QSC Aspiring Interview: How Sharifa turned being an outcast into his rapping superpower

London-based musician, producer, artist and DJ, Sharifa explains how being raised in a closed-minded town in the East Midlands led him to follow the music to London and embrace his true self.

Sharifa is an 18-year-old musician, producer, artist and DJ working across rap, pop, R&B and alternative. He is a producer and a multi-instrumentalist currently attending the BRIT school, and he’s already making inroads into the industry by being featured on BBC Introducing...

You’re from the East Midlands and have said you were raised in a closed-minded town. How did those experiences shape you and your music?

A lot of people are gonna say this, but I always felt very much like an outcast. I definitely felt like that at the school I went to – there were around 300 students in my year and there were about three black students, so I felt like I was not accepted in a place where I felt like I should have been.

In Darby, I feel like everybody follows a similar route of going to school, going to college, studying similar things, then they're going to get similar jobs and apprenticeships and stuff – which there's nothing wrong with. But when somebody does something that's outside of that, it's definitely looked down upon, so I felt very judged. 

I didn't feel like it was the place for me because I definitely like to experiment and be unique and open minded. I always like to try new things and Derby didn't feel like the place for that. But it's so crazy that somewhere like Nottingham, which is literally five or 10 minutes down the road, is the complete opposite of that. Darby just wasn't the place for me to do what I wanted to do.

I always felt very much like an outcast in Darby.

Why has living in London allowed you to embrace who you are and focus on music?

Essentially, I had to give myself a reason to move there. So at the time, I was 16 and I was struggling with the whole idea of school – I dropped out and I went back just to get my GCSEs.

I wanted to be in London because I want to make it in music and get a career in the creative industry, but I couldn’t just go down there with no reason, so I applied to go to the BRIT School and gave myself a decent reason, and also good reason to convince my parents to let me move!

What has your experience been like at the BRIT school so far? Is it what you expected?

I'll be honest, it's not the best. I could sit here and say, ‘Yeah, it's amazing,’ but I'm not. There are a couple of things that I wish and hope were different. A few times, I've actually been racially profiled, which isn't great. But you know, these are some world issues that I guess I can never really get away from. 

Even though I've gone to them and expressed those opinions, I don't feel very listened to, which is another problem on its own. But other than those issues, it is a great place to be in the sense that I'm with people my age that are like me, and I can meet people that aren't close minded – I can go there and be who I want to be, essentially. So it's good in that sense.

I've been racially profiled; these are some world issues that I guess I can never really get away from.

What did you grow up listening to that has influenced your own music?

When we were growing up, my parents had a lot of DVDs with music videos of artists like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross. I remember I was specifically taken aback by Michael Jackson. 

At the time I was like, ‘Whatever this is, this is what I want to do.’ When I got to about nine years old, my sister started piano lessons and I remember going to my mum while she was doing them and being like, “Can I get some piano lessons as well?” 

I really liked the idea that you can express yourself and play this music, and that's your way of showing who you are on the inside. So I started piano lessons and I would get YouTube videos and teach myself songs and sing over them. 

It was really useful because our family computer was literally right next to the piano, so it was so easy just to pull up a YouTube video and figure things out.

What music are you listening to right now?

It's so random, but I've been really into Brazilian funk recently. I don't know where it came from, but ever since I found that I've been seriously, unhealthily obsessed. Honestly, I've been listening to it an unhealthy amount [laughs]. 

I've also been listening to a lot of reggae and old school rap, Kendrick Lamar and a lot of gospel as well, like Mahalia Jackson – going back to the stuff that my parents listened to back in the day. I've been doing that a lot and going back to my roots.

I kind of go into a trance and just express myself when I'm writing.

When it comes to your songwriting and rap verses; do you draw from personal experiences?

Yeah, I tend to. Normally, I don't think too much about it; I kind of go into a trance and just express myself. Some people will question that and they think that maybe I actually sit down and think, “I'm going to write this, and I'm going to say this,” – I don't normally think like that, I kind of go into a trance and then wake up from it. I'm like, “What? I just wrote a whole song! That's cool; let's move on to the next one.”

