Culture, heritage and nationality, although they differ, we’re all born with them and they ultimately fall as the basis to how we first identify ourselves. Over the last few years we’ve seen a rise in Hip-Hop were members have come out, embracing their African heritage. Artists like Tyler, the Creator, Wale, Nipsey Hussle, and The Weeknd are affirming their African roots but not many have been proud to rep their African culture or nationality from jump. At least not like fast-rising North Carolina native Well$.
Born to Congolese immigrants, Well$ has only been active in music for a little over four years now. The first generation Central African rap artist released his debut back in 2012 and has been one to watch ever since. The interesting thing about Well$ isn’t just his music but also the path he took getting into music. It’s one many children of immigrants can relate to.
Born Leroy Shingu, Well$’ story starts off a year before he was birthed. Back in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Well$’ family were protesting the leader in power who had put a countrywide 6PM curfew in effect. Well$’ uncle, a political activist and member of the U.N, was being hunted down by soldiers for his views.
“There’s no freedom of speech where my family is from. If you spoke against the government, they would kill you. Mike [my manager/cousin] could you stories about how soldiers with AK’s would stop him and his mom asking, “Where is your husband.” Harassing them. That’s initially how my dad got citizenship, through political refugee.” Seeking political asylum was a common thing back in the early 90’s. This is back when Rwanda was in turmoil, conflicts had raged on, and rebels controlled about a third of the entire country.
“My uncle sent my dad to the States to work and support my older brothers and sisters that he had with another wife. Before my dad left, I guess he impregnated my mom. So in 1994, a few months before she had me, my mom illegally came over to where my dad was in Charlotte.”
Growing up like any black kid just outside of a city, Well$’ upbringing was typical when it came to school, sports and friends but his living situation was one that differed. Having parents that stuck to their traditional Central African values, Well$ found it hard to be both African and American. “Growing up I really didn’t embrace the fact that I was African. I tried to push that way from me. A lot of friends and neighbors didn’t know I was African until they saw my Grand Ma,” he recalls.
“I remember back in the 7th grade, my crib was the spot. My friends would come to the crib early in the morning to get something to eat before school- African homes stay with food. So one day we were all in the kitchen and my Grand Ma pulls a deer head out the freezer in front of my homies. The tongue was hanging out and everything. My friends saw that and immediately the bus came. Once we were on the bus, the jokes just rolled in. Overtime I learned to deal with the fact that I am African and the jokes eventually became played out.”
By instilling in him the same values they were raised by, Well$’ parents wanted their child to one day become a doctor or lawyer. Well$ tells us, “The first time my Dad told me he loved me, I was 19-years-old. It’s like that because that’s how he grew up. Tough love, real tough love. Like, you’re not going to know that I love you; you’re going to think I hate you. I understand now what they were trying to accomplish. They risked everything. They left their families behind just so I could have a better future. So they were trying to make sure their kids are well off so we won’t have to struggle like they did. But being force-fed so much African shit, I just got to a point where I was like, ‘Fuck this bruh’.”
Frustration for Well$ set in right around the time when his mother had to serve six-months in jail for being in the country undocumented. With Dad at work, Well$ found himself mainly in the care of his grandmother who barely speaks English. The now broken home made it easy for Well$ to get into trouble with the law from the likes of stealing cars and selling narcotics. Basketball was Well$’ first outlet of escape from his traditional African household, but things weren’t going right off the court or in the classroom. This lead Well$ to transfer schools multiple times thus forcing the emcee to take a year off from ball. Eventually, Well$ dropped out of High School and relocate to New Orleans with Mike’s older brother, Alec Lomami.
“Alec was born in Belgium. He was the first dark child. He was the first one to get in trouble,” says Well$. “He introduced me to French Rap. I always appreciated the music but that was my first taste of rap.” Well$ may not have understood everything he heard on French rap tracks but appreciated it nonetheless. The early influence of French Rap, New Orleans native Juvenile, and mixtapes like Drake’s So Far Gone, KiD CuDi A Kid Named CuDi, and Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & Orange Juice, would play a major part in how Well$ crafted his first project, $ay La V.
