Life as a TikTok influencer runs hot, until it runs hollow. The climbing follower count and adulation are titillating, as are meeting other creators and influencers, and finding opportunities to promote other musicians’ work. But after years on the For You page, racking up more than 800,000 followers and nearly 25 million likes, the  20-year-old Sudanese-Canadian rapper Shareef came to a realization: “I was making vids for other people’s songs when it could be mine.”

Now, he’s made the jump many influencers wish they could, but only few attempt – an influencer turning musician.

Signing with Universal Music Canada in the summer of 2023, and releasing his irreverent debut single “OMG! (freestyle)” in February of 2024, Shareef had his music career officially begin a month ago – but it really started five years ago. With friends, in a friend-of-a-friend’s Toronto basement studio, Shareef cemented his first professional bars.

“We made a track that day first and it was super-hype,” he says. “Then they left, and it was just me. I still had the energy from the last track. We were just vibing in the studio, it was literally just bar for bar. I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to say next. I just kept saying shit.”

Shareef is an acolyte of the freestyle. Rattling off raps in rapid succession has been a skill he’s honed since steel sharpened steel in his after-school freestyle circles. The free association of the format creates a spontaneity that not even he can predict. A signature line that helps form the hook of “OMG” – “Oh my God, oh my God, where the fuck is the vape?” – emerged almost as a joke, while looking for his vape in the studio with the producer, Marow, and continuously freestyling between takes.

Shareef, OMG, freestyle, video

Select the image to play the YouTube video of the Shareef song “OMG! (freestyle)”

“He’s like. bro, just say that,” says Shareef. I was like, okay, so, boom, punch in again, I say it, and then I didn’t hear the full track until it was completely done.”

When he did get the chance to play it back, he knew it was going to be the first song he ever released. Shareef and his friends liked it, but to really grasp how good the song was, they needed external feedback. While partying in University of Toronto frat circles in 2021, one of Shareef’s friends knew the DJ at one of the parties, and air-dropped him the song to spin for the crowd.

“We played it at a frat party and those boys went dumb, they went crazy,” says Shareef. “The vibes in there were insane, so I knew this is a good one.”

Three years later, that song they played at the frat is the same recording on Spotify, and Shareef’s freestyle mettle is sharper than ever. Between then and now, Shareef has recorded a plethora of songs to constantly refine himself, but they’ll never see the light of day. He insists that they’re locked in the vault in favour of his “insane” upcoming releases with freestyling as a throughline, and the paradigm in which Shareef forges his songs.

There have been addendums though. Lines lucky enough to be of interest to Shareef land in a notebook for freestyle fixes, and the topics are determined before he spits. Otherwise, Shareef maintains an open approach,

“I feel like I have my best results when I freestyle, because it’s just that I don’t know what I’m going to say until I say it,” says Shareef. “If I want to lock in on writing, I could lock in, but I don’t like taking shit too serious, because then it just starts to feel like I’m forcing it.”

Instead of writing, Shareef listens. First it was to his inspirations, XXXTentacion and Juice Wrld, but eventually one person emerged, with his after-school freestyles: himself, with ever-sharpening steel.

“I kind of stopped listening to other music, other artists, it’s been me right now,” he says. “I’m trying to perfect my craft, so I got to listen to my shit and really take it in.”