Introducing : Gro Neg Apparel
By Moise Michel
I had the pleasure of interviewing a great friend of mine who is also the founder of this fantastic Caribbean apparel brand called Gro Neg; which also happens to be his nickname. Rod aka Gro Neg was born in Haiti, and came to the U.S. at a young age never dreaming or imagining he would become an apparel designer. He founded the brand back in 2008 to little fanfare, but in recent years it's notoriety has been picking up steam in Caribbean communities statewide as well as in the islands. Now he's trying to crossover to American markets with a very strong marketing push to create even greater exposure for his brand. I finally got a chance to sit down with him and talk in depth about GRO NEG!!!
Q: What inspired you to create your brand?
A: When I was young and was learning about my Haitian history I gained more and more confidence and pride. When I would go to events I would mostly see the (Haitian) flag and a few Neg Maron tees or almost none. But I had these visions of bringing something new and different to the scene. It's weird because I'm not an artist or even know how to draw. Just always had these crazy ideas. So over the years I kept trying these different looks.
Q: What made you use the Neg Maron as your logo? Also who were the Neg Marons?
A: Neg Marons were runaway slaves (I try not to use the word slave because they were really kidnapped people or even prisoners of war); words are very powerful I think that's why most people don't embrace Neg Maron or even the Haitian history. The word Slave is very demeaning to folks in the Caribbean. When you hear the European version of the Haitian Revolution, they're looked at as the victim. People avoid talking about certain aspects of the revolution because they know it's frowned upon. It's like black people aren't suppose to fight back. When Europeans do it it's ok because they portray themselves as heroic. It's sad when someone else writes your history. I've even had friends that said Neg maron were just slaves not heroes. The power of words and understanding their true history. I always had the utmost respect and love for Neg Maron because I know they gave their lives for the freedom of others. So I was very happy when I was able to create the Gro Neg logo with Neg Maron in it.
Q: Why is it a Caribbean brand?
A: Anyone can wear Gro Neg Apparel, it's not just for Haitians. Haiti stood up for human rights and freedom not just for Haiti. We even helped Latin America and the US gain their freedom (a la Louisiana Purchase). Same way the USA's military goes around promoting that they’re fighting for human rights now. What's the difference??? A few years back I was in Jamaica and I came across a wall painting with these figures that resembled Neg Maron. They were called the Maroons. I quickly googled their story and realized they were the Neg Maron of Jamaica called the Maroons fighting the same struggle. My ancestors even had a maroon fight alongside them, he was named Boukman. I also learned about Queen Nanny the leader of the Maroons. It made me realize how deep the story is and how they were all fighting the same system. It's crazy to me when you hear conscious singers such as Luck Mervil "Renmen Ayiti" ("I Love Haiti) Ti Manno, Bob Marley, Buju Bonton, Sizzla Kolange and etc. Doesn't matter the language but they're all singing about the same struggle we face. The same exact struggle.
Q: Where does the name Gro-Neg derives from?
A: Gro Neg name is funny because when I was in high school I started working out and my friends use to call me Big guy/man and even people in the gym because I had big biceps. It was never a nick name. Plus my Haitian friend would call me Gro Neg here and there. So when I did my first logo I used the Neg Maron statue calling it Gro Neg because I felt that it made more sense.
Q: Why did you choose to name your brand with the name Gro-Neg?
A: Continuing from last question. When I created my brand. The name Gro Neg was always in the back of my mind. No other name came up. Plus other brands were already using Neg Maron so I was like "screw it, Gro Neg it is" funny thing is I had a few Haitians give me grief about the spelling. They were like I should spell it with the "W" Gwo. I was like the W doesn't go with my design so screw it.
Q: What's your end goal with your brand?
A: My goal is for people to understand the meaning behind the logo and name. Neg maron were soldiers, warriors and freedom fighters that went to battle to free us. Most people remember Toussaint L'ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessaline as the leaders who lead my ancestors to their freedom. I want to bring more recognition to Neg Maron warriors. It's crazy to me how American troops and soldiers are honored and respected but Neg Maron are the same thing and deserve the same respect & honor. I know people see the uniform on soldiers but see Neg maron as a runaway slave. We need to change that outlook.
Q: How do you intend to inspire folks with your brand?
A: Gro Neg is really the state of mind. It's not about size. It's having the heart of a lion and the mindset that anything is possible. Same way Toussaint and Neg Marons believed in themselves. I also created Fanm Maron for the females. We did have women fighters that most of us don't recognize. Let's just say a Haitian Harriet Tubman.
Q: How has the process been in building your brand?
A: Man with every business everyday is a fight. I'm taking a route most don't want to take. Our Haitian culture gravitates to the red and blue so much that most brands stick to that color and the flag. I'm choosing a new route. Plus my logo is new and different. Some don't even see the Neg Maron in the logo. I gave up a few years back because of this; But I did build a small fan base and they kept telling me that I had something very special with my brand and not to give up. I really appreciated the encouragement I was receiving. I thought to myself why was I playing around and about to give up on my brand. Soon enough I realized nothing comes easy and made a comeback.