Say’hu, a slender West-African, sits on a black leather couch. His charcoal-colored fedora rests on top of an untrimmed afro; hands in the pockets of his khaki colored pants. Say’hu sits inside his concealed downtown Charlotte studio, a hideaway from the outside world.
His inspiration, Bob Marley, is pictured on his t-shirt, while at the same time he gives off the aura of his homeland, Gambia. The majority of the Queen City’s residents are home, tucked away in their beds while Say’hu and producer Nuke verbalize their daily escapades and assessment of the world around them.
The conversation begins to fuel Say’hu’s musical agency as he prepares himself to step behind the glass wall to record his upcoming release, L.I.F.E (Living is Free Existence). The anticipated track is a reflection on the Gambian rapper’s life, as well as the uncertainty that surrounds a novel future he cannot predict.
Seven years earlier, back in West-African nation of Gambia, a 16-year-old Say’hu has graduated from high school. He is constantly envisioning and dreaming of becoming a rapper; however, his parents yearn for a quality eduction for their second youngest child. Neither aspiration is possible on the African coast.
“Music was always a part of me, I was always around music but in Gambia there isn’t an industry for it. If you tell somebody that you want to pursue music, they’re not going to take you seriously,” said Say’hu.
Following his parents’ wishes, Say’hu found himself in the booming city of Charlotte, N.C. In a new home, nearly 4,100 miles away from his closest friends and the life he once knew, he set out to achieve his parents’ dream.
“The life here wasn’t too much different. Through community college, I was still around African people,” said Say’hu. “Slowly but surely I was adapting but it never really felt that different. My older brother was with me too.”
Just outside the heart of the city, Say’hu worked to graduate with a college degree. Simultaneously, the free spirited Gambian has decided to pursue his own dream, a viable rapping career. Suddenly, the working relationships started to blossom and Charlotte started to feel a little more like home.
Little did he know that in Charlotte, he’d stumble upon an aspiring producer, a mentor and a best friend.
“I was introduced to Nuke. I thought this was my big break, like I finally met somebody,” said Say’hu. “It took me at least three months before I could start recording with him. He thought he was a bit of a superstar. I started rapping and he had faith in me.”
Introduced through mutual friends, neither party could visualize the onerous journey they were about to embark on. Three months of feeling each other out, as if they were cage fighters circling each other for 60 seconds before recognizing each other’s potential and desire.
“Everyone and their mom wants to rap,” said Nuke. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put my time into him. I just wanted to see if he had the passion and commitment to the craft. Not just to rap because it was cool.”
Prior to meeting Say’hu, Nuke was also trying to find himself, striving to visualize his own dreams. He made beats and attempted to sell the beats in high school but his gig never took off. The new Charlotte based tandem began to push each other towards success.
Nuke stands off to the side of the stage, smiling from ear to ear as the young rapper he met half a decade ago rhymes over the beats he produced. Say’hu stands center stage as the music begins to ring from wall to wall and the crowd grows more anxious. The jubilation, a testament to their togetherness, a road in which they can now envision the light at the end of the tunnel.
Say’hu’s newest anthem begins to drown out the crowd’s intoxicating screams. The track begins with the tune of Islamic prayer, the melody was recorded during Ramadan, a month of fasting commemorating the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. With African pride running through his veins, the young man inspired by the exceptional reggae vocalists like Anthony B and Marley, begins to spit his emotional ballad. Each line opens the door into Say’hu’s vulnerability.
“Picture life without music, would it feel the same? What if they told my Pops I was rapping, would he feel betrayed? Would he give me an ‘atta boy’ or tell me to stop today?”
His father is unaware of his son’s flourishing rapping career, like every other loving parent, he wishes the best for his multi-talented son.
“He sent me here to go to school, which I did,” said Say’hu. “But, I went to school knowing that I wanted to graduate and focus on my rapping career.”
The lyrics are inspired by his own unanswered questions.
“I was like, ‘what if my Pops finds out, what is he going to do?’ Would he tell me to keep going or would he tell me to stop? I’m pretty sure he might say stop,” said Say’hu. “At the end of the day, I’m living for me. I have to be happy, I can’t just please everybody else. It would be awesome if I could please everyone else but I have to be happy too.”
The strobe lights begin to dim and the anthem begins to fade out. The cheers of the fans are deafening. Say’hu raises his black trilby off his head in appreciation. Nuke hasn’t strayed from his off-stage post, tears fall from his eyes. The Gambian rapper strolls toward him grinning from ear to ear.
The tandem that met six years earlier through mutual friends, the tandem that was wary of committing to each other, the tandem now stands side by side in awe over what their insuppressible hard work has achieved.
“I’m really proud of them. I saw them start from the bottom and they’ve worked so hard. I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. I see the big lights for him,” one of Say’hu’s closest friends, Bre’yana Michelle mentioned.
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