My father died when I was four years old. Throughout my life, I’ve struggled with feelings of abandonment, detachment, and hurt.
Gerard Williams, AKA The HipHopGamer, was two years old when he was left on a doorstop by his mother. “It made me feel like I was such a bad kid that my mother didn’t even want me,” he said. “I felt like, ‘if your own mother didn’t want you, then you ain’t nothing.’”
I grew up White and Jewish in Boca Raton, Florida. Gerard grew up Black and Christian in Brooklyn. And somehow, across all spectra of systemic identifiers, we came together in a moment of kinship to talk about something undeniably human: gaming.
“The belief in myself came from playing video games,” he said. “Gaming is power.”
Beyond The HipHopGamer’s (HHG’s) energetic exterior is a kind, introspective man grounded in a desire to give. I was fortunate enough to talk with the driven creator about bettering ourselves, bettering our communities, and the regenerative, formative power of gaming. I left the conversation changed.
“Hey, what’s going on, my man! It’s Jake, right? What’s going on, bro? One love and God bless.”
I was immediately struck by HHG. In a time so divisive, so repressive, with distrust and apathy buried in every booby-trapped news update, HHG’s connective, active energy instantly seemed to rise above it all. He continued, “I’m always blessed, man, I’m always great, yo. Everything is amazing. You know what I’m saying?”
I didn’t know what HHG was saying; looking from the outside in, he seemed anything but “blessed.” Abandoned by his mom at the age of two, HHG explains, “It did a lot to me, y’know, when I was younger. It made me more grateful to my grandmother for staying, but I didn’t feel good about myself as a person… I came out of somebody that I could never touch.” On top of that, he grew up in ‘80s and ‘90s Brooklyn, a place which HHG loves, but recognizes for its hardship. “[I had to look out for] The things that come along in the hood, you know, the racism with cops and stuff, people hating on you if you’re trying to do good, or the crack house on the corner. All the stuff that comes with low-income areas, poverty— just with that situation.”
But still, HHG is blessed. His radiant energy speaks for itself, and he contributes to that energy with the love he bears for his grandmother, affectionately named “The HipHopGranny.” He credits her for giving him an escape. “My grandmother, she’s the person who taught me how to play video games when I was four years old… From when I was a kid, all the way up to now… My grandmother shaped everything that led me to where I’m at today,” he beams.
After his grandmother introduced him to gaming, a new world opened up. He reflects, “During the process of processing all of that at a young age, gaming— especially playing Super Mario Bros., Streets of Rage, NBA Jam, Mortal Kombat, all these games— it gave me a sense of power. It gave me a sense of control. It gave me a sense of, ‘there’s more to life because I have my escape…’ Gaming became my life.”
Soon after discovering gaming, HHG found his next great love: hip hop. He soon paired the two as joint outlets to reclaim his individuality in an oppressive system. He professes, “Hip hop and games dealt with the same scrutiny, yet gave us power. In video games, it’s interactive entertainment, it gives you the ability to control something, and us as humans, we always want something that we can control, whether major or minor. A sense of responsibility to say that ‘this is ours, this is mine, and I can do something with it.’ And the same thing with hip-hop. Your voice… Your voice is power.”
From a deep love and respect for hip hop and video games, Gerard Williams not only found himself, he became a version of himself so real no one could separate him from his passion. He became The HipHopGamer.
HHG would go on to work his way up in the industry, doing his time in a mailroom and posting homemade videos to Youtube before being invited to E3, collaborating with other creators, and beginning his tenure on New York’s #1 hip hop radio station, Hot97. But the biggest challenge HHG has faced has had nothing to do with his upbringing or work ethic and everything to do with the color of his skin.
“People don’t like the truth if it doesn’t… If it doesn’t support what they’re trying to accomplish,” he explains. He goes on to describe how people have taken one look at him and thought, “He’s not professional, he’s reckless, he’s too loud. Some people would be like, ‘Look at him and look at us. He doesn’t belong here.’” He continues, “You know, I’ve had people tell me this, like for real for real… I’ve lived this.”
Racism in the gaming industry extends far beyond how people in convention rooms and executive suites treat one Black man: it’s rooted in the entire capitalistic esports infrastructure. HHG proffers this example: “If you look at Call of Duty, Call of Duty is the face of gaming… On the front cover of Call of Duty, every single cover, has been a White man.” He points out that even in games with customizable characterization like Cyberpunk 2077 or Immortals Fenix Rising, games where you can “Change the skin tone and make [the character] look Black,” it still comes down to “The marketing dollars in the box art.” Because 67% of consumers in the esports industry are White, they “represent the entire spending power of the gaming industry.” These economic decisions catalyze social direction which leaves HHG and others like him facing scrutiny that they “don’t belong.”
But rather than crumple under the pressure of that constant systemic racism, HHG does everything in his power to fight on. He explains, “I don’t get an opportunity to take my skin off and then put it back on… I deal with it 24/7. Forever. At the end of the day, I understand things more than anybody else because I’ve been through it. And because I’ve been through it, I don’t want other people to go through it. I’m willing to take every hit, sacrifice everything, if it means change for the better of everybody else.”
