Article and Interview Written and Contributed for Publication by Mína Wang
From the outside, the Bourbon Theater sits bathed in the neon hues of its retro 80s-style sign. Upon entering, however, a musky darkness engulfs the light, leaving only the navigational tools of a heavy kick and snare bouncing off the wood-paneled walls
The passageway from the lobby opens into a dimly-lit theater.
Khaleefa Muhammad, a.k.a. HAKIM, stands mid-verse, breathing roughly into the microphone before a crowd gathered at the base of the stage. Fore fronted among a backdrop of abandoned drum sets and guitars, he gestures to the beat of his latest song. He dons a T-shirt featuring the album art off his newly released album, El Morado. Although small, the crowd responds enthusiastically to each verse he spits, pulsing their hands to the rhythmic bass. As the performance continues, HAKIM alternates between pacing across the stage and sitting in front of his fans, high-fiving and knuckle-bumping them between verses.
At the end of his performance, he makes a brief speech on suicide prevention and education, in light of the cause behind his mini-concert, and exits down side steps. His fans respectfully follow him and one-by-one line up to greet him.
The small but passionate fan-base doesn’t seem the least bit daunted at the prospect of meeting him. The level of familiarity with which he greets many fans reveals the close relationship he has built with these teens, as a fellow resident of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Despite the lights on him, though, his journey in the small music scene of Nebraska hasn’t been easy. His laid-back demeanor and infectious smile hide a history of hardship and sacrifice in pursuit of hip-hop.
As a child, he grew up with a passion for music, growing up with inspirations such as 50 Cent and [other inspiration]. He recalls, “I remember growing up and listening to music in the car when I’m driving with my parents. And, y’know, as a young kid I always had a knack, when the radio was on and they had the DJ hour, I always had the knack to hear maybe one or two notes and know the next song that they were about to mix in.”
He would later go on to start a small rap group with his friends called Z-Unit, inspired by the hip-hop group of a similar name started by 50 Cent (G-Unit). The group recorded and worked on music in the computer lab after school, unknown to most of the faculty of his school.
Despite his passion and talent, his family pushed him towards a career playing basketball. During high school, he played varsity basketball junior and senior year at Lincoln High. He recalls, “Again…I didn’t think it would go anywhere. We just loved to do it. I never—y’know, it was basketball. Basketball, basketball, basketball, basketball.”
During his senior year, his basketball talent brought him to a basketball preparatory school in North Carolina in order to get better offers from colleges. There, HAKIM contemplated quitting music. He said, “…I had FaceTimed one of my bros back home and I told him, ‘Hey, bro, I’m done rappin’. I quit. For real, I’m done rappin’.’”
Several weeks later, however, an earth-shattering death triggered a change of heart: the death of childhood friend and fellow rap artist, Eddie. HAKIM says, “And then the straw that broke the camel’s back was Eddie died…died, and I think that night I specifically remembered, because I was literally one of the first to find out because he had died in his dorm room….I was like, ‘Ain’t no way.’…I started bawling, I cried my eyes out. I called my parents. I ain’t know how to cope with it. I had nobody close to me that died like that, that really had an impact on my life….That night flipped a switch in me, put it in perspective how short life was. So now, I was like, ‘If I’m gonna be livin’ this life, Imma do it how I wanna do it. I’m not gonna live it no more for my parents , ‘cause I know they wanted me to play ball and all that—so, it just really clicked for me.”
Since then, HAKIM has released numerous projects and collaborated with various artists (most notably, American rapper and comedian, Fatboy SSE). In 2017, he began to build his independent record label, Our Society LLC, with manager Don Washington. His work has helped brand Nebraska with the title, Corn Coast. His most recent album and eighteenth project, El Morado, is meant to bring the listener on a cinematic journey. With features from Fatboy SSE and Lincoln artist/labelmate, Vono, HAKIM pours details of his dream, familial relationships, and innermost thoughts into thirteen heartfelt tracks.
The song Cult reveals how he sees his role as an artist from Nebraska and hope for the Midwestern music scene. He raps, “I done sacrificed everything ( For the Cult )
That’s the gang
Sold my soul in exchange
To show how to catch a dream
I’m not in it for the fame
I’m just tryna make a change
From this dollar to my name
Here’s a penny for your brain”
He explains, “When I say ‘sell your soul,’ when I use that term, it means, ‘I put myself up for sacrifice.’ Um, me being a pioneer, like, I gotta be the one to go out. It’s like sending a man to Mars. I gotta go find out if this can really happen and, if, along the way, if I fall short, whatever, whatever. I’m that sacrifice and then the person after me, y’know, can be like, ‘Okay, this is where HAKIM went wrong. This is where Our Society went wrong. Let’s do this, let’s do this, and return.’ Y’know, I’m still finding it out. We walking in the dark, but we got light in our vision. So, yeah, I’m making that sacrifice right now. I’m putting all this money up for the sake of all these young artists that wanna do it later.”
For HAKIM, unlike other artists, the dream isn’t just about ‘making it’ in the music industry. Location and branding Nebraska play a large part in his vision. He continues, “It’s been very important for me to not move away from here. I think there’s so many times in my career, like, ‘Hey, bro, I know you wanna rap and stuff, I know you can make it, but you gotta go to LA, you gotta go to New York, you gotta make it happen in a bigger city.’ And I’m like, ‘That never interests me. I don’t wanna do that.’ I wanna do it for me, I got a point to prove…that it’s possible, no matter where you at. If you want it, there’s no obstacles but your mind and whatever you put your mind to, you can accomplish. And I’m sticking by that.”
A visionary growing up in Nebraska, he credits his experiences on what he calls the Corn Coast as an integral aspect of his musical identity. “Coming into the game, and being from Nebraska, I’ve embodied the balance between a spitting image of all of my favorite artists that I’ve studied and listened to and that defines Nebraska–we’re a melting pot. We’re smack dab in the middle of the map, so we get a little bit of everything. We’re a little bit behind when we get it, but we literally get a little bit of everything. And that’s what I am, like, my style and everything, I’ve been influenced by skate-boarders and rap culture and I even got plans to farm my own corn and stuff.”
Despite how far he has come, HAKIM isn’t done yet. As he fiddles with his glasses, he proudly declares, “I got plans to change all of Nebraska, the culture, how conservative it is. I wanna change all that. All of that. And, like I said, if I can’t change the world, I’m gonna spark a kid’s mind that will…One thing I really love about Nebraska is that it’s so raw, there’s so many untapped things that you can do here. And still, that bigger city/small city vibe. You feel both. I think all that is important. As far as the bits and pieces…you really see it all here. It’s just on a smaller scale. You gotta look for it. I don’t want it to be where you have to look for it…I wanna be able to see all the different cultures. You can find ‘em, but it’s very small scale. I want it bigger than that. I want it to thrive, I wanna see art on the wall, colors, plants. I just wanna see all that.”
Ultimately, HAKIM embodies the essence of rap’s beginnings: to propel societal change and embrace our differences. Whether it’s branding Nebraska with his music or inspiring other artists to do so, one thing’s for sure: you haven’t seen the last of HAKIM.
About The Author: – Mína Wang is an undergraduate student attending Columbia University. She enjoys writing, and listening and making music.
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