Story by CARRIE STETLER / Photos by SAED HINDASH
His little brothers had been in the basement with the dogs for about a month when Rahfeal Gordon was sent down there, too.
Most of the time, their dad was easier on Rahfeal because he managed to stay out of trouble.
But one day, when Rahfeal (pronounced RAH-fee-al) was 15, he had failed to come up with money for the electric bill. His father beat him before shoving him downstairs with his three siblings.
The dogs in the basement weren't vicious, but it was no place for anyone to live. There was no heat, so they used to stay warm by sleeping on the clothes dryer.
It was one of the few times during his childhood that Rahfeal and his brothers had a home. Their mom, long struggling with crack addiction, had recently left for good.
For years, she and her four boys drifted in and out of homeless shelters in Newark. There were days she never picked them up from school and they had to sleep on park benches. Rahfeal's dad once abandoned him at a crack house.
His life is filled with stories like these. But few people heard them when he was growing up.
On music and a prayer
Throughout his nightmarish childhood -- with three younger brothers to watch -- he acted like nothing was wrong. He didn't let them see the small Bible he carried with him everywhere.
Despite hopping from school to school, Gordon graduated from Arts High School in Newark, finding solace in music and prayer. He formed an event planning company called Infinite Productions, and now he's a senior at Montclair State University with his own apartment in Hillside.
"People thought that I was raised in a healthy family. People didn't think I struggled," says Gordon, who recently turned 25. "But now I want to let people know. I want to be a poster child for those who were less fortunate. I made it and so can you. I knew I was better than where I was at."
As a motivational speaker, his message is simple.
"Your location isn't your destination," says Gordon.
It's the motto of his performance, "Hip Hop Saved My Life."
On stage at local high schools, colleges like Juilliard and venues like the Hard Rock Cafe, Gordon shares his story, which is filled with lines from hip-hop lyrics.
One of his favorites is "Juicy" by the Notorious B.I.G.
You know very well
who you are
don't let 'em hold you down
reach for the stars.
Hip-hop gave him encouragement when no one else would.
"You don't have to live a thug life to be hip-hop," he tells audiences. "You can be yourself, help others and still be hip-hop."
His two youngest brothers, Alfonso and Isaiah, made a different choice.
They found a home on the streets, dropping out of school by ninth grade. Alfonso, a drug dealer, was murdered two years ago at 19, gunned down in Irvington. Isaiah, 19, was jailed on drug and weapons charges in October.
Another brother, Janvier, followed Rahfeal's footsteps and is about to graduate from Delaware State University with a degree in accounting.
Like Rahfeal, he feels a heavy sense of guilt and responsibility for his brothers' fates.
"We had to carry them, especially Rahfeal because he was the oldest," says Janvier, who is 23. "We understood more. They just felt the pain. What happened to Alfonso, I know it hurts Rahfeal a whole lot, but he hides it sometimes because he doesn't want me to know. When he thinks I'm not looking, he has so much pain in his face."
Until Gordon was about 8 years old, life was good.
His parents were together. They didn't do drugs. The family lived in the Prince Street projects in Newark. His dad had a job as a mechanic. They were doing well enough to have Friday night dinners at Pizza Hut. It's one of Rahfeal favorite childhood memories.
They were getting by.
Then his father became heavily addicted to crack. His mother's addiction soon followed. She and her sons bounced among relatives and often ended up in shelters.
With no one to depend on but himself, Gordon was determined to show his potential to anyone who would notice. For him, it was a survival instinct.
"I definitely felt like I had to stand out. Like, 'Hey, I'm here. I'm really doing something.' I had to stand out," he says. "When you're raised the way I was, you think, 'I need to make people notice me.'"
He hid the truth about his situation.
"You would never have known he had this horrible background," says Tommy Jones, a childhood friend from Newark who is now an accountant in Virginia. "I was one of the only ones that knew what was going on. He just tried to blank it all out of his head and pretend that it didn't exist."
When Gordon felt ashamed, he would repeat a verse from the bible:
The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
It reminded him that, in heaven, things would be different.
No matter where he lived, he tried to attend church. At 13, he walked an hour every Sunday to Hopewell Baptist Church in Newark.
"I had one suit, and that's what I'd wear," says Gordon, who now belongs to Calvary Baptist Church in Garfield.