Finding Your "Why": How Sheck Wes, Earl Sweatshirt, & Ghostface Killah Found Solace Abroad

Rap music lives and dies by the notion of experience being the best teacher.
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Finding Your "Why": How Sheck Wes, Earl Sweatshirt, & Ghostface Found Solace Abroad

Sheck Wes felt a stinging sense of betrayal when his mother first sent him to Senegal in 2015. At the time, Sheck (born Khadimoul Rassoul Cheikh Fall) was a college basketball prospect who had already modeled in Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 show at Madison Square Garden. At 17, he had already begun shopping his music through the classrooms and streets of Harlem, but his mother believed it was time for a change. Sheck was whisked from the cusp of SoundCloud stardom in the name of spiritual enlightenment. Two weeks quickly became four months of intensive schooling with local Islamic leaders near the capital city of Dekar. “I had a grill in my mouth, a chain; I had mad hair,” he recalled during an interview with Hot 97. “The next day, I had none of that.”

Sheck's hotheadedness led him to time spent with a family and a culture he barely knew. He traced his entire family lineage while bonding with a nation of people who looked just like him. He was humbled by a simpler lifestyle stripped of mass transit and daily SnapChat updates. He fully embraced Islam. 

When Sheck returned to the States, his four months away had broadened his perspective and honed his focus back on the music he had worked hard on between basketball practices. “I finally got my why, I always used to search for a why to explain why I’m doing what I’m doing,” he explained to Pigeons & Planes. “Then I went to Africa and was like, ‘Man, I gotta do this shit for these people.’ This is my why and that’s a big enough why. It’s meaningful. Everyone has to find their way.”

The trip led Sheck to Los Angeles where he recorded the video for “2017 Freestyle,” a gonzo track that solidified his off-the-top recording style with bars about bomber jackets and Jeffrey Dahmer. This eventually led him to 16yrold and Take A Daytrip, the producers who crafted his breakout hit “Mo Bamba.” He recorded the song in 20 minutes in one take, and as he says on “Jiggy On The Shits,” a standout from his debut album MUDBOY, “I took my plan and now I’m writing history.”

In other words, the isolation of Senegal helped change Sheck Wes for the better. His trip to the Motherland was the crucible that helped the Mudboy—and his career—stand on his own two feet before being poached by Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Records, respectively. Sheck runs through his pre-Senegal street-hopping with world-weary eyes on the blistering track “Wanted,” filled with “holes in the back of your head like a snapback” and robberies turned Robin Hood displays. Even with its booming and distorted production and pit-starter ethos, much of MUDBOY thrives on the leftover seismic waves of youthful brooding laser-focused in ways that only an international humbling can manage. Sheck had found his "why."

It’s easy to see parallels in Earl Sweatshirt and his journey to Samoa. His debut mixtape EARL helped to put the Odd Future crew on the map in 2010 with a one-of-a-kind sense for wordplay and horrorcore imagery that spoke as much to his broken relationship with his parents as it did to his then-rampant Eminem fandom. Right after the video for the title track dropped, Earl's mother Cheryl Harris decided that the 16-year-old Thebe Kgositsile needed some time away from his new friends. He needed some act right; Coral Reef Academy in Samoa was calling.

Earl began his stint at the academy right as Tyler, The Creator and the rest of Odd Future were finally beginning to break big. Much like Sheck Wes, Earl also felt the sting of betrayal that comes with parents telling a teenager what to do. Odd Future’s eventual "Free Earl" campaign, complete with sweatshirts and chants at sold-out shows, happened as Earl was trying to decide if rap was even in his future. As part of his community service, Earl had face-to-face time with locals of the Samoa Victim Support Group who had suffered the fates that he had rapped about so casually. “There’s nothing that you can—there’s no—you can’t evade the—there’s no defense for like—if you have any ounce of humanity,” he stammered during a 2012 interview with The New York Times. Labeling the experience "overwhelming" clearly does not do it justice. Earl's deep sense of remorse turned out to be his “why.”

Sure, Earl's horrorcore material was already out, but that didn’t stop him from penning the verse that would end up on The OF Tape Vol. 2 closer "Oldie” and earning his way out of Coral Reef. He returned to America with new management, a new outlook on life, and baggage to sort through with both Tyler and his mother. Odd Future was at the peak of their popularity, both the group and their fans were awaiting the return of the group’s lyrical savant, and Harris was waiting to reunite with her son. There was a night-and-day difference between the boy “poking Catholics in the ass with saws” on “Earl” and the one who eventually laments the hollow relationship with his father on “Chum,” who eventually discovered he didn’t like shit and refused to go outside. Earl's music had begun a dimly lit descent into depression that led to a reshaped life out of public view. He was able to get better at his pace on his terms.

Both Earl and Sheck Wes left the country as confused teens standing at the fork of adulthood propelled by meteoric rises through music. Their decisions as young men set them on a path to more refined careers than they might not have seen otherwise. 

It’s one thing to leave the country and discover yourself before you can legally drive a car, but what about as a grown man? Ghostface Killah had the answer when he returned from a sojourn to Benin with the lyrics to what would become his masterpiece, Supreme Clientele. The success of his solo debut Ironman and Wu-Tang Clan sophomore album Wu-Tang Forever couldn’t alleviate his battle with diabetes, which led the then-27-year-old to the West African nation due to a distrust of Western medicine. But while he was searching for relief, he walked away with a more humble perspective.

“Fuck all this Tommy Hilfiger, Polo, all this shit,” he told The Source magazine on the Clientele press run. “They don’t give a fuck about none of that in Africa. Everything is the same. But over here, everybody wanna be better than the next one. Nah, it’s not like that over there. They might be fucked up moneywise, but trust me, them motherfuckers is happy. Them niggas in harmony because they got each other.”

Amidst a blast of local medicine was the backdrop for the writing sessions that birthed Clientele’s first single, “Nutmeg,” and inspired Ghostini’s surreal off-kilter flows and less materialistic direction for the album. By the time RZA showed up to Benin, Ghostface’s writing was the battery in his back that pushed him forward after he lost his home studio in a flood. Pretty Toney’s Surreal Adventures all lead back to the village that opened his eyes to how the world outside of Staten Island works. The humble nature of Benin became the “why” of Supreme Clientele.

So what exactly do Sheck Wes, Earl Sweatshirt, and Ghostface Killah have in common? Three different generations of artists left American soil at three different times for three different reasons but all came back with the same lessons learned. Rap music lives and dies by the notion of experience being the best teacher, and the sense of community and humbleness that all three of these artists—young and old, happy or sad—managed to find pushed their careers forward for the better. Through thick and thin, they all managed to find their "why."

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