Hip-hop, Quarantine, and the Virtual Future: An Interview with Local Artist Hakeem Sanusi

Over the past couple years, SLO county has gone through vast change and development.

For those that are newer in the area, you might be surprised to know that the music scene went on a hiatus and only recently began rebuilding itself to its former glory. Along for the ride has been r&b artist and rapper Hakeem Sanusi. 

Currently taking a pause on being a Cal Poly student, Hakeem is chasing his dreams of being a performer through his solo project and his band Silk Ocean. Performing in various venues across the county pre-covid, as well as snagging a New Times Music Award, Hakeem has been making a name for himself. I was fortunate enough to talk with Hakeem over Zoom and get a more inside look at the local r&b and hip-hop scene. 

silk_ocean_the_siren Hakeem singing.jpg
Photo by Nate Ross

Brian: Hey Hakeem, thank you for coming on.

Hakeem: It is a pleasure to be here with .Wav Zine, thanks for having me.

So you’ve recently come out with an EP, what can you tell me about it?

The EP is something that I’ve been working on this past year and a half. I had my first release Soul Food almost a year and a half ago and it was something that I put out with my good friend Vincent Angelo. We made it in like two days and just wanted to have something out there, something people could vibe with. This project is different because I feel like it really portrays a version of me that I’ve been during this period of time. It’s been really cool to see all this growth happening as a musician and I’m excited to share that with people, along with the messages in these songs.

Could you elaborate on these messages?

I want everyone to be able to pick what they want to pick from these songs, so I won’t be too in depth. In my last song, “Listen to Me,” it talks about seeing all these things that are happening in the world and not being completely satisfied with the state of it, the status quo. And as a result, talking about these specific subjects like the wealth gap in the US, which has just continued to increase. But also, it’s mixed with a vibrato, a little swagger, and then the chorus is “You better come correct if you tryna make it next. Y’all know that we blessed, that’s why I confess. I’m just tryna do my best, I’m just tryna do my best.” It’s very personal to me because it’s saying if you’re trying to make it next, if you’re trying to be the next big thing, in my opinion just come with some respect, do your thing, and do your best. Don’t leave anything you know on the table, just bring it on.

How has your pandemic experience been so far?

Like many of us, I experienced some pandemic depression.


*Both of us laugh*

But I was able to shift that emotional energy into productive things like learning how to trade stocks and how to play the piano; it’s been very cool. I’m excited to work on new skills and to see how they will intersect with my future. I’ve also been working on writing more and creating new music. It’s been great having a really cool group of musicians in my band Silk Ocean, that I can vibe with and bounce ideas off of.

Live shows throughout the country, especially in SLO, were banned for a while. How has that affected you?

It’s really hard, especially for a lot of musicians out there that are touring musicians who get a lot of their money from gigs. We were doing a limited gig situation when we were in red but when it got to purple most of those gigs disappeared. I wanna be out there gigging with my guys but unfortunately we can’t do that at the moment. But even though music is in the bust, I’m still in good spirits because at the end of the day I know I’m blessed and that’s something I don’t take for granted. Everyday I’m grateful that I’m alive and well. I’m here to keep making music while doing my best to pay the bills. I’m taking this time to introspect.

It’s great to hear that you’re making good use of your time. This whole phenomenon with trading apps is pretty recent, as stocks used to be this foreign thing, but now anyone can get into them. What sort of change do you see happening because of this newfound accessibility?

I think overall, people are going to be aware of what’s happening in the market and the general state of the economy, and I think that’s a good thing. But then also they can see how the government is bailing out these huge companies and then not give out stimulus checks. Thankfully, we have a new president and I’m hoping that he will make good on his promises to help those who are suffering like small businesses, and people who have to make rent and mortgage payments. They are doing their best but there’s not much that they can do with what little is given to them and it’s going to take a while for jobs to recover. We’re going to have to hold our breath for a while.

Are you vegan?

I am not but I do try to eat meat sustainably.

So you recently won the New Times Music Award. First of all, congratulations. Definitely a great feat to obtain in SLO county.

Thank you, but yeah I got first place in the Rap/Hip-Hop category. It got me super excited because back when I started with Soul Food and was making the mental decision to pursue music, I thought I would be purely doing r&b, but I have since realized that I have an affinity for rap as well. As an art form, I’m learning more about it every day. I need to learn more about the history of it but I’m so excited to be venturing into this genre and as I get more comfortable I realize there are so many different ways to deliver the message and to have people vibe with you. You know, maybe hit them with some triplets, or maybe a rap-sing style. There are so many textures in rapping.

In regard to these textures, in terms of execution, who are some artists that you’re influenced by?

My number one idol for music in general is John Legend because I think he’s a phenomenal artist and pianist. Now that I’m learning piano, he’s even more my idol. In terms of hip-hop and rap, I really vibe with Lupe Fiasco and feel like I maybe have a little bit of a sound of Hopsin. I really like Goldlink, he’s one of my favorite rappers right now, but I also really love Kendrick, J-Cole, and J.I.D. Listening to their songs and listening to more rap, I have seen an effect on how I rap and it’s made me a better overall.

What are your thoughts on artists like Travis Scott? Moreso trap artists who have a lot of layering and modifications to their voice.

Travis is cool, he has his own style and I know he produces a lot of his songs as well. It’s a different style but I definitely vibe with it. It’s kind of like melodic rap with some autotune and then dope production. If I were to say that I didn’t vibe with certain rap, I’m not the biggest fan of super mumbly rap. I like to hear what people are trying to say.

Did you check out the Lil Nas X Roblox concert?

I did not but I did check out bits of Anderson .Paak’s Fortnite concert. It’s cool to be doing these as well because I think we’re moving more towards a virtual reality. It’s neither a good or bad thing in my opinion, but it’s cool for people who can’t go see a show in person since they can still go to a virtual show and have a good time. It’s good to be versatile, but also in my opinion you can’t beat being there in person and feeling the vibe with the people.

Going with the evolution of the concert experience, how have you seen the music scene in SLO specifically and do you see it moving anywhere in particular?

Well the music scene in SLO has always been something that’s been here and it continues to develop from what I’ve seen being in SLO for four years. We have our Fremont theatre, which is sort of the legacy theatre and it’s the big name. I’ve seen Earthgang perform there and that was fire. But it is an older venue with maybe not the best technology…. Then we also have our newer high-tech venue SLO Brew Rock. I’ve played there with Silk Ocean and that has been a blessing to play and perform there. I also saw Willow Smith perform there. I think we’re constantly expanding and right now we’re more on the folk side of music. We do have some rising r&b artists like Dante Marsh, and it’s cool to see how he’s transformed the performance landscape to give the people here something new that they’re not used to seeing. I think moving forward things will open up some more and there will be more opportunity for r&b and hip-hop. It’ll be cool to see if SLO can embrace this new music that is coming out.

Hakeem this has been fun, thank you for letting me pick your brain. With everything going on in quarantine, things are about to pop off.

Yeah thank you for having me, looking forward to continuing to make music, and I hope the people vibe to it.

You can follow Hakeem and his band Silk Ocean at @iamhakeemmusic and @silkoceanofficial on Instagram and find his music here or under the moniker Ha Keem on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube.

Brian Mendez is .WAV’s Interview Coordinator and an editorial writer, he wrote the article. Image credit to Gunnar Velten.