By Joey Grihalva

As someone who writes about local arts and culture, I inevitably find myself discussing the “state of Milwaukee music.” Everyone seems to agree “the scene” is the best it’s been in a long time, but there are varying opinions on what’s missing.

Having lived in Minneapolis, I inevitably compare the two cities. Beyond a local government that actively embraces and funds the arts, Minneapolis has profoundly benefited from having internationally renowned homegrown artists like Prince, The Replacements, and Atmosphere that either never left the Twin Cities or maintained a presence while living and working elsewhere.

These artistic ambassadors brought attention to the Minnesota music scene, bolstered its infrastructure, and inspired future generations.

The siren call

On January 22, 2015, I was at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn chatting with Aron Smith, better known as MC Oneself of the seminal Milwaukee hip-hop group Rusty Pelicans. We were talking about the importance of having someone represent the city on the national stage. At that moment, Sam Ahmed also known as WebsterX approached the bar.

“Maybe it’ll be this guy,” Smith predicted.

Smith had good reason for the guess. Earlier that day, Ahmed released the stunning video for his single “Doomsday” via Vice Magazine’s national music website Noisey. The next day it was picked up by Entertainment Weekly on its way to 136K YouTube views and counting.

The “Doomsday” video premier was a watershed moment for the young emcee. After dropping his debut mixtape Desperate Youth in late 2013, Ahmed gained a reputation in the local underground for wildly energetic performances.

A little more than two years later, on the cusp of releasing his debut studio album, the 24-year-old artist is poised to be that ambassador. His new album Daymares  employs polished, radio-friendly production and hooks, while maintaining the dark, experimental edge his fans have grown to love.  

Future projections

I first met Ahmed on the “Doomsday” video shoot in late 2014. He made an open call for extras on the WebsterX Facebook page. He is one of the few local musicians I’ve had the opportunity to interview from the outset of his journey.

Ahmed’s wide-eyed optimism and intense ambition have been there from the beginning. Two years ago driving around the north side neighborhood where we both grew up he foretold the moves he is currently making in the music industry.

Milwaukee and Wisconsin, for that matter has no shortage of artistic talent. Yet not everyone is able (or has the desire) to make art their career. Some of us are superbly humble, some struggle with anxiety, some are terrible at networking, others are unable to collaborate. Some relegate their talent to a weekend hobby.

For whatever reason, there are brilliant Wisconsin artists whose gifts will probably never be known to the rest of the world.

Say what you will about Ahmed’s audacity, making it in the music business requires a certain amount of ego. Lyrically, Daymares finds a boastful Milwaukee kid navigating the early stages of a music career and a bout of depression. He wears his heart on his sleeve, channeling his trials and his triumphs into uplifting, anthemic hip-hop.

‘All on team’

It’s essential to note that an unshakable drive and undeniable skill are not the only ingredients that have gotten Ahmed this far. He has been elevated by an entire community of artists and friends, from his fellow New Age Narcissism collective members to the young auteurs behind his award-winning music videos.

Not to mention, Ahmed couldn’t have reached this level without his benevolent girlfriend (who sings on “Doomsday”), his Ethiopian immigrant family, local radio stations, photographers, set and wardrobe designers, national bloggers, fans, and haters. (You should always thank your haters.)

Interestingly, there are no Milwaukee rappers or singers featured on Daymares. In fact, the only features come from Minneapolis pop/R&B group DEM YUUT. However, his record release show on Friday, May 26, at Turner Hall Ballroom will feature a medley of local hip-hop artists.

New Age Narcissism leader Q the Sun — who co-created the outstanding Radiohead-inspired 2015 EP KidX serves as Executive Producer on Daymares and crafted six of its fourteen songs. Additionally, much of the album was engineered by Daniel Holter at Wire & Vice in Wauwatosa, the suburb where Ahmed attended high school.  

Coincidentally, WebsterX is not the only Milwaukee artist with over a million streams and a song that played on Apple’s Beats 1 Radio. Another north side native 20-year-old rapper IshDARR — is making a name for himself around the globe.

While IshDARR is also poised to put Milwaukee on the map, Ahmed may be a more fitting ambassador, precisely because of his organic, “it takes a village”-style ascent. Plus, he has already utilized his influence to invest in Milwaukee’s future with the monthly, all-ages, showcase and interview series FREESPACE, which was founded in 2015.

In 2016, Ahmed expanded his support structure to include Chicago’s emerging independent record label Closed Sessions.  This Friday Daymares official release date — Closed Sessions is hosting a label showcase at The Metro in Chicago. Joining forces with this promising Midwestern outfit extends Ahmed’s reach and builds a bridge between our respective cities.  

Tragedy turned triumph

Ahmed’s path seems to be cosmically tied with that of Dontre Hamilton, the schizophrenic 31-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a Milwaukee police officer on April 30, 2014.

It was announced on the morning of the “Doomsday” video shoot that no charges would be filed against the officer. We could feel the tension and frustration in the air that dreary winter day. The following year Ahmed performed at a Jazz Gallery benefit to help send Hamilton’s mother to Washington, D.C. with Mothers For Justice United.  

The “Doomsday” video eventually lost out to a short documentary about the Hamilton family’s search for answers at the 2015 Milwaukee Film Festival. Recently, Erik Ljung’s full-length version debuted at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. It received considerable praise, with The Hollywood Reporter recommending a wide release.

Milwaukee is accustomed to negative national press. The north side is especially no stranger to hardship. This is exactly why Ahmed’s rise is so significant for the city. He is a light in the darkness. His success is Milwaukee’s success.

And he is the tip of our creative iceberg.

(Photo by Kenny Hoopla)