The Sheck Wes story

Harlem rapper Sheck Wes's star rises in the shadow of Dapper Dan and Cheikh Amadou Bamba.

Image credit Jeff Attaway via Flickr.

Sheck Wes is a 19-year-old chart topping rapper from Central Harlem in New York City. He grew up on 116th Street and Lenox, right in the heart of a neighborhood that has come to be known as “Le Petit Senegal.” The area has been rapidly gentrifying since the early 2000s, but even today if you walk the area surrounding 116th street you can pass a plethora of stores run by a largely Francophone population of African immigrants, serving Manhattan’s uptown population. African restaurants, tailors, bakeries, Islamic centers and music shops were once regular fixtures in a neighborhood now filling up with condos and coffee shops. Wes’s father is a tailor (who once worked for legendary hip hop stylist Dapper Dan) and his mother a hair braider in the area. Their community’s story is an important lens through which to understand African immigrant culture that is not yet widely recognized.

The largest single group in Little Senegal are the Mourides—members of an entrepreneurial branch of Sufi Islam which has its roots in late 19th century colonial French West Africa. The Mourides make up almost 40% of the population of Senegal, and include amongst their ranks one of Afropop’s biggest names: Youssou N’Dour. This group is so prominent in Little Senegal that the largest yearly celebration on 116th Street is to mark the life of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the sect and leader of the Senegalese colonial resistance. Beyond Harlem, there are similar Senegalese communities in places as disparate as Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, London, Barcelona, Paris, San Francisco and Berlin. Each local iteration manifests unique characteristics, absorbed through the surroundings its members assimilate to. This contributes to the diversity that defines what it means to be Senegalese in the 21st century.

Part of what sets immigrant communities apart from each other are the socio-economic conditions that cause them to migrate, as well as those which they find when they arrive. The culture that results in specific locales is shaped by the rules of the new society they find themselves: racial discrimination, social mobility, access to opportunity or the freedom to practice one’s religion. In the US for example, a Somali refugee in Minneapolis will face different challenges to local integration than a Nigerian student in an Ivy League University. From Seattle to Staten Island, there are working class African immigrant communities that have to assimilate to the reality of an American dream that, more often than not, is rather mundane.

So, if we were going to orient him in this world, Sheck Wes is specifically a Wolof-speaking Senegalese Mouride of 116th Street (with traces of the North Side of Milwaukee). The particularities that define his experience can be discerned in the interviews he gives, and a working-class American existence is clearly a marker his life. On New York City hip hop radio station Hot 97 he explains how he grew up in the projects in Harlem, and how this helped give him a savviness that allowed him to navigate New York’s streets, ultimately finding his way into corporate boardrooms as a “creative kid” and getting the attention of Kanye West. He explains in that interview that “in New York you raise yourself, whoever you are. Our parents work jobs all day, because it’s expensive.” He also seems to be aware of how creativity comes out of adverse situations as he explained on the No Jumper podcast:

It [is] just the situation you grow up in. The best creatives come from the hood, cuz they don’t got shit to create with. Look at Chicago, a lot of people who are directing shit in music, fashion, sports… a lot of them come from Chicago, but from one certain time period… and that time period was a really tough rough time period in Chicago. And that’s the way I look at it.

Though Wes’s family’s reality is exemplary of how a majority of African immigrants around the world live, dominant narratives on Africans in Europe and North America seem only to celebrate the achievements of those who are able to reach the top echelons of society (and on the other side, lament the tragic stories of failure). This is true in politics, the corporate world, and the media industry. Not surprisingly, the identity politics of such ambitious achievers who occupy places in predominantly white spaces are often framed by an oppositional relation to whiteness, and thus, they often find their redemption in upwardly mobile equivalents in black America. Africanness amongst this set, becomes something to be contemplated, searched for, discovered and or/recovered. This can also be seen in the way folk and traditional cultures from Africa are incorporated into Afropolitan discourse. To counterbalance embarrassment or jokes, African cultural signifiers are validated through incorporation into some high end fashion, or when they are put on display at a hip music festival, in an art gallery or at a dance party. In New York, at least, it is interesting that the stories of the Africans who work as the tailors, taxi drivers and hair braiders across the five boroughs are yet to be included in the conversation in the Afropolitan media centers of gentrified Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan.

In the face of this, what’s refreshing about young people who I have personally interacted with in Harlem is that their cultural orientation is treated as quotidian versus exceptional. Their various cultural influences are embedded in their lives, and in a city as diverse as New York it’s just one among thousands of ethnic identities that every other young person has. Wes serves as a capable ambassador for his lot. He is not shy to foreground his parents’ occupations and workaday stresses, and he talks matter-of-factly about fairly unique cultural experiences. For example, he recounts the journey of learning from a marabout in Touba, Senegal, where his mother sent him to get away from Harlem’s temptations, as if it was an experience anyone might have access to (as many of his peers probably did). The frankness with which Sheck Wes and his fellow young Africans in Harlem deal with their Africanness creates a simultaneous engagement with the continent and with their (black) American selves that is more exciting and full of potential than anything Davido or Beyonce would be able to pull off.

Wes’s rumination on his identity as a working-class city kid recall rappers of similar origins in other cities; like the East London rapper of Gambian origin J Hus, or the Senegalese-Guinean rapper MHD of the 19th arrondissement in Paris. Again, what sets each of these individuals apart in the global pop music sphere is not only their shared roots, but rather the realities they have to contend with in their immediate surroundings. The tension between these two forces is what helps create some of the most interesting local music movements, such as UK Afrobeats and Parisian Afro-Trap.

