Once, it was simply called Christmas. But then the Ghanaian government declared 2019 the “year of return”, inviting African Americans to come home, and Detty December took hold. Africans, British-Ghanaians and those from the wider diaspora soon joined in and the idea exploded into a spectacular annual ingathering, which necessarily means music, parties and cultural conversations everywhere, all the time, vibe on a rolling boil.
The largest event is AfroFuture, a two-night stadium festival that attracts more than 40,000 attenders, and it is here I meet the vocalist Black Sherif following a luminous, incendiary headline set. Though a key part of the Afrobeats phenomenon – the continent’s biggest star, Burna Boy, was so wowed by his track Second Sermon that he demanded to feature on the remix – Blacko, as he is affectionately known, is not an Afrobeats artist. “His music is a bridge between the younger and older generation,” says Nana Kwasi Wiafe, creator of the Very Ghanaian brand and stylist on Beyoncé’s Black Is King. “He carries the authentic sound of Ghana, highlife, merging it with the modern sounds – drill, reggae, rap – that inspire him.” Though categorisation melts anyway as soon as Blacko sings, his voice clear, urgent and transporting whether in Twi or English.
That voice has ensured him considerable recent success, including performances at the Mobo awards, Wireless festival and a BET award for best international flow, and he’s now forging further links with the UK – his new single features British pop singer Mabel and in a few days he’ll walk at London fashion week. It feels incredible, he says, “understanding the influence my craft has on people all over the globe”.
Born Mohammed Ismail Sharrif, Blacko hails from Konongo-Zongo, a mining community in Ghana’s gold-endowed Ashanti region. When he was 10, his seamstress mother left to work in Greece (“I felt a part of me was missing – I miss my mother so much to this day”) and his peripatetic childhood thereafter informs his vivid, visual storytelling. “I try to be 100% vulnerable,” he says. “Getting stories together don’t be like a big fight because I just say whatever happened, making it a bit more dramatic. Every time I’m writing music, I’m writing a play. I call it ‘drama in a voice pipe’.”
The protagonist of which is almost always him, examining his failings, most famously in signature track Kwaku the Traveller. “Of course I fucked up!” he sings. “Who never fuck up? Hands in the air … no hands!” On another track, Yaya, the lyric “I’m illegal in my own town, in my own city” is a cry of alienation.
In working through his struggles without shame, Blacko – also a University of Ghana psychology student who confesses he doesn’t have “time to go to class” – legitimises the same feelings in listeners who may otherwise be disinclined to turn their gaze inward. On recent single January 9th, released for his 22nd birthday, he sings a lullaby to himself: “Pain in my heart but I’m doing just fine.” Just as Beyoncé’s Break My Soul has her “sleeping real good” as an act of resistance, Blacko celebrates the hard-won ordinariness of being all right – particularly valuable following Black Lives Matter and during a male mental health epidemic.
On another recent single, Fallen Angel, he voices both halves of a gorgeously harmonic, philosophical and intimate dialogue with himself: “You go be a slave to your flaws / Will you stay on the floor? / I wanna see you at the top … one thing I’ve learned to do is to take care of my people, that is all I want for you.”
“It’s created with a big red love,” says the track’s producer, Smallgod. “Its message comes from a deep place in Blacko’s spirit and resonates with everyone whether religious or not. Everyone is looking for that light.”
For all the pain, the dominant theme in Blacko’s work is hope: warning people of life’s pitfalls before suggesting ways to combat them. “He’s so pure at heart,” says Smallgod, “and very particular about where he goes, where he stays, and what he does. And he’s very smart at the age of 22 – too smart for that age. Some people don’t know what they’re doing and they expect you to teach them – but he knows everything.”
Because his demeanour – warm, gentle, joyful, genuine – fits with the Ghanaian character, people seem to love Blacko the bloke as much as Blacko the artist. “I feel this!” he says. “I keep myself as real as I can. I try to make people’s days.”
So he pays food bills for street kids and maternity bills for impoverished women, also taking time to advise the many younger versions of himself he encounters. “I speak to them like I’m speaking to my peers,” he says, “because they need to know it’s not always sweetness … it doesn’t get easier. I be real to them, tell them about their struggles, everything, I tell them: ‘Look at me, keep going.’ Love it!”
Live at AfroFuture, though, it’s all positivity, Blacko showing that he can dance as well as sing. He closes the show with a mantra – “Oil in my head, everything I touch is blessed, all I see is blessings and no man can stop this” – repeated over and over with the intentionality of a preacher, crowd duly hollering it back in unison.
“Sometimes I make music and describe it with colours,” he says, “and Oil in My Head is white and blue because it just feels refreshing. Any time I play it I go outside and act it, because it’s a prayer. I manifest in Oil in My Head, appreciating I’m anointed. Everything I touch with a clean heart is going to turn gold.”