How Black Sherif channels vulnerability in his music

Exploring an important element of the rapper's artistry ahead of his coming debut album

Deep in the audio-visual ocean that is YouTube, there’s an old clip of Black Sherif. He is performing the track “Cry For Me,” as his lithe frame moves purposefully beside a building backdropped by greens and flowers. That video, now at least three years old, is recognisably different from the clearer-toned superstar of today. However, the scope and energy of his lyricism was as laser-sharp and poignant as it is today, and going into his debut album tomorrow, the artist’s vision of vulnerability forms the core reason why he has become as acclaimed as he currently is. 

Black Sherif might now walk the same levels as a global popstar, but in his music he embraces its less glitzy ideals. He belongs in the tradition of griots—storytellers who conjure the history places, charged by a story that transcends generations and language. When Second Sermon began blowing up across Sub-Saharan Africa, he was viewed as a rapper. The record’s anthemic direction was further bolstered by a Burna Boy-assisted remix, which eventually set the whole world unto Blacko. For those who sought his true spirit, they needed to return to his earlier releases including First Sermon and before that, “Money”

An audible urgency permeates both records because he was still living the life he described on wax. Neighbourhoods across Accra knew the name, but that didn’t necessarily translate to a better life. Watching the videos, he’s obviously resident in the mixed zone—all the qualities of a superstar, but temporarily in the streets rather than studios. A Hiplife flavour also streaked the beats, but Blacko’s delivery relayed his intended mood even more poignantly. 

Black Sherif has often alluded to himself as an Highlife musician, a genre whose inflections tend to be very melodious and authoritative. Ghana being its birthplace, the traditions must have soundtracked Blacko’s early years in the 2000’s. Even when he raps, he’s able to switch into Highlife mode almost instantly, coating his records with a unique stamp which is then immortalised through Sherif’s words. He carries the streets with him, not in the bravado of tough personas but with a poet’s sensitivity, perusing its negatives with as much heart as its lessons. Listening to Black Sherif, you’re instantly aware of a generational tale, one of dare but also loss and longing, all the sad boy themes we’re adapting into recent Afropop music. 

Being a rapper, he transcends the gimmicky portrayal of suffering by being autobiographical. Black Sherif lets you know this isn’t a bedtime story from far away; it’s his real life, and he’s quick to names names and places, pulling the surrounding details into his canvas. Quite importantly, he’s respectful of the nuances by giving just enough of the detail that’s needed. The name of Zongo—the trenches part of Konongo where he grew up—isn’t far from his lips during interviews, but it’s the characters that have enchanted listeners even more. Many have sought the real-life figures of Sister Mariam and Aunty Merrie; while Blacko’s mum is the latter, well-off in her Greek residence, Sherif revealed to GHOne TV that Mariame died tragically while observing her Muslim dawn prayers.

On the other side of Blacko’s familial and neighbourhood affiliations, he’s also as passionate a chronicler of his own motivations. The markings of his journey he places under refreshing perspective, recognising not just the places and the people but the role they contribute to his mental health. Seeing as no one lives out their years in isolation, it’s expected that one’s external environment would significantly colour their worldview. Black Sherif has seen the hard life and having come through the other side, he craves comfort. But even this comfort doesn’t come easy, he has to pursue it and fold it into a shape that fits his person. 

In the run-up to his debut ‘The Villain I Never Was,’ the duo of his promotional releases Kwaku The Traveller and “Soja” have been varied but similarly important extensions of Sherif’s vulnerable lyricism. Released between six months of each other, they are portraits from the eternal photoshoot of his newfound celebrity. He’s the typical hustler on the No.1 record, staking his place in the world and as a result recedes farther from the warmth of familiarity. There’s a tinge of romantic love in the way he frames his absence (“I know you miss me, I know”) but on closer listening, he’s inking a love letter to his city and the people who shaped him. Grit represents an alluring overtone of street life, and even when he’s being soft there’s an unshakable presence in Blacko’s lyrics. It’s almost as if he’s mapped out the journey in his head and only needs to get the rest of his body there. 

On the other hand “Soja” offers an update on the journey, this time broadening his focus to include the negativity of detractors. Black Sherif understands how much he means, not just for Ghanaian music but for the global music scene, and it’s a weight that can worry even the most detached creatives. Even then he connects all that to his own anxiety and inferiority, and in the chorus, takes a sweep at both the personal and the communal, rousing the world as much as he does himself, urging, “Don’t let them catch you off guard, don’t let them touch your skin o.” 

Black Sherif ticks many boxes. For the raving youth, he’s mastered the art of anthemic hooks and choruses, leaning into the Kumerica drill tradition on such moments. For the technical listener, he wields a pen as evocative as any’s, switching between languages with a cosmopolitan ease. For partakers of an earlier tradition, he’s an old soul blessed with the Gold Coast’s spirit. For all of us though, Black Sherif is a brilliant writer of ambition, a quality that is collectively present amongst the new African youth. As tomorrow arrives with his debut album, you’ll want to remember the words he shared in a message accompanying the trailer, “It took me everything to give life to this body,” he wrote. This body, this Black Sherif—it’s been a remarkable thing to witness.