The Untarnishable Legacy of Shadow Boxxer in the Evolution of Hip Hop in Sierra Leone

I believe I’m one of the nicest emcees from Sierra Leone. And guess what? I came up under Shadow Boxxer. It was our era that introduced and pushed Hip Hop into Sierra Leone. To be honest, with all due respect to all the rappers that currently exist, there is no Salone rapper from this current era who is as lyrically talented as the boys from our epoch. The only difference is that this current generation came at a time when we had already established Hip Hop in Sierra Leone. Unlike our age, when Reggae and Goombay were the accepted genres.

When we speak about REAL Hip Hop, the unconventional boom-bap, rhyme twisting, and lyrical ferocity, Shadow takes the cake. In the last few months, every time I opened my phone, I’ve seen the younger homies comparing newer rappers to Shadow Boxxer. I’ve tried to ignore those posts in my newsfeed, but I wouldn’t be real if I continued to do that. Someone has to speak on this. Maybe it’s time to write the book about the history of Hip Hop in Sierra Leone. The fact is indisputable; Shadow Boxxer is the dopest and most genial emcee from Sierra Leone.

To understand that one would have to grasp the complete evolution of Hip Hop in Sierra Leone. Today, Salone Hip Hop has evolved, and we are in a diverse era. In this age, of course, Kao Denero and Boss LA are the most prevalent. Except, will Hip Hop even exist in Salone if our era did not pioneer it in the country? Who designed the graph that this era is using right now? One cannot assess the current stars with the legends who built their platform. I can say from what I remember; Shadow Boxxer started representing Sierra Leone in 1992.

We (Hiphoppas from between 1990 – 1997) took the second half of the graph with us when we left the country.” 

By 2000, Shadow was already a Kultural pioneer who had served Sierra Leone Hip Hop before leaving the country. Yes, there was a time when he went on an extended hiatus, but when the ’00s rappers appeared, the platforms were already there. The main barriers were already broken. From the Trax nightclub to Countdown and Lagunda, our generation had already introduced Hip Hop and spread the Kulture throughout the country. We had already influenced the youth in Freetown on how to organize social clubs, promote shows and respect the arts, etc.

In fact, one of the reasons why Salone is stuck with Hip Hop at the moment is that the more modern youth do not have the other half of the map. We (Hiphoppas from between 1990 – 1997) took the second half of the graph with us when we left the country. Younger guys today are still using the old map we left behind, and that map was only designed to succeed in Salone, not the world. So, for example, no one from this era has a legacy like Jimmy B. That is probably why I have a postage stamp and travel the world when others cannot find their way.

In the beginning, Hip Hop was an underground art in Salone. Parents, uncles, aunts, and elders frowned on it. Playing rap music while living the Kulture had a few lads repudiated – parents threw their sons out of the house. People laughed at rappers. Pastors and imams criticized us in their sermons. In the early days of Hip Hop in Sierra Leone, one had to sneak if one was involved with rap. You secretly played the tapes and met in remote places with other hiphoppas to discuss the Kulture and perform freestyle ciphers or battles.

That was the atmosphere in which Shadow Boxxer, then known as AJ Fresh or Algasimu Jah, took to the public as an emcee. At that same time, all around Sierra Leone, an influx of Liberian refugees, fled the Liberian Civil War. They also helped to ignite the new Hip Hop climate in the British colony. For the first time, rappers began to emerge from the city to the provinces. In those days, if you were an emcee, you played by different rules. You rapped in American English and did not compromise the fundamental boom-bap style of Hip Hop beats.

Sierra Leonean rappers from this 2019 era are mostly Afrobeat rappers.”

That is why I rap in English now and why Shadow Boxxer is more proficient in English flows. We acquired an American accent and pitched our career to mirror African Americans in US Hip Hop. That is the cloth from which we were cut. In that era, Shadow led the pack. I was a 14-year-old up and comer, taking notes and hoping to be next in line. Shadow was already at the top. Even back then, when we were rapping in backyards and doing street ciphers, our most significant accomplishment was opening the Trax night club on Ross Road.

Shadow performed all over Freetown, won numerous rap battles, and collaborated on the same level with well known foreign artists. Who was it that came to Salone in 1992? Was it The Underground Posse? I don’t remember. I think they came from the States or the UK. Shadow Boxxer performed with them at the national stadium. Back then, a Salone rapper couldn’t do a show at that stadium. He didn’t only play there; he headlined in it. I know that for a fact because I attended the event. I went there to see Shadow perform with the artists from overseas.

When you consider all the Sierra Leonean OGz who are still rapping right now, from that 1990 – 1997 era, if we are going to choose one person, you would have to pick Shadow Boxxer is the best. The other emcees were great, but no one knows them anymore. Sierra Leonean rappers from this 2019 era are mostly Afrobeat rappers. When you look at who is maintaining the true essence of Hip Hop in its earliest form, Shadow is your guy. I’d name Shadow Boxxer and myself even though I was unpopular back then, and I’m still not famous right now.