In his special The Bird Revelation, comedian Dave Chappelle explains that “The end of apartheid should have been a f—ing bloodbath by any metric in human history, and it wasn’t. The only reason it wasn’t is because Desmond Tutu and [Nelson] Mandela and all these guys figured out that if a system is corrupt, then the people who adhere to the system, and are incentivized by that system, are not criminals. They are victims. The system itself must be tried.”
HHG understands that to change the systems at play regarding racial prejudice in America, there is nothing more important than a collective voice made up of all sorts of individuals. He explains, “I’m not looking at it from a standpoint of just Black and just White, because it’s not about that. It’s about who you are as a person.” He furthers that he’s friends with people across all strata of society, including celebrities, the down-on-their-luck, and law enforcement.
“Law enforcement, that’s interesting,” I add.
“Yeah!” he responds. “Do I got friends in law enforcement? Of course I do. Wanna know why? Because you’d be surprised at who you could learn from, and you’d be surprised at what you could change the closer you get to the people that you need to work with to create that change.”
Whether or not you’re in a position to connect with others, HHG emphasizes the importance of strengthening your own voice. “When you give negativity your energy, especially over positivity, you’re a part of the problem you wish didn’t exist,” he says. He fights the wear-and-tear of everyday life with stubborn optimism. “That’s how my daily life is. I’m always happy, I’m always hyped, I’m always excited. No matter what’s going on in the world… I’m going to always bring what I want to see in it to it. Period.”
I let this comment sit for a few seconds. “Yeah, I could definitely use some more of that.”
We shared a laugh.
“I gotchu, bro!”
And he doesn’t just have my back; HHG contributes to grassroots communities from the ground-up, and he does it through gaming. He explains, “My grandmother used [gaming] as a tool to bring me closer to what my goal was in life overall, which is to not just be successful in terms of financial stuff or whatever whatever, but to be a great person and to have something to give. To give back. So, what gaming gave me, and what my grandmother gave me through gaming, is what I want to give back.”
He accomplishes these herculean feats of giving with the help of his program, Gaming & Guidance. Gaming & Guidance has four prongs, each of which uses gaming as a tool to jumpstart conversation and spark engagement in students and the larger community. The first prong sees HHG and his team traveling directly to schools for a 90-minute-long assembly featuring a competition, prizes, and, most notably, a panel discussion. HHG explains that “The panel discussion is non-traditional because we actually have the kids telling us how they feel about stuff, giving them the opportunity to speak without judgment. And then, we provide guidance to try to help them so they can understand what they’re talking about and what they want to do.
The second prong is Checkpoint, which takes a different approach. Rather than visiting schools, “With Checkpoint, we actually visit people’s houses, we’ll go to the projects… And we’ll sit and talk with families, get them started in gaming and have real conversations about how things can be better. So it’s not just about them coming to us, but we go to them.”
In the third prong, the virtual version, HHG and his team use scenes from gaming to introduce all-too-familiar real-life scenarios. For example, “If you look at Mafia 3, starring Lincoln Clay… If he’s walking down the block, you’ll see a white lady clench her purse and walk across the street… If you play the game and walk into certain areas, they won’t serve you food.” After these scenes play for the group, the issues they raise are addressed in conversation.
Finally, in One Community, HHG and his team bring everyone together— “The cops, the elderly, the teenagers—” and pose hypothetical situations to the group. Individuals in the group then move to different parts of the room to signify their responses, letting participants see firsthand how people from other rungs of society would react in the same situation. The craziest thing about this exercise, as HHG explains, is seeing preconceptions evaporate into thin air.
“Let’s say this kid from the hood, he don’t rock with cops, you know what I’m saying? ‘Cuz he calls cops the ‘ops,’ that’s how he talks about it in the hood… Whoever is going against you or is your oppressor, they’re the ‘ops.’”
“But when you go to the group and see this cop is in the same group as you, it’s like, ‘oh, shoot. You would do the same thing that I would do.’”
As our hour-plus-long conversation started wrapping up, HHG was nothing but gracious. “Pleasure’s all mine,” he said. “Jake, I appreciate you, and on that note, man, I’ll talk to you soon. You got my number; lock me in. Don’t be a stranger. You’re a friend.”
Still, he had one more point he wanted to get across:
“Whatever you decide to do with this particular interview, however it goes out or whatever it is, what I would hope for is that this interview could be a teaching tool for other people… on not just me, but [on] how to be impactful in any industry that they love.”
We hung up, and I thought, “Of course that would be his last quote.” Because though The HipHopGamer is only one person, the values he nurtures and communities he inspires seem infinite. Out of the bleakest circumstances, he’s found a love and compassion so radiant, it’s almost blinding. “It’s about Who. You. Are,” I remember him telling me. “The way you look on the outside, you was born that way, fine. But just ‘cuz you was born that way doesn’t mean that’s who you are. And that’s— that’s the difference.”
These are words HHG wants everyone to hear, and they crown him an undisputed truth-teller, a leader, and a man of the people. But those words go a step farther, too; they put power back in the player’s hands. The same way The HipHopGranny gifted HHG with a game console, forever illuminating his path, HHG has gifted us the idea of our lives as choice. It’s up to us to be who we were always meant to be, and the path ahead is bright.
I finally get what HHG told me. We’re all blessed. “For real for real.”