COLUMBIA - It’s 8:30 p.m. on the second Monday of September, and Willy-Mo is here, at the Blue Note, along with the four other members of Fa Sho Entertainment. The rap group is opening for Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
A few minutes later, and the group is on stage, rapping, swaying and dancing.
Willy-Mo wears an “FSE” shirt and baggy black jeans. A Cincinnati Reds hat covers his eyes and a large diamond cross dangles from his neck. He flaunts a wad of cash for one song, his cell phone for another. A third instructs the crowd to “party like a rock star.”
“When I rap I can tell a whole story in like five minutes,” he says. “It’s just something that flows.”
Willy-Mo raps with the same intensity that he plays football with as a junior safety for the Missouri Tigers. He raps hard and hits harder. He looks mean and plays meaner. His presence is overpowering.
“He’s real aggressive,” says Leo Lyons, an MU basketball player and member of the rap group.
But this is just one side of a complex person who has been shaped by his past. To learn who William Moore is, you have to get past the pads and the rap clothes and the nickname. You have to travel 300 miles south of Columbia.
It’s the opening weekend of the football season, and MU clings to a late six-point lead against Illinois. The Illini are driving to score the go-ahead touchdown. Then, on third-and-7, Willy-Mo comes out of nowhere and dives headfirst into the turf to make an interception. The fans go wild, and the Tigers win by six.
Hayti (hay-TIE), a small town of barely 3,200, is located in the heart of the Bootheel in southeast Missouri. It is a town decimated by poverty and fragmented by a racial divide that tore apart the city during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
There are no movie theaters or ice skating rinks here. Entertainment comes in the form of fast food joints, church, and Friday night lights. If you want a good job, you have to drive 30 miles to Blytheville, Ark., or Dyersburg, Tenn., and pray that someone is hiring so you don’t have to come back and work at a factory or McDonald’s.
But that all meant nothing to Moore when he was a child. He was too busy running around the house, doing flips on the carpet and banging on desks, chairs, tables — anything that made a sound. His mom, Marilyn Moore, worried he was sick.
“He was real hyper, so I took him to the doctor,” she says. “They thought about giving him some pills, but I said, ‘Nah. Let him do what he’s got to do. If he wants to do flips and beat on stuff, let him do it.’ And that’s what I did.”
Moore began playing Pee Wee football when he was in elementary school. By the time he reached 6th grade, his love for music had equaled his passion for the pigskin. That year he received a percussion machine for his birthday and he played it so much that his mom quickly regretted buying it.
“He was very happy,” Marilyn says. “He never put it down.”
But Moore was also growing up. When he became a teenager, the music couldn’t shield him any longer. He began learning, wondering, questioning. Why are we living like this? Why don’t the police like us? Why aren’t there more opportunities for African-Americans?
He wasn’t getting answers, so he looked for them himself. He went from hyper to rowdy. He began to hang out with the wrong crew. He got into trouble. He was getting sucked up.
“Momma, do you want me to do bad?” he asked one day.
“No,” she said. “I want you to do good.”
She sent him to a boys’ home .
It’s noon on the MU campus. Students walk to class when their heads suddenly jerk up as a car drives south on Ninth Street past Chipotle. The sound blaring from its bass reverberates past Jesse Hall, but the students hardly notice. They’re too busy staring at the car.
It is a Pontiac Bonneville, but they’d never know from looking at it. It’s painted black and gold and has brand-new 22-inch rims. The windows are tinted and two Mizzou decals are plastered to the sides of the doors. The students look on and wonder, Who the heck is that?
Then they see the name written below the decals, and they know.
Watching Willy-Mo as he raps, you wouldn’t believe that he’s a self-proclaimed granny’s boy or a director of his church choir. You wouldn’t believe that he is seen as a hero to the children back in Hayti or that he used to cover his mouth with his hand when he laughed because he was too embarrassed of his smile.
“He’s a down-to-earth dude,” Lyons says. “A lot of people don’t know that because they see him as a football player. Everybody looks at him as this mean dude, but he’s not.”
When Marilyn talks about her son, her voice fills with pride. She separated from Moore’s father when Moore was a baby. Marilyn and her mother, whom Moore refers to as “Big Momma,” raised him by themselves. While Marilyn was out picking apples or working at the cotton factory to feed her family, Big Momma took care of the children.
When Moore left the boys’ home, he immediately ran back to Marilyn and Big Momma. He stayed away from the bad influences that used to tempt him and began focusing on school, football and music.
“Believe me, the boys’ home did him good,” Marilyn says. “He never went to jail. Never in his life.”
He joined the football team when he entered high school. He also joined the marching band. Turns out, he was one heck of a tuba player.
When there was a game, he would shed his jersey during halftime and change into his marching uniform. Then, exhausted and sweaty, he would run back onto the field still wearing his football pants and shoulder pads as he blasted his tuba.
“I loved band,” he says. “My band instructor always told me if I didn’t get a scholarship in football, I would have gotten one for band.”
Moore never had to worry about that. His football talents were too great. He earned all-state honors as a receiver and defensive back at Hayti. Schools like Purdue, Mississippi and Arkansas took crash-courses in Bootheel geography to come see him play.
It was a wasted effort. Moore had been a Tiger fan all his life.
Memorial Stadium is rocking. The Tigers just scored a touchdown on their opening drive against Nebraska, and 70,000 gold-clad fans cheer hysterically as the Huskers’ offense walks onto the field. On Nebraska’s second play, quarterback Sam Keller dumps a short pass to running back Marlon Lucky. He never has a chance. Before he can run up field, he is pile-drived into the ground by Willy-Mo. A collective “Ooooh” escapes from the crowd. The Tigers hold the Huskers to six points, and Willy-Mo finishes the game with eight tackles.
Exactly two weeks after the show at the Blue Note, Moore finishes a late-night photo shoot on the top level of Hitt Street Parking Garage. His car shines under the dimmed lights. A policewoman takes a cigarette break in the southwest corner of the garage. The sky is open; Jesse Hall and Memorial Union glow in the distance.
Moore leans against his car. He talks about his stellar year on the field, the big-name artists he has opened for, and the CD he and Lyons just completed.
“We’ve been working on this CD for a long time,” he says. “This is the biggest one yet.”
He talks about Hayti, about how he made something out of nothing and how the unanswered questions he had as a teenager provide the fuel for his music. Then he takes a long look at his car. His back stiffens.
“There’s a lot of people who judge me off of how I look,” he says. “But there’s more to me than what you see it.”
The subject shifts to his tuba, and his back relaxes. A giant smile races across his face. He doesn’t even think to cover it.