Living Black in Bloomington-Normal: Chadman James, aka 'Grill Billyenz' | WGLT

Living Black in Bloomington-Normal: Chadman James, aka 'Grill Billyenz'

Jun 28, 2020

Chadman James, a.k.a. Grill Billyenz (or Billy Yenz) is a 30-year-old budding hip-hop star and self-described all-around creative. The Normal native spoke with Jon Norton for the WGLT series Living Black in Bloomington-Normal. Contact us if you'd like to be featured in the series.

WGLT: At what point did you have an understanding that your skin color could be a problem for other people?

In terms of racism in Bloomington-Normal, I’ve always felt it in a very subtle way and you always have to question it. Like, did they really say that? I can recall a moment when me and (Uncle) Chris were walking to Windy City Wieners in Uptown Normal. We are coming around the corner right by Maggie’s (Maggie Miley’s) and people are outside, maybe a year-and-a-half or two years ago. Just me and him talking with one another and there was a white gentleman outside. He was slightly intoxicated but made a comment like, “oh here come the two Black guys. Watch out now.” I’m paraphrasing a little bit. But essentially that was the comment. If you were to speak to Chris, he could probably give it to you in a little bit more detail because I was kind of out of earshot. But he heard it and he stopped and addressed him … and let him know like “hey, look whatever you think, this is … it’s not. We’re not thugs, heathens, or however you’re seeing the situation, it’s not that, and let me just remind you of the fact that it’s not that.” He was shook. Because he had to check his privilege … his privilege got checked and the people he was with had to get him and back him off because it was like … why even make that comment? What was your reasoning? Sure, he was inebriated. What was the point? You could have just kept talking to your friends and let it be. What was the point? You felt threatened? You felt … you know what I mean? So, it’s like … why?

This story was published as part of WGLT's limited series Living Black In Bloomington-Normal. Find more at WGLT.org/LivingBlack.

You grew up in Bloomington-Normal.

Yes.

And that’s a different experience than growing up in Chicago or larger cities. What was it like growing up Black in Bloomington-Normal … a predominately white Town?

To be honest … I always describe it as kind of like a bubble. It’s like a Whoville. It’s Pleasantville ... like things are just kind of easy. Everything’s 15 minutes away ... not too much going on in terms of crime or you know, things like that to be honest. My childhood was great. I went to Metcalf … I had a variety of friends who were all different colors. You know, I learned all types of things in school … especially going to Metcalf. It just seemed like I was being exposed to more than just, okay, “I’m learning my ABCs, I’m learning …” You know, you’re learning about: you're Indian, I’m Black or your white and he’s Chinese like, okay, let’s talk about our differences. You know … what does your family bring and what do you bring to the table? So, it was a little bit more open. But then you did have those situations where, now we're getting older and people are starting to listen to music and it’s like, okay … well, you’ll listen to rap music and of course, they use the n-word. Now you’re getting friends who are “well they say it in the song so why is it a big deal?” Well because that’s not a word you use. I understand but just because you see a movie of people killing doesn’t mean you go kill. So, It’s kind of a similar way. It’s like okay … this word … especially that word. It’s like ... you know, we’re taking that back as a culture. So yeah, of course, were going to use it in some way. So, I was getting a lot of that. People being testy and wanting to say it and you get the “Nnnnn,” and we’re like “uh ah,” we’re not going down that road. So, again, checking people’s privilege.

High school was good. I didn’t have too many issues in high school, again … some subtle back-handed comments. Again, it was like my mom and cousins, uncles, and aunts who were kind of informing me these things are going to happen and be aware of them. So, then you get to college ... kind of similar stuff in terms of maybe even encountering police. My encounters with law enforcement … sure I’ve been profiled, you know, I’ve been followed, I’ve been looked at. But in terms of getting a chokehold and things like that … that was never necessarily the case, but you still feel, again, that subtle “you don’t like me, I know you don’t.” I can feel it. It’s the way you’re talking to me. You just feel … it’s always just a feeling that you get. It’s uncomfortable. But I think as Black people in America or anywhere who experienced racism ... to be honest ... you just learn how to stomach it.

I want to explore that.

Yeah.

You say you just have to stomach it. What does that do to a person?

You go through a lot of mental gymnastics of trying to figure things out. How to react to things … do you snap or do you just let things go? Do you educate people about these things right then and there … do you pull them off to the side? Like you’re having to try to navigate all that in a split second … and it’s hard. Because then when you snap and you’re aggressive about it, it’s “oh, they're acting just like I would think a Black person would act.” But then if you don’t do that, you’re being weak and you’re not, you know, standing up for your culture and for your people. So, it’s just like this weird Catch-22. So, do I just eat that, and if it comes up again, then I address it? Or do I just keep addressing that every time it happens? And even when you do … it … still … keeps … happening.

You answered that in a way I didn’t anticipate. It was like an intellectual decision that you have to make and I was thinking more of  … what does it do to you physically … emotionally … and how that wears on you? As you say, you have to stomach that. That has to have internal ramifications.

