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Black Sherif Is Chosen

By Sarah Osei on

Three weeks before we meet again on Zoom, I saw Black Sherif trying to leave a venue in Accra. Street kids engulfed him immediately. Blacko! Killa! Without hesitating, he stopped, hugged, took pictures, and laughed with them. The lanky, carefree 20-year-old from moments earlier turned into something greater, messianic almost, right before our eyes.

Now, Black Sherif is hunched in front of his manager’s laptop in Accra, apologizing for the wait, apologizing for the audio—which he’s just fixed. That’s Mohammed Ismail Sherif Kwaku Frimpong: wide-eyed, gracious, quick to grin. Black Sherif, he tells me, is someone else. “That’s an alter ego,” he confesses cheekily.

Most of us were introduced to Sherif in 2021, as the visceral teenager with something to say. His viral hit “First Sermon” was the first time he wielded his power as a voice for the youth, delivering soul-stirring street realities over a drill beat. I learn during our conversation that it’s his hard-knock upbringing, nomadic exposure to multiple influences, and his faith that made him embark on his musical mission: “I make art every day.”

Coming like a raging storm / Fasten up your belt,” Black Sherif warned us on “First Sermon.” And just like that, the world opened up for the kid from Konongo, Ghana. Just a year into his career, Black Sherif’s chant-worthy hooks and choruses have garnered over 100 million streams on Audiomack, topped TikTok and Shazam‘s ‘most viral’ lists, and been remixed by Burna Boy. His music is playing everywhere—from beauty influencers’ makeup tutorials to NBA All-Star games.

As with any breakout act, everyone’s eager to get a slice of the new phenomenon. In Sherif’s case, that comes with lessons that the industry is just as eager to congratulate you as it is to celebrate your losses. Earlier this year, following a signing to US-based distributor EMPIRE, local media coverage about Black Sherif was instead hogged by unsubstantiated industry rumors of shady business brought forth by an alleged ex-investor. Blacko had hit his first bump in the road to success, but instead of hitting the breaks, he only went harder and released the introspective single “Kwaku The Traveller,” the most-streamed song on Audiomack in 2022 across all genres.

For as ubiquitous as Black Sherif has been for the past year, Kwaku Frimpong had been laying low. “Of course I fucked up / Who never fuck up hands in the air,” his voice rings on “Kwaku The Traveller”’s viral hook. On the track, the university student and budding global music star gives us a full-blooded perspective of life in his shoes, trying to carry his duty with humility and love for the art. It’s a tall order, but I approach our interview with the goal of helping him finish what he started on “KTT;” to peel back that veil of superstardom and get to know the person behind the show. Fortunately for me, he is eager to share his story.

I think what everyone’s curious about is who you were before music. Can you tell me a bit about growing up in Konongo?

I grew up with my mom. I was like eight when I met my dad for the first time because he lived overseas. But I always knew he was there because he was sending me gifts and stuff. I was in grade three when I saw my dad for the first time. He stayed for two weeks before he had to go back. And two years later, my mom joined him.

So I was 10 and I went to live with my auntie, then with my auntie’s friends, and so on. I was moving, just moving all the time. So I got introduced to different cultures and lifestyles early. I wasn’t home a lot. I lived my life outside with my mind in the hood. I used to be a homebody before I was 10 years old. But then my mom left. I was just outside after that.

What were you like as a kid?

Yo, I was always performing! When I got on the streets, started hanging with the kids in the hood, I started dancing and skating, doing bike freestyles, stuff like that.

In high school, my thing was dancing. I think I was the craziest dancer in my class. But that’s also how I started failing my papers. I used to be a brilliant student before, but when I got to high school, my mind wasn’t there. I just didn’t know where my life was going. I couldn’t focus on my books. I wasn’t interested in school no more.

So when did you discover your gift?

In high school, we used to make beats on tables and do rap competitions. I only used to beat the tables—I wasn’t rapping. But one time, I just wrote four lines and when I rapped it went crazy. I saw how my mates responded, so I went back to my dormitory and started writing full songs. From there my mind was always on music. I was writing for over a year before I started dropping actual freestyles.

Was that a defining factor for your move to Accra as a teen?

Moving to Accra, I had to play my mom. I’m not proud of it. Because after high school, after your final exam, you need to buy university forms. That money for the forms, I took it. I knew I wasn’t ready for university. I wanted to rap.

So when I left Konongo, I had my plans already. I had to be in school in a few weeks and I knew I had no admission, nothing. So I started executing my plans, telling my mom, “They didn’t take me for this school, this school isn’t admitting, nah this school didn’t get back to me.”

Then, “They all declined. I’ll go to school next year. Let me take that break, a one-year break.” This was 2019. So I had one year to make music work…

When I look at you now, you seem so focused. You’ve got this successful career, you’re going to university at the same time. Now you’re telling me these stories about being on the streets, skipping school. How did you make the shift?

It was crazy, man. I used to be that guy with the innocent speech ready. But my mom always knew about my life. My family knew I was a stubborn guy so when they heard that I left home, that I’m in Accra with the boys, they weren’t surprised, just hoping I’m good. Because they knew, “No, Sherif won’t stay home. Never.”

I had love for music. I wanted it. I just had to give up everything for it because I knew it would give me something in return. If it wasn’t for music, I wouldn’t be anywhere.

What made you so certain to bet everything on music?

I just liked my songs so much. I believed in the art I was creating. Like when I’m playing my songs to somebody, I’m not like, “Hey, do you like this?” Nah! I say, “Bro, this song is fire! You need to hear this!” I fell in love with what I was doing. There was no other way [than to] grow that love.

