As a young kid, Russell McGee Jr. listened to rap and dreamed of one day becoming a rapper himself. Born in 1984, the only rap music he knew was what was happening at the time — hardcore gangster rap of the '90s and early 2000s with rhymes about selling drugs, shooting people and robbing.
Only thing was, McGee, who goes by the stage name Genesis the Greykid, did none of those things.
"I was never a gangster," he says. "I didn't sell drugs or shoot people."
So when a friend and mentor suggested almost a decade ago that he only write about things he was familiar with, it was a cathartic and liberating concept. A poet before he decided to put rhymes and lyrics to music, Genesis says a whole new world opened for him. Suddenly, trees, homeless people, relationships, love, personal struggles, observations on things happening around him, politics — basically anything and everything — became potential topics.
"It gave me a sense of authority," he says. "I could rap about anything as long as it was really the truth."
Since that conversation, Genesis, who has lived in Chattanooga since 2006, has released a half dozen music videos, three albums of music — "Grey Skies," "Grey Skies 2" and "Grey Skies 3" — and several poetry collections, including the latest and largest book, the just-released "Words in Grey."
He also spent time ghostwriting rap songs for other people while living and working in New York. He didn't care for the work because, not only was he writing about someone else's life, he was often writing lyrics — mostly gangster-type stuff — that weren't true.
When writing poetry, Genesis says he almost never rewrites or edits his work. He prefers to capture the moment and trust in it. It's different when he's writing a song, he says, especially if he's writing for someone else. For those, he might change a word or a line to reflect what the artists have told him they'd like to convey.
While in New York, he hooked up with directors/producers/cinematographers Coodie & Chike at Creative Control TV, where they shot Genesis' video for the song "Here We Are." The creative experience of working with others inspired him to help other creative types find their voices. He started conducting poetry workshops and writing sessions and also started seriously considering ways to dedicate his full efforts to being a poet/musician/artist, in that order. He made the decision to move to Chattanooga and started conducting workshops.
Genesis' father was in the military, so the family moved around a lot. In fact, though he was born in Chattanooga, the family moved to Florida three days after he was born. They moved from base to base all over the world, returning to Chattanooga to visit family on holidays and in the summers, which helped give him a sense of the place and a desire to one day move here full-time.
"I've been all over, but Chattanooga is one of my favorite cities," he says. "I love what has happened here in the last few years."
Since moving here, he has devoted himself to creative endeavors, many in his studio at the Fancy Rhino offices in the Loveman's Building downtown. Soundcorp Executive Director Stratton Tingle attended one of Genesis' seminars "on a whim because I had heard about them" and was inspired enough to attend several more. Soundcorp is a new organization created to promote and build the local music scene.
"I had no idea what I was getting into, and pretty quickly he had me writing and reciting a poem in front of people, which is not something I'm comfortable with," Tingle says. "He stretched me in ways I'm not familiar with. I was pretty immediately struck by his creativity."
Tingle says he and Genesis have become friends since that first seminar.
"Every time we hang out, it ends up being a creative and positive experience," Tingle says. "I have a ton of respect for all the work he's doing."
Genesis at one time had a studio on Glass Street and loved the vibe and the authenticity of being in a part of town that is trying to rebuild itself. But when a young man was shot and killed right outside the back door, it was a little too real, he says.
Early on, he paid the bills by working at Earthworks, a surveying and engineering company, supplementing his income by selling the occasional song or poem. More and more, however, he was thinking about taking the big jump and, after being encouraged by a friend, he quit his day job.
"I made $150 [selling his poems] in the first nine months," he says. "It was rough. I was couch surfing and doing whatever I could, but once you see what the bottom can look like, you get comfortable. And once I made that $150 from something I created, it felt great."
These days, you'll often find Genesis in his studio, leading a poetry-writing class or seminar or walking all over town. He's the skinny guy under the dark gray trilby brim, the hat that goes everywhere with him. In a recent meeting at a coffee shop, he also brought a brown paper bag that serves as his briefcase.
"I walk everywhere," he says. "I love how the nature and the city merge together. I've walked so far there aren't streetlights anymore."
Those walks help him think and see things both real and imagined.
"I love art and people and beautiful ideas. I love exploring, and I love what I do."
Contact Barry Courter at email@example.com or 423-757-6354.