This article was originally published in the August 2017 Trenton Downtowner.
Rap artist Black Collar Biz — aka Byron Marshall — has a dream. It echoes through the Levitt Concert Series — where he performs Thursday, August 10 — bringing some strong energy to his native Trenton. And the dream echoes through his music and the hopes he expresses: He wants to be a good father to his young son and daughter, both of whom he co-parents with their mothers. And he wants to help restore Trenton to an earlier time when crime was minimal and the city was a destination for families and tourists alike.
“I think this city has a stigma on it, but I think if it had a night life, if there was a cafe open late, things could change. You gotta be yourself. Don’t be a follower,” says Marshall.
Rappers don’t choose their rap names, he points out. Audiences do. And Marshall feels rap is the most expressive way he has for musical expression.
“I’ve been called “Busy Bee’ ever since I was a kid,” he says. “Now I’m thinking of just calling myself ‘Collar.’”
One of three children born to a family that moved from home to home as his mother, Benita, worked three jobs, Marshall rattles off the names of Trenton streets and places where he once lived — Oak, West Rutherford, West State, the projects. With an older sister and a younger brother, he grew up in what he calls “a broken home in the city of Trenton,” but insists that both parents managed to be there for their children. “My dad (Byron Marshall Sr.) made sure he was there,” he says, even after both parents remarried, and both parents eventually moved to Pennington.
“So I like to say we had two sets of parents because the people my parents married were good people. I came from a broken home, but I had great parents. My stepmother, Hope Marshall, was a poet. I had an advantage as a kid despite where I came from.”
His mother’s membership in Trenton’s Greater Harvest Church led to Marshall’s gospel influences, so there is little surprise that the positive “Blessings on Blessings” is the rapper’s signature song. And he is not too proud to explore whichever jobs he can get to support his own children, daughter Rhylie Williams, who lives in Trenton with her mother, and son Rey, who lives with his mother in the city. Marshall co-parents his children, working at places like Amazon and Isles to pay the bills. He is also currently working on a new album called “A Penny for Your Thoughts.”
People who were there still talk about Marshall’s performance at the 2013 Art All Night, where he offered a 40-minute set that included “Let Me Be Great,” “Can I Kick It,” and “Lack of Soul.” A demonstration of his raw talent and the diversity of his influences — gospel, blues, hip hop, R&B, and soul — the performance was a launching pad that served him well when he joined artist Will “Kasso” Condry, founder of Trenton’s S.A.G.E. Coalition, a nonprofit consisting of artists, volunteers, and others devoted to beautifying inner cities through public art.
By 2012 they helped create the Trenton Atelier and the rapper’s audience grew. A year later Marshall worked with a new band — The Blackout Kings — and his Art All Night performance solidified his growing reputation as a local master of ceremony and performer.
An easygoing conversationalist with realistic goals, he is not hoping for a career as a rap mogul dripping gold bracelets. “If I can make a teacher’s salary making music, doing what I love, then I am good,” he says in his online biography.
At age 34, Marshall acknowledges that he is “no whippersnapper” in the world of rap, even with some singles to his credit. What is important to him, he says, is restoring Trenton to its former glory.
And that includes events like the free Levitt Concert Series running on Thursday nights in Mill Hill Park in Trenton. The series combining national and regional music talents continues as follows:
- August 3: Steppin’ Stones from South Carolina and Trenton’s legendary Paul Plumeri and his Blues Band.
- August 10: The Boston-based funk band Bad Rabbits and Black Collar Biz (aka Byron Marshall).
- August 17: The Big Mean Sound Machine from Ithaca and Philadelphia’s Chalk & the Beige Americans.
- August 24: The Weeklings and the Groovy Movies.
- August 31: The New Jersey Capital Philharmonic series finale.