Either way, if we just looked at the rappers who are still active from the early 90s, Shadow Boxxer leads the race. He was also one of the first Salone rappers who wrote rhymes, recorded, and released a song. Yes, it’s true. For many years Shadow’s fans have anticipated the release of an official album or two. Now we have a new era where rappers are steadfast, but they have deviated from the essence of Hip Hop. These rappers from this era create African Hip Hop with their sights set to succeed in Nigeria. Most of their hit songs are regional anthems.

Those songs are fashionable, but they are not 100% Hip Hop. So when these younger African Hip Hop fans put the Afrobeat rappers against Shadow, a true and pure Hip Hop artist, the OGz have to step in and explain the history. The mistake that this generation of Hip Hop fans in Sierra Leone makes is they define Hip Hop incorrectly. When our era introduced and pioneered it, we established an African American brand. The rapper’s accent had to be free of African grammar, and their beats had to follow the same arrangements as credible artists in the United States.

It seems that somewhere between the time we left Salone and the end of the Civil War, a new breed of rappers emerged. They knocked in Krio, kept an African accent, and used African beat patterns like Afrobeat. These rappers became Afrobeat rappers with African accents. People like Kao Denero and LAJ have American accents, but they usually harmonize their raps and do not format their songs in the traditional boom-bap, Trap, or West Coast style from the US. It is a different era in which the rappers seek to move away from the usual Hip Hop sound.

I found out about him in 1992 when a guy called Med Jem, who ran a Kung Fu dojo called Black Art, took me under his wing.”

That is the reason why I don’t believe it’s right to compare the stars from this era with the pioneers who established the game. These newer emcees redefined their careers with the graph from back then. I was a young aspiring rapper living in Grassfield, Freetown when Shadow did what I wanted to do with music. We were not close. I don’t even think he knows me though we’ve met once in the States. However, he did inspire me back when I lived in Grassfield. He had a buzz and frequently performed at a spot called Kadjebs Plaza, where I used to go to watch him.

I could swear that he lived near Magazine Court and attended Methodist Boys High School with me, but I’ve met guys from Prince of Wales who said he attended there with them. Humor me, he and I never kicked it. I found out about him in 1992 when a guy called Med Jem, who ran a Kung Fu dojo called Black Art, took me under his wing. As Med trained me, there was a guy at the dojo called Turbo B, he spoke of Shadow. I went to see his show and started to look up to him as an influence. That was before I moved to New Street, which is in another part of Freetown.

I admire all Sierra Leonean musicians from this era, especially Kao Denero and Boss LA. They have the ear of the Sierra Leonean people and have established a powerful legacy by playing Salone Hip Hop. However, when we speak about rap, the youth should understand that it’s more than producing a dancy song. I explained that in my book, “Hiphop Kruzade… Path of a Legend.” In several radio interviews with DJ Jida Kizz at Airadio in Freetown, I’ve spoken about identifying today’s era of music into genres and subgenres. That is because of the format of the new sound.

There are drums, strings, baselines, and symphonies from which the Hip Hop artist should not deviate too far. Once one does that, they are not making the original brand of Hip Hop anymore. As my man Malik Sesay added, there are far too many dope emcees from Sierra Leone who never had their day in the spotlight. That’s because, in that region, there was never a platform for REAL Hip Hop. Those who went down that road did so at a great sacrifice. Therefore, if we go by the real context of the terminology, are the most popular Salone rappers Hip Hop emcees?

We’ve said the same about Trap and Drill rappers.”

Many Sierra Leonean rappers play it safe. They depend on catchy songs by crossing over into other genres and forgoing the pure essences of Hip Hop. Many pursue fame or attention. They rap in Krio or other local languages to appease our natives, and their beat or instrumentals selection is along the lines of a danceable tempo. Even though there is nothing wrong with what they do, if an artist records an entire album over Afrobeat, Zouk, Reggae or Dancehall instrumental and sings in a local language then the artist cannot claim to be a full-fledge Hip Hop emcee.

That is especially true if their songs lack the original break samples that constitute the sound. We’ve said the same about Trap and Drill rappers. Most OGs would argue that those forms of music are best described as subgenres of Hip Hop. If the question is, who is the most popular Sierra Leonean musician among Siera Leoneans in Sierra Leone as well as the global diaspora? The draw will have to go between Kao Denero, Boss LA, Emerson, and Steady Bongo. And here again, Steady Bongo might take the cake, considering his longevity.

Who is the Salone artist who pulls the most massive audience when playing at the national stadium? It would be a close tie between Boss LA and Kao Denero. The best Hip Hop emcee? It’s indisputably Shadow Boxxer. Granted, it should be said that from the overall musical aspects, Boss LA, and Kao Denero are better songwriters than Shadow Boxxer. These three artists make the most memorable songs once they incorporate the Sierra Leonean and Nigerian sound into their tunes. Only a few other artists can match them in that regard.

However, when it comes to Hip Hop and Rap, the only Salone artists who I know about, besides Idris Elba, that do it outside of the Salone population, globally right now are myself, and Shadow Boxxer. So what I’m saying is Shadow was a high contender when MC Solar was hot. If he’s still a contender now, going by us who know his record, for freestyling and battling, we have to salute him. Not every rapper drops a lot of albums. Not every album becomes a smash hit in Sierra Leone. Some rappers find their success in other lanes.*

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