As one walks alongside Willy Gonza, he or she will notice his 6-foot-1 stature, his hazel-green eyes, milky white skin, and stunning red beard. One will notice his smile which rests at the corners of his mouth, and creeps upward causing his eyes to squint and forehead to crease. One may also notice a snapback with a slightly curved brim resting upon his head.
His white t-shirts are normally adorned with a colorful graphic on the front. He walks rather leisurely, looking forward as he speaks and glancing occasionally in the direction of whom he is speaking with for reassurance. His appearance and demeanor seemingly contradict what he is – a rapper.
Willy Gonza is a North Bergen native of Cuban descent. As a child, he was always interested in artistic expression through music but was never quite sure how he would do so.
“I grew up just loving music so I always wanted to do something, but at a young age, my dad told me ‘You can’t sing’ so I never got into singing. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know anything else existed,” said Gonza.
He was exposed to a variety of music genres, mostly soft rock from the 60s, 70s, and 80s that his father would play in their home. It wasn’t until he heard Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” that he decided he wanted to become a rapper.
“I was about 10 years old when I heard that song, when it first dropped, and I was like holy crap, what is this?” said Gonza as his shoulders tightened, physically reminiscing about the moment. “I used to go in the mirror and pretend I was rapping.”
This introduction to rap music triggered a desire in Gonza to learn more about the genre. He then began listening to artists such as 50 Cent and Ja Rule. He later began listening to 90s rap music by artists like the Wu-Tang Clan.
“I tried rapping when I was young, in grammar school, but it didn’t turn out well because I was made fun of because you know, I’m a white kid with red hair.”
Gonza’s parents did not take his rap career seriously at first but later warmed up to the idea as he began recording music and making mixtapes.
“I put out one song…and it was terrible. It was a Ransom remix. This was my senior year of high school, about 2010, and everyone started making fun of me,” Gonza said as his head lowered in recalling his embarrassment.
The constant taunts from detractors only made him push harder toward his dream. It was then that he realized how much work he would have to put into his craft.
“That motivated me to want to pursue it more and make something that was undeniable. I’m the type of person that if you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it and ten times better than you expected,” said Gonza.
Last March, Gonza performed for the first time. It was an open mic event hosted by a friend of his friend in Gutenberg, New Jersey, a small town surrounded by North Bergen. This open mic event was open to the community and his friend said he would have to perform a song free of cursing and drug or sex references, factors that are very common in mainstream rap music.
“A good amount of my songs mention paraphernalia,” said Gonza. “I cleaned up a few of my songs and performed this song called ‘Pink Ribbon’. It’s a song about cancer. It’s not direct. The whole song is a big analogy. I got a standing ovation. I got mad followers on Twitter from that.”
Since March, Gonza has performed 18 times in front of different crowds, some of whom are still not accustomed to seeing a white rapper. At one show, he felt very nervous as he stared into a sea of unfamiliar, blank faces who were shocked by his presence.
“I guess they were like why is he here?” he laughed, “But I just started rapping and after that, they were rocking with me.”
Many people who meet Gonza do not assume he raps and when he says he does, they assume that he is probably not very good at it.
“I went to a show I was performing at and I walked in and the guy says ’Ten dollars’ and tell him that I’m Willy Gonza, one of the artists performing tonight. He says ‘You are?’ and I say yes.”
Daniel Sullivan, Gonza’s videographer and graphic designer, who has known him since 2009, recalls a moment when Gonza opened up for the legendary 90s rap duo M.O.P.
“A majority of the crowd were those old school hip hop heads. Willy got on stage with little to no crowd reaction,” said Sullivan.
Gonza performed a song called The Heist off his latest mixtape Humble Beginnings and the audiences reaction quickly changed.
“The crowd started rockin’ and you can tell no one expected it from this white boy with red hair. It was wild.”
A student at Hudson Community College, Gonza has a lot on his plate as far as music, work, and grades go. As with any person who juggles multiple tasks, he gives himself ample time to do everything while focusing mostly on his first love – his music.
“It’s all about balance,” said Gonza. “You make yourself a schedule whether it’s actually written down or a mental one. For me, it’s mental because I don’t have time to write anything down.”
As someone who has faced his fair share of criticism in the realm of rap music, Gonza realizes that it is important to uplift young kids who have a dream rather than discourage them.
“If I had listened to everybody growing up, I would not be where I am now. If a little kid comes to me and says he wants to rap, no matter how bad he is, I’m going to tell him to keep doing it because I know how it feels. I’ve been there.”
Check out Willy Gonza’s song “Shut It Down” below!