated unlawful use of a loaded weapon (though the arrest report doesn't accuse him of firing or even brandishing it). Two of his subsequent Chicago shows—the WGCI Takeover Jam in March and a concert at the Vic in April—were canceled at least partly in response to Chicago police advisories citing security concerns.
- G Herbo on the Overton campus with Machine Entertainment Group principals Mikkey Halsted (left) and Joseph “JB” Bowden
Bowden understands why Wright had that gun—when he was Wright's age, he says, growing up in Englewood, he carried weapons to protect himself. "He's a very smart, intelligent kid," Bowden says. "Will he make mistakes? Absolutely. But it's our job to all get together and put our arms around him and protect him. Other than that, they'll railroad him. They'll have him sitting in jail."
That's why Bowden is so passionate about building the multimedia facility on Overton's campus. He believes that if more black youth have access to mentors and entrepreneurs, people who look like them and take the time to nurture their talents and interests, Chicago's black communities will thrive.
"The biggest problem with the violence in Chicago is most people never really go in and sit down with these kids. If you don't have no connection with these kids, they are not going to talk to you," Bowden says. "What I try and do for Herb and all the kids is bring their gifts out. Everybody wanna see these kids grow. It's not just Herb. We want to see all the kids grow."
He also wants Chicago's black youth to be able to grow here, where they came up. He knows that Wright has considered moving to a city where he'll feel safer from the fallout of his old life. "When he's out in LA, he walk around free," Bowden says. "He should be able to do the same stuff here. If we don't protect our youth, then we gon' lose the war. The war ain't with the old folks. We ain't got the legs to go all day, all night."
- Provided by Machine Entertainment Group
- A rendering of the proposed multimedia center
Through the Washington Park Development Group, Bowden and Foreman purchased the Overton property for $350,000 (though the Child Parent Center accounted for just $25,000 of the total). Right now, Bowden says, they're working to secure a zoning variance allowing commercial use for the plot where the multimedia facility will stand. He estimates it'll cost another million dollars in renovations to get the facility up and running.
"We're going in it with our money, with our sacrifice, and Herb is contributing money from his shows," Bowden says. "When he going out on tour, he got a certain percentage of his money because he wants it to go into the community."
For Wright, this project is a testament to his evolution as a man. On his latest studio album, this summer's Swervo (a collaboration with producer Southside), he talks about being a hero to kids—and understanding the responsibilities that come with having such an influential voice. Wright wants his music to reflect his struggle as a black youth on the east side, but he also hopes to teach the next generation how to make it off the streets like he did.
"When you a kid, you didn't ask to be born into this world. You have a clean slate," Wright says. "If you got a clean slate, why you gotta grow up in crack houses? Why you gotta grow up starving, not being able to do nothing, holes in your shoes on the first day of school?"
Now that the choice is open to him, Wright is determined to take a healing path. "Now all my life consists of is me trying to be a better man, be there for my son and provide for my mother and aunties, and show the youth that I was that, now I'm this. You can be this too." v