He was on the last six songs of his LP. Six damn songs and he would finish a yearlong endeavor under his new moniker, Buffalo Black. But shit always picks the most inopportune time to hit the fan. First his beloved grandparents died. Then his father experienced financial hardships. As if couldn't get worse, Jamil Kelley lost his job soon after. It became too much for the young Kelley to handle, so he moved out of his parents' house in Redbird, and traveled around the metroplex, crashing on couches and making the drive to Allen every day to record, where more than 80 percent of the record would be completed at a friend's house.
"There were times where sacrifice to achieve a dream took precedent, and my dream at the time was to record my album," he says.
Sometimes the couches wouldn't come through. Kelley would seek refuge at various homeless shelters, sometimes worse.
"I ventured to different areas in the city to help capture the creative direction I wanted to go," he says. "As I would travel, I started to identify with the vagabond mentality, like a character in a Kurosawa or Sergio Leone film, The Man With No Name, the nameless samurai. These guys drifted to the beat of their drums to realize themselves and that's what I did ... to the point of near homelessness."
Kelley originally recorded as Jmil Kly while a student at UNT studying philosophy. He could record when needed in his apartment with his roommate. He released three albums while garnering praise as one of the city's most talented MCs, but a stretch of financial hardships, and introspective solace, forced him to drop out and move back in with his folks, while also giving birth to a new identity, Buffalo Black.
"Buffalo Black struck me as a name you'd see someone roam the West with a hundred or so years ago," he says. "And the films that inspired the vision were Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars."
Part of the new identity involved Kelley wearing a mask onstage, as he did during his performance at last month's April Foolin' show, organized by fellow MC, -topic. The mask, resembling a cross between the masks of Kato and Ozymandias from The Watchmen, covers Kelley's eyes and was specially designed for him. It features "traditional Venetian designs but with an olive and dragon crown," as Kelley describes it.
"The mask signifies a kid with no name, just as Clint Eastwood signified the man with no name with the fedora and poncho. It's an image that sticks with you and represents a fleshing out into something more," he says.
Kelley would use Buffalo Black not just as a moniker, but to connect with others sharing the same struggle.
"Buffalo Black was the sum expression of a kid with nowhere to go but forward," he says. "I hope people see that they can manifest anything they want in this world if they find refuge in a positive outlet."
Searching for that outlet nearly pushed Kelley to the brink.
"I almost quit at a point where it got really hard for me to find places to record and I nearly lost the will to finish," he said. "I stayed at a few friends' houses for a short periods of time, probably totaling a couple weeks altogether. And food came when it did. I managed to eat by doing odd jobs until I returned home."
What kept Kelley going was achieving his dream of making music, and providing for his parents.
"My family was experiencing hardships with their respective careers," he says. "My mom was left with the mortgage of our grandparents so times were hard. Couple that with other variables and there were nights we didn't know if we'd make it." Kelley's writing for the LP became his manifesto.
"I couldn't live home at times because the environment was blocking my creativity and I would go to different homeless shelters if I couldn't crash at a friend's house," he said. "We were broke and I personally couldn't stay in there anymore for personal and fiscal reasons, until I felt like coming back."
So Kelley hit the grind, putting all of his chips into a new image, LP and state of mind. "Some of us feel worthless without possessions, but I felt large, strong and worthy," he said. "I felt like I had it all and everything to give, and that's what the LP is, a juxtaposition of inner and external struggle."
Kelley executive-produced the entire LP, and produced "Initiation," "Bad," while splitting production duties on "Someone" and "Staircase." For the rest of the LP's sounds, Kelley reached out to producers from the East Coast, including Mustapha, Mattron and Moy.
It wasn't long after the LP was fully recorded that Kelley began to see money come from his hard work.
"Selling copies and commissioning beats made an upswing in revenue, when people started hearing the album," he says. In the words of Jay-Z, "You can't knock the hustle." And that's exactly what Kelley did. "I've found a stable source of income just by hustling alone, by selling beats and CDs in the streets."
Kelley found a part-time job serving at a restaurant, and commutes to downtown Dallas as often as possible, selling his LP in the streets and at barbershops for $5 a copy. "What turned it around is me sticking my shoes in the dirt and grinding," he says. Recently, Kelley has moved back in with his parents, making enough to help contribute to the household bills while focusing on upcoming projects as Buffalo Black, such as a monthly comic series surrounding the Buffalo Black character as well as a new project titled Red Pill Wonderland, with features from Paris from A.Dd+ and others abroad. Wherever Kelley ends up in the local music scene and beyond, it will be because of the work ethic formed during the most turbulent, and unpredictable period of his life.
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"I was experiencing loss from my grandparents, where I would find myself in deep lengths of depression," he says. "It became immense to overcome at times. After I finished Boy King EP [as Jmil Kly], I was at a stage in my life where I realized that music was my sole refuge, my rite of passage to understanding myself in relation to everyone else. So forging the Buffalo Black LP was something of a necessary step, it was the link I needed to expand on who I am."
Find out more about Buffalo Black at his Bandcamp. List to The Buffalo Black LP below.