With more recent stuff, my songs have been quite emotional with very personal lyrics. It's me feeling the instrumental, feeling the beat, going with the flow and just writing it. I definitely prefer this method – it's a lot more natural. I use it as therapy. For me, it's expressing how I feel about certain experiences that I might have been going through, and letting it flow.

Do you find it hard to be vulnerable in your songwriting?

Sometimes, definitely, and then sometimes, not really. If I'm sitting and thinking, “I'm actually about to release this,” then I start overthinking and changing things. But when I've gone through something I need a creative outlet for it and I’ve got that urge to express myself and whatnot, so I just do it and I don't think too much about it. 

When I'm actually writing, I try to keep that mindset away from it to stop it from affecting how I actually want to go about making stuff.

'too much' felt so real and so raw, and much more in the direction that I've always wanted to step in.

Do you find it easier to write from a place of pain or hardship, or about more positive experiences and emotions? What flows more naturally?

It's a bit of a balance. I would say it’s probably easier for me to talk about more negative things, because I think I’ve experienced that more than I experienced positive things. I'd say negative actually, just because unfortunately, I have a bit of a pessimistic outlook on things, so I have more to talk about when I'm writing about those kinds of things. 

But it depends on how I feel when I'm actually writing. If I've been through a negative emotion or situation, then it’s more likely to be easier to write about that. But if the last positive experience that I had was a month ago, then it's obviously going to be a bit harder for me to manoeuvre that.

It sounds like you find challenging these negative experiences through music to be therapeutic. Is that the case?

100% It's not even just writing – just creatively in general. Even when I show up to photo shoots I like to be as honest and real as I can. That is what helps me get through a lot of the hardships that I struggle with – expressing myself in everything that I do, whether that's writing or producing. That's why some of my photos are quite depressing, [laughs], but it is what it is.

What inspired your new single, TOO MUCH?

This one was one of my three o'clock in the morning, overthinking ones – I just needed to write. I hadn't written in two months. I'd been making beats and focusing on the visual elements. 

I just heard this instrumental and I literally dropped everything that I was doing, I picked up the microphone, and recorded TOO MUCH in literally 15 minutes. I felt very overwhelmed by a lot of the thoughts that I was feeling. A lot was going on at the time and it all came out in a 15 minute session of expressing that emotion.

You've always got your own back.

It’s certainly an intense track in its lyrics and sound, including the words, ‘I don’t want to be here, I don't want to breathe.’ Given that you wrote this so quickly and you write in a trance-like state, were you surprised by what you had been holding on to?

I listened back to the song and I was like, “Did I just write a record like that? Where did that come from?” It's not always a conscious thing when I’m writing the songs; it just comes out and flows and then I wake back up and I'm like, “Whoa! That was insane,” – but I'm not complaining about it. The song sounds cool.

I listened back to it over the two days after I made it and I was like, “I have to release this,” because with my previous two releases, I'd sat with those songs for two or three years before I released them. 

Hence why TOO MUCH sounds a lot different – it's definitely artistically a lot different. It felt so real and so raw, and much more in the direction that I've always wanted to step in. I was happy with it pretty much instantly.

What was the reaction to the track from friends and family?

I was speaking to somebody the other day and they were saying that my music sounds like I'm crying for help, but that I don't actually want help – like, I’ve got myself. That made so much sense to me. You've always got your own back. That really resonated with me because it feels so true. 

It sounds like I'm calling for help and like I need help, but realistically, I'm just expressing myself. I don't necessarily need the help, but it's nice to be able to call out for it. It's like a wake up call to myself, in a way.

What’s next for you?

This year is probably the year that I'm most excited about, musically and creatively. I'm trying to put out more of what’s been on my mind for years but I just haven't necessarily had the foundation and platform to be able to do that, so this year is the year to be doing that. 

I've got a lot of stuff in the works this year – a lot of songs, a lot of videos; I'm trying to continuously get better and beat the last one that I dropped. I'm trying to get a short film / music video kind of vibe out, which I'm really excited for. The future's looking good.