The breakout Ghanaian talks to us about his meteoric rise, his use of drill beats, and wanting to tell the true story of Accra.
“I wanted to be a beast before I broke out. I knew that people would hear of me so I wanted that when they heard of me, they would never go back.” Black Sherif says to me with assured confidence when we meet at one of his favorite pubs in East Legon, Accra. It's with a similar gripping beast-like rage that Black Sherif commands attention on his 2021 break-out single, "First Sermon," a hard-hitting drill-influenced ghetto gospel about the survivalist themes of life in Accra.
“Madonna, my manager, and Jamjam shot the First Sermon video,” Black Sherif continued, before pointing out that the clip which has grossed over two million views on Youtube was shot down the road from the pub where we currently enjoyed beers.
At 20-years-old, Black Sherif is one of Ghana’s youngest superstars but Blacko—as he is often called—has long had hankering for musical success, starting his music career at age 17. “I have loved music since I was a kid. I just didn’t know I was going to make a career out of it. I am a Muslim, did you know I am a Muslim?” he asks frankly and I shake my head innocently “My name is Mohammed Ismail Sharif. In Islam, music is more like sin, you shouldn’t make a career out of it if you are a Muslim. The music was chasing me but I was always dodging it. Although, I was popular for dancing in senior high school”
Determined to pursue music as a career, Black Sherif took a gap year after finishing high school to understand music. During this period, the artist attended auditions of talent shows such as Mentor X and MTN Hitmaker that powered the rise of Ghanaian artists like Kidi and Kuami Eugene, among others. He did not make it past the auditions and, shortly after, released his first-ever single, "Cry For Me."
“[It] basically means 'Cry For Me' because I don’t like where I am in my head. It was fresh after high school. You know because I was dancing, and singing, I did not think I was actually learning. I didn’t think I would pass my WASSCE.” He says of the exam that is a pre-requisite to gaining admission into a University.
"Cry For Me" did not earn Black Sherif the mainstream reception he desired, but his 2020 single, "Money," a confessional about finally getting rewarded for his hustle gained him appreciable recognition “Money was January 2020. I was on the streets. In Ghana, when you ask them, they will tell you I make music for Sad Boyz because I am one. I come from the Zongo (ghetto)” The Konongo-native quiped “I am not sure we planned Sad Boyz. I don’t smile when I take pictures most of the time. We are sad boys because there is nothing to laugh about. Accra hard bro.” He explained the roots of the self-propagated Sad Boyz movement that is gradually becoming a core of Black Sherif’s brand “Sad means happy. Sad means sad. Sad means hungry for success. Here, you have to beat the system, if you make the system beat you, yawa (problem)!”
In May 2021, after a slew of singles, Black Sherif opted to promote his forthcoming debut EP with a string of freestyles. This birthed his break-out effort, "First Sermon." “We had to drop my debut EP in about four weeks. To gather some engagement, we wanted to drop some freestyles. One night when we were doing final touches for the EP, we played the beat Stallion sent me a month before and that was it. The first sermon was a freestyle. The second sermon was the one that I wrote while taking a stroll”
While "First Sermon" might have brought Black Sherif attention, "Second Sermon" changed his life. “Second Sermon is a big storytelling song. I made Second Sermon two days after First Sermon, and like two weeks before that, I lost my favorite cousin, Sister Mariama.”
On "Second Sermon," Black Sherif references the death of his cousin calling for a minute’s silence in her honor and asking for her celestial guidance. “I was walking and writing on my phone, I think all the inspiration came from First Sermon, like yo the people are hearing me, let me tell my story, let me tell them what is going on in my head. This is who I am. This is how I am hungry for this shit. This is my story. This is Blacko.” He reminisces before highlighting advice he received from his friend and artist, Marince Omario, “Marince told me one thing; ‘do you know that you are a star?. Speak your truth and be yourself. People will love you and buy that.” "
"Second Sermon," Black Sherif’s most successful song, bears a haunting drill bass line and focuses on life as a gangster in Accra, offering personal stories with Black Sherif starring as his most famous alias yet, Kweku Frimpong. “This is the story of a lost boy in Accra. The big people, the young people. Everyone connects to the song. That’s the crazy part of it.” Black Sherif says calmly of the frenetic record that rings through speakers across Accra till this day and has soundtracked public gatherings of any sort within the country “Accra is wild and when "Second Sermon" drops, Accra goes wilder because they know the story. This is Accra’s story.”
In late October of 2021, a video surfaced online of Grammy Award-winning Nigerian superstar, Burna Boy, teasing a remix to Black Sherif’s "Second Sermon.” Black Sherif nudged towards a light-skinned friend perched at the corner saying, "Aubrey sent it to me," he then proceeded to explain his reaction the first time he heard the remix. “I was like wham! This is Burna on Second Sermon! I love Burna. I wasn’t surprised by how hard the verse was, I knew what that man could do.” Two months later, the remix was released and it earmarked Black Sherif’s continental rise, cementing the marketing undergraduate at the University of Ghana as one of the hottest next-rated artists within the continent.
Regardless of how sudden the explosion of Black Sherif’s career has taken the music industry in Nigeria and Ghana, his process has been somewhat intentional. “I did not want to call them freestyles,” he says of the sermons that have altered the course of his life, "if you tell them, the fans, it is a freestyle, they would bring their ears down before listening to the song. They are freestyles but I call them sermons. Ghetto preacher. Killa Blacko.”
This intentionality has shelved the initial EP he planned to release after the First and Second Sermons, but he promises an EP sometime this year. “We did like three EPs before the one that is coming. My growth process is crazy. My EP will do a lot of talking. Everything you need to know about me is on my EP. My life, my story, all of it. Everything about this EP is personal. It will be a journey.” I ask if the EP has a title yet, he shies away from answering but immediately replies when I ask about his dream collaborations: 070 Shake and Dave.
Despite mirroring the cadence of a rapper and shooting to fame off soul-stirring drill beats, Black Sherif categorizes his music differently “I make highlife music because the voice is highlife, the rhythm is highlife, the flow is highlife, the feeling is highlife. You hear the song and say this is a drill song, but when I tell you it’s highlife. You are like yeah.” When Black Sherif speaks, his tone bears no likeness to the vibrancy of his music, he speaks calmly and at his own pace. He asserts the only things fame has changed is his confidence and perspective about life. “It is pushing me to learn, to know more. Now I know when I talk, a lot of people listen. As young Africans, we are required to make changes, to inspire the younger ones. I have been reading a lot about superstars. I love Sarkodie, Saint Jhn, Dave, Billie Eilish, Burna. Dave is unbelievable.”
There is a catharsis anytime Black Sherif sings that connects with the listener regardless of the language barrier; be it the frustration on "Money" or the seething rage of "Second Sermon." With festival performances lined up in the UK and Germany and a wave of collaborations with other artistes, it is clear though Black Sherif may run Accra at the moment, his gospel is destined to go beyond the Gold Coast “What is at my back, I have seen it before, so I don’t want to go back there. I want to see what is happening in front.”
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