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Former Oak Park wrestling star Gabe Townsell releases first album

Gabe Townsell, a three-time state placer, has moved on to the real world after competing for four seasons at Stanford and qualifying for three NCAA tournaments.

Former Oak Park-River Forest and Stanford wrestler Gabe Townsell released a rap album, “Behind the Curtain,” recently.
Former Oak Park-River Forest and Stanford wrestler Gabe Townsell released a rap album, “Behind the Curtain,” recently.
Provided by Gabe Townsell

This is what Gabe Townsell has been working toward.

The former Oak Park-River Forest wrestler, a three-time state placer, has moved on to the real world after competing for four seasons at Stanford and qualifying for three NCAA tournaments.

Townsell is still a wrestler, planning to train and compete at least through the next Olympics cycle in Paris in 2024. But he also is diving headfirst into his other passion: music. Townsell, who raps as VII, recently dropped the most ambitious project of a musical career that began in high school: an album called “Behind the Curtain.”

Though he usually juggles a variety of projects, this one has been in the works for two years.

“I wanted to make an album as honest as it was theatrical,” Townsell said.

The honesty comes from being open about the pain he has grown up with.

“I had a dream that I was washing my hands,” he said. “I had blood all over my hands. No matter how hard I scrubbed, I could not get the blood off my hands. That’s how I felt about 2019 as a whole.”

That year, as he was juggling sports and studies at one of the top academic schools in the country, Townsell lost 13 friends — including seven to gun violence.

One obstacle to Townsell putting out more music was removed when his college wrestling days came to an end.

“I couldn’t promote it (competing) in the NCAA,” he said. “I’ve finished my NCAA career at this point. I wanted to take a stab at creating a studio album to the best of my ability.”

Getting that music right hasn’t always been easy.

“I’m absolutely a perfectionist,” Townsell said. “I’ve been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I’ve been told to make them work for me. They won’t go away.”

Gabe Townsell (top) pins down Hinsdale Central’s Brett Dougherty during their 113-pound match in 2012.
Gabe Townsell (top) pins down Hinsdale Central’s Brett Dougherty during their 113-pound match in 2012.
Sun-Times Media

Even after the album was done, there were hurdles to clear. The album initially was rejected by Apple Music because of what Townsell was told was “a one-in-a-million” technical glitch on a song called “Anxious.”

“The song that I called ‘Anxious’ was the one that made me the most anxious,” Townsell said. “If that’s not an indication of the metaphysical journey this is, I don’t know what is.”

In any case, the 16-song album is out (though without “Anxious”) and available on major streaming services. Townsell is happy with the finished product and he’s ready to move on to promoting it and working on his other passions.

One is wrestling itself. Townsell is training at Izzy Style in Addison and Push Wrestling in Naperville, and working to increase opportunities for athletes like himself through the Black Wrestling Association, which he co-founded.

Racial justice also has been a touchstone for Townsell’s music for years. An early song referenced the fatal shooting of a Black man, Alton Sterling, by Baton Rouge police officers in 2016.

“That as an incident fell into a pattern I’ve been aware of for a lot of my life,” Townsell said.

Oak Park coach Paul Collins isn’t surprised by Townsell’s growth, either on the mat or as a performer.

“He was like that when I first met him in eighth grade,” Collins said. “All he’s done is grown. He’s become more intelligent, more grateful, more thoughtful.”

“He’s a young man, now an adult, you would want your son or daughter to be around to learn from.”

Townsell hasn’t forgotten his roots, growing up in North Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side. He wants to be a role model for city kids, showing them that wrestling can be a path to a college education. And he has come back as an alum, to talk to the kids who followed in his footsteps with Oak Park’s Spoken Word Club.

“I think we have an amount of momentum we haven’t had in the past,” Townsell said. “If we don’t capitalize on that momentum, we can lose it very quickly. Nothing is as important as the fact that I’m keeping moving.”