So, I just told my mom the other day, I was scrolling through Twitter and being on Facebook and watching these public lynching’s of Black men by police and had literally gotten to the point where I was like crying ... you are paralyzed. You don’t want to move. You don’t want to go to work. You don’t want to do anything some days because you’re just like … wow. The law doesn’t care for me, and it’s specifically designed for me to not succeed. The nation doesn’t care about me, again, because it’s designed to keep me down. The world doesn’t care about me. People in Germany are protesting about this … people in the UK … not just America. People in Mexico are doing this … so this is worldwide? Oh, so the world just doesn’t care about me at all. So, what’s the point? You get to that … I’m sure you can speak to about 95% of Black people and they would say “yeah, I thought about suicide. I thought about just calling it quits.” But on the flip side of that coin is like … that’s what the system wants. And yeah, you think about that … and it is that deep and it does feel that bad. Again, you have to muster up some kind of strength to be like, “my ancestors didn’t die for me to just kill myself or just end it all here.” You just got to play the game …. and you just stomach it, and you keep moving and you keep going, “wow, I’m still here.”

As you know the other day, I had a conversation with your Uncle Chris. And he wears glasses. And he said he has sort of learned he needs to make white people comfortable around him. And one of the ways he does that is he wears glasses intentionally. He says “it softens my look.”

While I understand that perspective, I come from the opposite end of the spectrum. Why do I have to cave-in so much to make you feel comfortable about being in the same space? You do something. Or, let’s neither one of us do anything and just talk and be who we are. Why do I have to soften the blow? So that’s the kind of stuff even my Mom would speak on and that’s what I mean about the games and the politics of this … having the mental gymnastics of having to go through all that in a span of five minutes or when you’re getting ready for work. Why? Because a white man wants to feel comfortable about being in a space together. Or because a white female feels threatened by the fact that I’m just existing. Why do I have to cave to make you feel comfortable? That sounds absurd to me.

You were talking about the conversations that you and your parents would have. Do you mind getting more specific about what they would tell you?

Right now, one of the biggest things that me and my mother talk about is life being a game. And essentially you have sometimes …. you just have to play the game in order to try to win or just try to be able to move forward. You learn that quick. I think that’s a big one. That’s a big conversation. I think that happens ... like look, there’s going to be stuff that you’re not going to want to do but you just got to do it. Like I was mentioning, code-switching … people don’t know what that is. It’s basically like me talking to you right now. That would be me code-switching because I’m not using Ebonics or any type of language that somebody else would not understand. This is something I have to do … It’s like how Dave Chappelle said it: Black people speak two languages. It’s like they speak Ebonics or 'job interview.' And a lot of times when I’m speaking with white people, that’s what I have to do. And that’s something that I and my parents have addressed on multiple occasions.

So, you’re talking to me a specific way because of who I am?

Correct.

You are doing that.

Yes, because I know the demographic of people who might hear this.

So, it’s not really for me per se, it’s the audience.

Kind of both. It’s like a mix of things. It’s for myself to know that I’m coming off how I want to be heard. It’s for the demographic to not feel like “he’s speaking in a way that is a little brash to me and I don’t like that, so I don’t want to hear it." It’s unfortunate to kind of have that train of thought, but that’s a real thing that a lot of Black people go through, and so you have to just be very cognizant of that and know that people are going to look at you a certain way … just based off the way you speak.

Have the events of the past few weeks changed that at all? Do you feel a change … in that you maybe can be more of who you are?

To be completely honest with you, I don’t know if in my lifetime I’m going to see the change that I would like to see. It’s hard for me to understand … how white people just don’t get it. Like having a group of white people who say, “I just don’t understand that this … this has been happening?” You don’t have to care about this. You don’t have to pay attention and all of a sudden it’s coming and you’re like, “oh man, I didn’t know.” How though? Even when you are in school, didn’t you learn about civil rights? Didn’t you learn about people having different perspectives? Aren’t you watching the news? I don’t care what station you’re watching; you’ve got to be watching something. You’ve got to be listening to something that’s telling you … like reading a book or scrolling on your phone to be like “wow, there’s a group of people that aren’t being treated well in America and that’s unfortunate?” I have so much hope that I would get to not always feel awkward about being out in public.

It does make me a little bit more comfortable being in my own skin knowing that there is a battle being fought. And it’s not quiet anymore. Not that it always has been, but sometimes it feels like it’s almost like … you’ll get a spike of “all right cops are killing a bunch of Black people.” And everyone’s like, “Oh, wow, that’s not good.” And then everyone forgets. Like this has been happening I’m sure since you were younger. My mom tells me about situations of having to step off the sidewalk in Mississippi when she was younger just so white people can pass. That’s my mom. That’s not a grandparent. That’s Mom. That’s my aunt that’s talking about stuff like that. And sure, there’s been a lot of progress. There’s always progress … you do see it, but it’s just so slow. But I’m scared that people are just going to let this dwindle away. That’s my biggest fear. I want white people to feel what this feels like … to just always be on constant “I might die tomorrow just because someone pulled me over,” or ”I walked into a Walmart and someone just started shooting because they saw someone Black around the corner with a BB gun.” Or “I wasn’t even doing anything. They shot me.” You think about that. It’s just the simple fact that it could happen. And all it’s based off is “your skin is brown. I feel threatened.”

We seem to be trying to have this conversation on race that everyone has been saying for a number of years … that we need to have a national conversation on race. You’re in charge of framing how were going to have this conversation. How would you frame it?

We need all the heads of the systems that are broken to really be the one to acknowledge the fact that these things are happening and listening to the people and making them realize … just making them realize this has a way stronger effect. There’s a lot of people living with trauma because of a lot of this. We need to fix that. White people have to own up to the idea that things have happened. And I’m not blaming you specifically … might not even be blaming your ancestors. But again, it’s like there was a system set in place and we need to address that system heavily all the time. I think that system needs to always be constantly re-evaluated to make sure things are done right and people are treated fairly.

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