Sheck Wes on growing up in Harlem, Kanye’s wise words and love for the UK scene

Before his interview at the Union, The Tab Cambridge spoke to Sheck Wes about how being ‘sent back to Senegal’ by his mother changed him for the better

21-year-old Sheck Wes is best known for his one-take song ‘Mo Bamba’ which went viral in the summer of 2018. Discussing with the Tab his artistic influences and aspirations, Sheck declared that he was not just a rapper: ‘I don’t like being called a rapper because I don’t just rap. That’s restrictive – I’m an artist’. 

Signed to Kanye’s GOOD Music and Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Records, Sheck spoke proudly of his artistic involvement at every stage of his album ‘MUDBOY’. When he decided not to have features on the album, this was met with surprise from his label. To reassure him, Kanye said (which Sheck imitated in a convincing, breathy Kanye voice) ‘Sheck, the greatest artists of all time are never understood!’. 

Sheck exuded this Kanye-level of confidence throughout the interview. Gesturing to his elaborately designed suit he said, ‘Look at the way I pulled up and dressed here. I could have worn something different but this is how I do my art’.

Fashion and artistic expression consumed Sheck growing up. His father was a tailor for the legendary hip-hop stylist Dapper Dan and, growing up in Harlem, he was ‘around art 24/7’. From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Power movement, Sheck explains how ‘in our country we’ve always had this issue of race, but they can move to Harlem and establish themselves. They can wear suits and speak and think intelligently’.

As a teen in New York City, he admitted ‘I didn’t have respect for one thing’. Making music, he would arrive at house parties and take the AUX cord to play his tracks. When he was approached aged 16 by a scout from a modelling agency, the man remarked on his beautiful complexion to which he half-jokingly replied ‘people have been telling me this my whole life’. Skipping school to hit the runway, Sheck travelled around the US and even took a trip to London where he was turned away at the border for being just 17. 

Frustrated with her son’s antics, Sheck’s mother proposed for him to visit his family in Senegal for a few days. Keen to reconnect with the culture of his family and meet his relatives, Sheck readily took up the offer. But the artist realised that he was to stay for longer than anticipated when his older brother, who he met in person for the first time upon arriving at the airport, took his passport and sent it back to his mother. As a 17-year-old with no form of identification, he was unable to return whilst under his mother’s legal guardianship.  Sheck expressed feelings of betrayal at first, but retrospectively understands that ‘what I didn’t know about my culture is, they’re loyal to their parents before they’re loyal to their brothers and sisters’. 

As an American in Senegal, Sheck described the initial culture shock: ‘I’ve got my grill in my mouth, I’ve got my chain on and got my big haircut. Hair in my country for a man isn’t regular and so, when I met the religious leader that I was staying with for the first time, he covered his face like there was a stench in the room and told me to cut it’.

Despite these cultural differences, Sheck clearly valued this experience as it has heavily influenced his artistic identity. ‘I was able to explore the Quran and the culture I come from. Before religion, I didn’t have a blueprint. I didn’t have respect for myself, for other people, for the world. But now that I have that respect I can follow and mirror my idols’.

Returning to the US, Sheck’s music began to take off – the ‘hoes calling’ in his hit-song ‘Mo Bamba’ were the labels, managers and artists that were keen to have a stake in his success. How did his mother feel about all of this? Sheck recalls: ‘My mum didn’t know I was even an artist until MUDBOY came out. I was hiding it from her. One day, my mum walked past my billboard and called my dad like ‘Oh my god, my son is losing his mind making music’. 

Able to travel around the globe with his art, Sheck expressed his fondness for the UK. In fact, his first girlfriend attended a private school in London – her parents, he recalls, ‘had issues with me because I didn’t speak articulately’. 

The British class system aside, Sheck spoke admiringly of the UK scene: ‘Skepta is one of my favourites because he’s an all-round artist and is involved at every stage of producing his art. He reached out and told me he likes my stuff too’. He also gave a shout out to Slowthai who hit the press last year for his controversial stage prop – a fake severed Boris Johnson head. Having performed in many of the same shows, Sheck said ‘Slowthai did some crazy stuff… when he performed with a severed head, that’s still a form of art. Only true artists will respect it’. 

The self-proclaimed ‘rebel’ came across as passionate and committed to his art. A rapper, model, videographer, designer and excellent public speaker, Sheck Wes is a multifaceted artist with influences, ambitions and current projects that greatly exceed the confinement of the hit single he is so well-known for.

Photo credits: Eva-Maria Ahrer