Black Sherif: How I made Shazam’s most popular song Kwaku the Traveller
Black Sherif describes himself as one of Africa’s “saddest” pop stars.
It’s a mantle the Ghanaian rapper, full name Mohammed Ismail Sherif Kwaku Frimpong, wears proudly with his soulful and admittedly downbeat body of work.
“I do feel like I live kind of a sad life when it comes to what I do,” he tells The National after his recent performance at Ultra Abu Dhabi. “I mean, I don’t put myself down or anything like that but I normally just do my own thing and I don’t really know many people.
“And even the small friends that I have, it’s the kind of relationship where we don’t really talk about the important things like our insecurities. This is why I love the studio because it is the only place where I really feel free to express how I feel.”
That time spent opening up in cramped studios in Ghana resulted in a global legion of fans.
His debut album, The Villain I Never Was, bore Kwaku the Traveller, which became last year’s most searched song on discovery app Shazam with a reported 270,000 hits.
What’s more impressive is the song lacks the kind of immediate or simple hooks propelling tracks to viral status.
The challenging composition is defined by Sherif’s vocals, which deftly move between anguished singing and forthright rap over a percolating Afro-pop production.
It’s the song’s gritty and self-reflective lyrics that he believes are responsible for moving listeners to open up their Shazam app.
“I think people kind of enjoyed listening to that vulnerability,” Sherif says. “And really that came because the song was recorded in a simple, very quick way. I was in the studio and I heard the beat and I was immediately inspired.
“I went to my phone and wrote the lyrics there and quickly recorded it. This is why I think it sounds raw.”
But Sherif’s new song could be his biggest yet.
A collaboration with American rapper Bas, who was born to Sudanese parents in France, and Nigerian producer Kel-P, the thunderous Blood, Sweat and Tears is featured in the new boxing blockbuster Creed III.
Once again, the song was produced in a swift manner — another benefit of living a low-key lifestyle.
“I was home doing nothing really and just chilling. Then I get a message from Bas who tells me about the song he is doing for the Creed film and I can contribute,” Sherif recalls.
“He sent it to me on email and I just went to the studio with my team and we did our thing.”
It is only with the film’s ongoing success — already with $200 million at the international box office — he appreciates Blood, Sweat and Tears as a minor cultural milestone due to the fact it was recorded and produced by African artists.
Sherif credits the accessibility of the internet across the continent and the growth of streaming services for spreading African popular music around the world.
“When it comes to Ghana, I can say that the scene here is bubbling and there are a lot of vulnerable artists that are doing their best,” he says.
“There is this belief here that no matter where you are in the world we can still get our music heard because of the internet. A lot of us grew up on the internet and it’s where we started our careers by posting songs and freestyle videos.”
Sherif now wants to make a physical impact by taking his show on the road.
His strong set at Ultra Abu Dhabi is part of a larger planned world tour taking in festivals in Europe and the US.
It is an experience exciting enough to elicit a rare smile from the artist.
“I am working very hard to create a great show and it is really when you travel and do these big festivals you recognise what the standards are,” he says. “That experience will change my perspective about a lot of things and will help my creativity.
“So I am just planning to enjoy every moment and each time I am on stage will feel like a rebirth.”