Willis Gordon on using his voice for change, shares his Stark County favorites

·6 min read

You could just as easily find Willis Gordon singing onstage with a guitar in his hand as you could find him in a comedy club, veterans hall or in a room full of community leaders.

Known for always being impeccably dressed, Gordon, 32, has been engaging a wide variety of audiences for years, whether it’s to entertain, to motivate or to seek change.

He started with music.

Gordon grew up singing in the choir of Canton churches and men’s choruses. He received his first check at about age 10 when he sang as part of the chorus for the “Porgy and Bess” production at the Canton Palace Theatre.

“Music is everywhere when you’re a kid, and some people gravitate toward it and some don’t. And I just did,” said Gordon, who taught himself how to play the guitar as a teenager.

He found that music transcends age, race and economic status.

“Music is a universal language,” he said. “… You can make people feel things or you can express years’ worth of pain or joy or sorrow or regret or hope that it’s taken you your entire life to feel those feelings. … Sometimes the right notes strung together or the right turn of phrase or the right lyric or the right note when you are singing can elicit emotion from someone else and create a connection with other people. That is something I don’t think you can do with words or deed or anything else.”

As a student at GlenOak High School, Gordon began branching out beyond music. He took up comedy, describing himself as a second-string class clown whose stand-up performances were more impression-based.

He also got involved in politics. In 2004, he began getting involved in local and state campaign committees and spent that summer in Chicago with his cousins working for Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign. When Obama announced his run for president, Gordon immediately volunteered to help the local campaign effort.

During his senior year in 2008, Gordon took first place in original oratory at the Ohio High School Speech League State Tournament and followed that by authoring a book called “The Long Road Home” that was a collection of stories about loss, sin and redemption.

Months after his high school graduation, Gordon put his local projects on hold and left to serve in the U.S. Navy, where he was twice deployed over four years. He served aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise and earned the Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal, National Service Medal and Afghanistan Campaign Medal.

Gordon starts Willis Gordon Enterprises

Gordon picked up where he left off when he returned home in 2012, returning to music, comedy and writing first.

He founded Willis Gordon Enterprises in August 2015 to formally bring all his creative outlets together: He had authored a second book, “The Empty Boulevards,” that was published in 2012 and was writing a blog, opinion pieces and political commentary. He created the Willis Gordon Band and was handling the band’s bookings, recordings and set playlists. He and another comedian teamed with BLU Jazz+ in Akron to begin hosting “Cure for the Blu’s,” a weekly comedy showcase that attracted a diverse audience including Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders.

And he was getting ready to jump into another project where he would write, produce and host a YouTube discussion show about finding solutions to our community’s problems without getting stuck on our differences. The show, under the name “Impolite Conversation,” aired in 2016.

He soon also got back into politics, organizing events such as the “Rock The Block” voter registration and education concert in 2016 and serving as a field organizer for Ken Harbaugh’s congressional campaign in 2018.

Gordon said growing up in a home with a father who immigrated from Guyana in 1979 and a mother who grew up in Kentucky during the Jim Crow era gave him the perspective to see how far society has come and the motivation to help it continue to progress. The death of his 28-year-old brother, who was shot and killed in Cleveland in 2007, also showed him the fragility of life.

“Politics is life. That is what it really is,” Gordon said. “… When you see something that is wrong, you want to see what you can do to help.”

In 2018, Gordon joined the Stark County NAACP board.

As the board’s political chairman, he launched get-out-the-vote campaigns and worked with local and national political figures. He added press and public relations chairman and community outreach chairman the following year, often serving as the public face of the local board.

He worked with Canton City leaders in the summer of 2020 to bring Canton into compliance with the “8 Can’t Wait” policy standards promoted by a national police reform organization called Campaign Zero. The eight policies include requirements for officers to de-escalate a situation, use all alternatives before shooting and give a warning before shooting.

In December 2021, Gordon joined the executive board of the Ohio NAACP, serving as the board’s veterans affairs chairman.

As chairman, he is responsible for ensuring that veteran issues are taken care of across the state with a focus on veterans of color, as well as raising awareness for the veterans programs that are available and helping to raise the profile of veteran-

owned businesses.

“I’m making sure that if there are any problems that they are taken care of,” Gordon said. “I would be the one able to go to bat for them.”

Gordon operates the Stark County Sheriff’s concealed handgun license office in Massillon as his day job.

Willis Gordon shares his local favorites

Favorite local theater: “I’ve performed on three continents and the Canton Palace Theatre is still a top-five venue for me anywhere in the world. It’s absolutely gorgeous. For content and shows? The Player’s Guild Theatre does an unbelievable job showcasing our local talent.”

Favorite lunch spot: “I know the beer is incredible, but the menu at Sandy Springs (Brewing Co.) is outstanding. Andy and Amanda do an incredible job out there, and they are truly genuine and lovely people.”

Most admired local CEO or business owner: Tony Ly, owner of Basil Asian Bistro in Canton, Wooster and Hamilton and Sushi Katsu in Akron and Lucca Downtown in Canton.

“Tony Ly is constantly expanding his businesses, serving quality food and taking good care of his people. That’s not always a given for business owners. He’s a prime example that you can be successful while being decent.”

Favorite thing to do: “Walking around our fantastic downtown (Canton) area, popping into bars and restaurants and barbershops and catching up with everyone! There’s always something to do or a conversation to strike up.”

Favorite restaurant: “Irie Island (Jamaican Restaurant) never misses. Ever.”

Favorite local spot to grab a drink: “The 410 Lounge has an incredible tequila selection and makes the best cocktails in town. If you’re just looking to grab a beer, you can’t go wrong at George’s Lounge.”

Favorite local coffee shop: “The Still House at Gervasi has great coffee, but their cigar area puts them over the top for me.”

Favorite entertainment spot: “It’s gotta be the Palace, with the Auricle close behind.”

Favorite volunteer opportunity: “I think anything you can do with Project Rebuild or TomTod Ideas is more than worth your time. Investing in our kids here in Canton is always a great idea.”

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Wills Gordon talks music, comedy and working with the NAACP