When I spoke to Ghanian rapper Black Sherif in May, he was attempting to make an artistic leap with the new music video for his hit song “Kwaku the Traveller.” Taking some shots from Polo G’s “RAPSTAR” video, it’s a banger and an example of the types of visuals and U.K. drill-inspired anthems that have made him so popular on TikTok, and why his star appears to be on the rise all over the globe.
“Growing up in Ghana, makes you dream more. When you start to grow, you want to chase it, you go for it all,” Sherif tells me over Zoom. “Where I grew up, Konongo, I wanted to be a musician, an artist. But there weren’t a lot of people doing it. So, my whole life is an experiment. Like, let me just try this. It makes you tough and it’s exciting. There’s a beauty in the journey, too.”
“Kwaku” finds Sherif as a bully; citing that he is ready for the future even though his past transgressions are still on his mind. “Of course, I fucked up. Who never fuck up, hands in the air? No hands?” sings Sherif, menacing to the camera like Pop Smoke or DMX. You’ve probably heard the audio on TikTok, where snippets have been played more than 15 million times.
It’s in the fierceness of the delivery. The language barrier never becomes a hindrance to Sherif. Even though he sometimes raps in his native language, known as Twi, you can understand him — feel him — crystal clear. We go to male rappers for the ability to connect with listeners through the prism of a schizophrenic and tumultuous livelihood. Sherif is in the long line of rappers, like Pop Smoke before him, who does that with his voice as the percussion.
Sherif has been making music since high school. When he struggled to get good grades, music was his second option. “From grade six to grade seven, I was trying to make music. But I was like, I am a Muslim. I can’t make this my life,” he says. “So I tossed it. I was dancing for fun. When I went to secondary school, like high school, I started failing courses. So, for myself, I needed a plan B. We would do this competition at school, and we would rap over beats on the table. One time, I had to write something and it went well.”
From that moment, he says, he knew he was going to dedicate himself to music. “If I see anything I could make a life of, I will go for it. Every time I got to class, my focus was music,” he says. As a rapper from Ghana, he has been influenced by both American rap artists and British rap artists. West African music — whether it be pop, drill, or Afrobeats — has been miscategorized or called “world music” too often. The musicians who occupy these spaces are musically versatile and can digest the sounds from anywhere.
Sherif’s music is not probing the turbulent history of Ghana. If there are any criticisms to have, the songwriting doesn’t always go in-depth on the conditions of Africa. But there’s time for Sherif to do that. Right now, his stuff is hard. It doesn’t have to be introspective. Rappers are required only to rap with a dexterity that makes you want to bang your head against a wall. He doesn’t have to take it back to Africa like Nas in Belly, but he’s still using Twi in his music. You can’t get Sherif without the country of Ghana, and more specifically, the town of Konongo.
Sherif is a combination of both Afrobeats and U.K. drill, while still being able to take those influences and combine them with a romantic and tribalistic worldview of Ghanaian culture and his tribulations. Sherif tells me that he is influenced by a ton of artists. “I love Travis Scott, Kanye, 070 Shake, Dave, Burna Boy,” he says. When I asked him if he was impacted by Pop Smoke’s ability to combine his howl and innate melodies, he enthusiastically says “Yes!” like he is mad at himself for forgetting.
Sherif’s music is not quite as loud and beastly as Pop Smoke’s. If Woo was played on the corner, Sherif will be played at a carnival or a street fair. But Sherif’s music is still not for the golf courses. “Second Sermon,” from July 2021, features him over a drill beat if producer Ghanaian Stallion were eating Jollof rice while he made it. While this is the best song Sherif has made to date, it wasn’t the best studio experience he has ever had: “The studio was hot that night. The beat was going off. The first take was a one take. It was heated. I started recording and I was jumping. So, that’s why the energy is like that.” “Second Sermon” is also about his cousin Sister Mariama, who passed away. “She used to sell watches. I miss her,” he says. “She died two weeks before the recording, so I wanted to shout her out.”
Sherif’s music exists in the space between autobiographical and his own idiolect. He’s also not afraid to be raw and unconventional. He hasn’t made that much music yet, so he is not a finished product by any means. His best stuff even has mistakes on it. “’First Sermon,’ I made a lot of mistakes on that song, but I just released it. Just kept it. And so many people fucked with it”, he tells me. When I ask him about his tendency to wear black in the “Second Sermon” video, he tells me about his freedom. “I wanted to be free,” he says. “I was like, ‘Let me try this. I wanna be free.’ No one can tell you what to wear. I just wanted to do what I felt like doing.”