So, you’ve bought yourself a year to make it happen in music—it usually takes people years. Then you drop “First Sermon” and everything changes. Tell me about that time in your life.

So this was in 2020. I already had three or four songs out. “First Sermon” was just a rough freestyle that we made in the studio after a session. I went home and was listening back to it and it was hitting me so hard. So, I called my producer, like, “[Samsney], I think you should mix this thing and let’s put it out.”

We did that and we dropped a one-minute clip on socials, just to tease it. People loved it. We dropped the full song and video and everything went crazy after that. I knew the whole time there was a second Sermon coming. I hadn’t written it yet, but I had more to say and I knew it’s gonna be a real big banger when I drop the next one.

In your two Sermons, you’re talking about that hunger and drive to make it. “Kwaku The Traveller” has a very different energy—you seem to be dealing with new challenges.

I think the songs I write in the morning are softer. Because I wrote this in the morning. I was just walking past Joker’s room—I live with my producer, [Joker Nharna]. He was making a beat, so I go into his room and start writing. It happened in that small moment. I was just reflecting. I didn’t want to rap about just anything. Nah, let me be real and talk to the people.

The song dropped at a very important time, too. This year was your first time dealing with industry rumors and politics in public. In moments like that, what grounds you?

I write songs. That’s it. I make songs every day, from everything that happens, positive or negative. People need to understand: Don’t play with me or I’ll turn you to a song right now.

In my head, I have an alter ego who is very dramatic. So, I write songs in that voice. On a normal day, I’m a very calm and collected person. Something small could happen in real life and I’m just chill. But when I’m writing, I’ll put it all out there, and exaggerate it. I wanna make you feel like you’re in my shoes, with my expressions, tears in my eyes. I give you all of that through my alter ego.

The last time I saw you, we were on the street in Accra and all the kids surrounded you. Everyone was showing love. Everywhere you go, people know you, they want to take pictures, and speak to you. What does that feel like?

I love it. It gets tiring sometimes, but I love it for them. Because I know how they feel. When you listen to and love music and then you see the person in real life… I let them have that moment.

How are you going to make sure that you don’t lose yourself in the fame?

Try, that’s the word for me. I’m just gonna keep trying to be me.

I don’t really listen to industry advice. I try to talk to my mom and dad a lot. Because trust me, I’ve not been around for long, but I’ve been around long enough to see how stuff goes and how people move. So it just all comes down to love and peace and protecting yourself, protecting your space.

The last time we spoke, you mentioned not wanting to be seen as just a rapper, or a drill artist, because a lot of people don’t know you’re actually a singer, too. Is that still something you feel like you have to prove?

Yeah. Most of the songs that are coming this summer, I’m singing. Of course, I’m also rapping but I’m singing more. The songs coming out this summer… people aren’t ready.

One of my favorite features in recent years is your verse on “Always” by Darkoo. Your cadence on that is incredible.

[Black Sherif singing] You’ve been on my mind, I no fit left you now / You and I know I deserve some love / On the road like forty days from now, steady trapping, wallet-chasing now…

Live and direct from Accra! Everyone must be wanting to get in the studio with you now. How are you deciding who you give that time to?

I trust me. I trust my timing. The work will always go on, but with music, the timing has got to be right…

And I’m learning. I’ve learned that some songs are right for English and some are better in Twi. But I know if I drop a track right now somebody will pick it up and not understand, like, “Why he dey rap English now?” I get it, everything I do organically is a risk. I think it’s God, [that’s] why I’ve got this clarity in everything I do. Allah and the mandem. That’s all I need.

There are a lot of exciting things coming your way, a lot of things you’re waiting to share. What are you the most excited about?

The LP. Because I’m putting so much love, energy, my everything into it. I’m making a conscious effort to put myself into the album. Normally, the only time I listen to my songs is when they’re not out. After I drop them I can’t hear them anymore. But with this album, I want to be there, pick it up and listen to it when it drops. I just want to feel that, so I can’t wait to see what this whole body [of work] comes out looking like.

Then there’s boring stuff like doing interviews, right? How do you feel about all the work that comes with being an artist?

[It’s] funny, in my normal life, before I ever got in the studio to record my first song, sometimes I would question myself like I was in an interview. That’s how much I love the music stuff. I’ve been preparing, even before I had a song. Walking around every time pretending like I’m getting interviewed.

You represent a lot and you seem to be aware of that. Many people see themselves in you. For the kids who relate to your dream and are inspired by what you’re doing, what would you tell them about the journey so far?

I send them love, first. And encourage them to spread the word. When I knew I loved music, I wanted to talk to my mom and dad about it. But with my parents, or African parents, you have to show them something. And there was no one that I could point to and tell my mom, “You see this person? He’s from this kind of background too, but look what he did.

With me doing music there were religious issues, too. Being a Muslim and picking music as a profession, that’s not the culture and I had a lot of problems because of that. So, I want to be that guy for the younger ones to point at and say, “At least we’ve got Blacko. Kwaku did this, Sherif did this, so I can do it, too.”

Creative Director/Producer:@MaxwellAdjavonWords: @jollofmami223Photographer: @thefiifiabbanStyling: @WizkojoStyling Assistant: @ovafashion_4stylingMake Up Artist: @Judahsmakeover_Director: @MaxwellAdjavonDOP: @Kwesi_GloverBTS Photographer: @pxceriaProduction Agency: @Studioimullar

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