There isn’t much of a trace of Afropop sonic aesthetics in Sheck Wes’s music, at least not in comparison to J Hus and MHD. However, if we look at his current chart-topping single “Mo Bamba,” we start to see how seamlessly he is able to seep African coolness into the American consciousness. The ominous bassline and trap drums of the song are accompanied by the chorus: “I be ballin’, like my nigga Mo Bamba.” This shout out to Mohamed Bamba, a soft-spoken NBA rookie of Ivorian parentage who grew up alongside Wes in Harlem, is significant for several reasons. First, hip hop fans will recognize the word ballin’ as a euphemism for cool, coming from how ball players are wealthy and seemingly worry free (made popular by another Harlem rapper). Additionally, one could argue that the first place that an individual’s African identity was normalized in the US was in professional sports, especially the NBA the sport most associated with black American cool and where there is a significant number of African stars (MHD in France mirrors this with football). So while Sheck boasts that he is “ballin’,” the double entendre really lands back home on 116th Street when it refers to his fellow basketball playing, African, Harlemite friend. And, if you will allow me just one one rash conclusion, perhaps the double meaning of the chorus also extends to his Mouride identity with Bamba the baller sharing a last name with the founder of the sect.

If you go beyond the song to Wes’s interviews, you understand that his African cultural identity is really a guiding force for his career path as well. First of all, the name Sheck, he uses as an artist name is an Americanization of Cheikh. In interviews he reveals his real name is in fact Khādimu ‘r-Rasūl Cheikh Amadou Bamba, named for the religious leader himself. When discussing his views on success, he professes a philosophical worldview that he explains resulted from his time in Touba (catching Ebro and company a bit off guard). On his motivation for being successful, Cheikh Amadou Bamba is clearly an inspiration: “If you build a city, [you’re a] legend, cuz it’s there forever.”

Around the time that Cheikh Amadou Bamba was founding Touba, Harlem’s African American community was filling up with migrants from the American South, from states like the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia who were enacting Jim Crow laws in reaction to the newly found freedoms of former slaves. Harlem is unique as a historical site for African American migration, as Wes points out: “Harlem is the first place black people could be cool, in the world.” So, he is clearly aware of his geographic positioning in the American cultural landscape. That it is largely African immigrants now at the center of this mecca for black culture is not an insignificant fact. Having Touba as a stand-in for the Carolinas or Georgia in the Harlem historical canon, and having Dapper Dan’s southern flair butt up against Cheikh Amadou Bamba, is quite a shift of orientation for black identity in the US. This perhaps points to an answer to the question of what legacy this generation of young Africans in Harlem could leave on American social and political life.

This excerpt from an exchange between Sheck Wes and the No Jumper Podcast is illuminating evidence of the type of shift that might be happening with Sheck Wes’s generation:

NJ: Were you always popular in school?

SW: Yeah, in Milwaukee it was like I was African, and then I was like funny. Like, I’m the nigga who was like cracking jokes on the teacher and shit.

NJ: Ok, so you were like the cool kid in Milwaukee? But I felt like in New York…

SW: In NY I was the cool kid too though, cuz then I was like playing ball, [and] I was funny.

NJ: You never got bullied for being African? I feel like sometimes that’s a thing in New York.

SW: Hell yeah, that’s why I was funny, I would cut niggas ass right back. You feel me? Don’t nobody want no smoke!

NJ: Yeah when I mean bullied for being African I meant like the black American kids picking on the African kids. I feel like that’s this weird…

SW: Yeah, all the Michael Blackson jokes, all the African Booty Scratchers, I got all of those.

NJ: Right, but you were ready for it.

SW: What!? I’m tellin’ you bruh, I be choppin’ on niggas.

The game of Dozens Wes describes has an interesting function in black American society. In some ways it’s a hazing technique meant to make one’s skin tougher and able to sustain the heavy blows of society that are yet to come. Another function is street socialization, knowing who can hurt you the most are those closest to you, so by going through the motions, you create a tight knit group, a type of secret society. Together you hone a skill that displaced people can use together to discern who is tough enough to hang, and worthy enough to call a brother or a sister. In this case, things that set you apart, like having African parents who talk funny and eat the wrong foods, are just fodder for the game, surface elements in the formation of a deeper bond forged with the aim of fighting a bigger battle. As long as you can hang with the game, you’re cool, part of the group.

Because Wes obviously has some natural ability as a linguist, he was able to join in and win the game, and this serves as a form of social navigation for him. He got made fun of for being African, but he was able to understand that he had to cap back to be accepted, by participating as an equal in the culture he grew up surrounded by. Wes demonstrates that this capping on Africa, on the part of black Americans doesn’t have to be insidious anymore.

All of us children of Africa in America, no matter when our ancestors arrived, have had to contest with the fundamental belief in the inferiority of Africans embedded in American society. This is a tradition that stretches back through the very founding of the colonies, and the attempt to counter it has echoed through the Harlem renaissance, the Black Power Movement to today’s Wakanda-inspired generation. The worst of this fight, of having to prove one’s humanity to a mainstream white America, has resulted in minstrel like displays reinforcing notions of black inferiority. What separates us out is how we cope with it, and again, the resources we have at our disposal shapes how we do that.

What’s most impressive to me about Sheck Wes’s generation of African immigrants, is that they are able to seamlessly be both African and American, two things that we are often taught are oppositional. I believe this comes from the solidarity that is formed in the global North’s working-class communities, built out of surviving in the trenches sometimes with someone of a different cultural and identity background than oneself. It is a lesson that cultural and political commentators across the world would be wise to pay attention to, because Sheck Wes’s path to the center of black American cool via the working class urban American experience is one of hard won collective battles, not individual achievements. Such battles are not unique to African immigrants, but are at the core of the working class immigrant experience.

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