“I dropped $ay La V and it wasn’t received well, so coming back I wanted to make my next project undeniable,” says Well$. Although overlooked by the masses Well$’ debut EP become the most downloaded album in the Charlotte, NC area when it dropped and lead the rapper to open up for high profiled acts such as G-Eazy, Chris Webby, Johnny Polygon, and one of his idols, Pac Div. Just two years later Well$ then followed up with an honest look at himself and his Congolese-American upbringing on MTSYD: Revenge of The African Booty Scratcher, a mixtape about an African kid blending in with the American way of life.
“Because of my name and how my family dressed, I was called an ‘African Booty Scratcher’ most of life. That’s why I called my first tape MTSYD: The Revenge of the African Booty Scratcher,” says Well$. Taking a childhood joke and making it work in his favor Well$ 15-track tape put the subject matters of family and ethnic shaming on the forefront of the EP.
“On MTSYD, I couldn’t just talk about the African struggle or acclimating to America because everybody was on that wave or trying to be weird. The weird black kid role is over romanticized in rap nowadays. Not everybody was an awkward black kid growing up. Earl Sweatshirt has a line on “Chum” where he says, “Too black for the white kids, and too white for the blacks.” Everyone’s trying to claim that role now but they didn’t live that life.”
Drawing inspiration once more from French rap and Drake as well as from G.O.O.D Music, TDE and A$AP Mob, Well$ separated himself from others over beats by DJ Dahi, THE BL∆CK HE∆RTS CLUB, PGMW and Ryan Hemingsworth on MTSYD. “I came different and rapped about how it is being in an African household trying to be an American. Trying to acclimate yourself to the American culture,” says Well$. “I was trying to get the world acclimated to a real African nigga. A lot of artists like to claim African but they really aren’t African. I feel like they just started claiming it because it just became cool to be cultured a few years ago.”
Well$’ critically acclaimed tape put him right where he wanted to be, in the public eye. The notoriety exceeded his expectations but a new situation at home once again left him discontent. “There was a period after I made MTSYD where I was depressed. For about six to nine months, I couldn’t write shit. I couldn’t make songs. I was stepping up to the plate and striking out. I didn’t like anything that I wrote,” Well$ states.
Depression is all too real in the Black community but not touched on enough. We’ve recently seen both KiD CuDi and Kanye West battle with this with no real measure of if they made it out or not. Well$ was able to fight his way his situation by once more relocating.
“Giving up my place and living life like a nomad was a spark for me because I’ve got to meet so many different people and experience different things. If you ask any of the people in my camp, I was a real agitated person. Normally, I’m a goofball. All of my friends are goofballs but when I was depressed, I wasn’t trying to hear none of that. I would tell them to cut that out. I was anti everything. That shit is real. It really effects you,” he tells us. “It wasn’t too long ago that I got out of the depressed state. Shit was just hitting me. I started making 6-7 songs a week.”
The new outlook and nomadic lifestyle helped the North Carolina rep find his own lane and create eleven-track project The Way I’m Living Makes My Mom Nervous. According to Well$, TWILMMMN is “about how my American upbringing clashes with my African values.” No longer blending in and looking to live life the way he deems fits, the project is hard-hitting and hear an aggressive Well$ free-flowing alongside feature collaborators Deniro Farrar, Angelo Mota, Alec Lomami, Sylvan Esso, J.K. the Reaper, Dom & Sipho the Gift.
TWILMMMN is dope but to really appreciate it according to Well$, you have to, A “Be doing something that makes your moms nervous.” Or or B, “Be an African struggling to get your parents to understand what you’re doing, following your passion.” Before the age of the internet, life for most was all about working to support the family and provide but with millennials, we’re not focused too much on working for the sake of working and providing but doing something we love.”
Throughout every project Well$ has released he’s stuck to his roots and made it through his way. Although his family doesn’t approve of the way he’s living, the path he’s blazing is path and becoming somewhat of a role model for first-gens that don’t want to unhappily work and would rather follow their passion. Well$ is proof that you can be successful like your parents want you to be without following the path that they deem fit. His journey is far from over and with room still left to grow, the sky is the limit for this young rapper artist.