Race, music, and struggle: The Awkwardly Confident life of Flint rap artist Shemy

FLINT, Michigan -- Inside Fosters Coffee in downtown Flint, on a cold, cloudy Wednesday morning, Flint artist Shemy, dressed in a gray Eight One Zero hoodie, blue jeans, and a black baseball cap, tells me about his life. He has left me laughing, bewildered, and inspired. We’ve settled ourselves at the front of Fosters, on display for downtown traffic, and the photographer, joking about how to capture his “good side” in addition to him correcting me on how to pronounce his last name—one of Syrian origin passed down from his father who was adopted.

“Growth is a beautiful thing, and everybody grows at a different rate,” he says when I asked what he wanted people to take away from his music and tumultuous life. “This album, I want [people] to know that that experience is tailored to a bunch of different parts of me. I want them to hear my love for music.”

There’s level-headedness about the rapper, born Nicholas J. Shemes, bred from growing up in Flint and utilizing poetry and music to cope with having divorced parents. Now, nearly two decades later, he’s come to personally understand the roles and responsibilities of being a husband and father—both of which have changed his life for the better. But as we sat downtown shooting photos for this article, exchanging pleasantries, and debating taking tequila shots in celebration of Cinco De Mayo and the release of his album, Awkwardly Confident, the elephant in the room is Shemes’ race. He’s a white man in an industry birthed and heavily influenced by African American culture and experiences.

“Most white people look at [Black] art and culture and see that it stems from pain or environmental circumstances and feel there's a certain coolness to it. This is Black music built by Black people, and I’m a guest in the culture,” he says. “I’ve never tried to be someone I’m not. I never tried to make up stories to make myself look cool, and it’s hard when you have white boys who oversaturate it.”

And yet it isn’t because of his race that’s allowed him to team up with some of the city's best talents: King Ca$hes, Brelia Renee, Ace Gabbana, Jeff Skigh, Alex Kidd, and Furillostar. It is, in many ways, the result of his life story—one saturated in experiences of being the only white kid in predominantly African American spaces and in situations that could’ve found Shemy in prison or the grave.

“I have a lot of issues that stem from my childhood and even more from my adolescence because I didn’t take the trajectory that was probably laid out for me,” he says with a half-smile. “I had just turned 18, and I’m at a house party, and me and this guy had issues. One of my boys threw a bottle and hit his girlfriend. So he pulled out a gun and shot through the window. Just crazy stuff like that.”

As a child, Shemy found himself immersed in music, and the aspirations of being a rapper kicked in. Fascinated by Tupac’s Brenda’s Baby and a LL Cool J and J. Lo song, in middle school, he started writing songs to instrumentals he downloaded off Limewire before disclosing to his mother that he wanted to record music. He began calling major and local record labels, leaving voicemails that consisted of him freestyle rapping. His breakthrough came from a studio in Fenton who “I don’t know what it was about that day, but he was like, ‘yeah, you want to record a song? You come out here, and I’ll let you record your first song for free.’” The addictive nature of recording and his passions overtook his desire to go to school. In the middle of eighth grade, he convinced his mother to let him be home-schooled and, with the blessings of his estranged father, pursued music full-time.

“[My mom] was supportive. She knew I was angry,” he said. “All of my brothers, we had a lot of issues, and I think she saw music as an outlet for me instead of paying a lot of money on therapy.”

Soon Shemy began finding ways to record music and make an album. The more he honed his craft, the better opportunities that came his way, including catching the eye of SilverSun Recording Studios founder and music icon, Bernard Terry or BT, who became an instrumental figure in his life.

“I’ve known BT since I was a kid. He’s always been there if I needed advice, and not just about music. He’s such a wise guy and seen so much,” Shemy recalls reminiscing on his early days.

But life for Shemy, he tells in between light laughter and reflective pauses, seemed to continually move him into trouble where “at times I made the right decisions, and at times I didn’t.” Situations like reentering and graduating high school, a toxic ex-relationship with an ex-girlfriend who made him so angry that he drove “up US-23, riding dirty, drinking Jack Daniels with my boy and his [gun] in the truck.” That, in addition to trying to craft an album with BT’s mentorship inside his grandparents’ garage and get into college. Distraught at how her son’s life was going, his mother’s intervention was the catalyst for him to turn his life around—that and meeting his wife, Dianne. Having met and hit it off at a party in Bloomfield Hills, she and Shemy settled down and moved to Kalamazoo, where for the first time in his life, he’d found stability.

“Dianne was culturizing me. Those experiences were great. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. They were probably the best experiences of my life being out there,” he says with a massive smile while taking a sip of his coffee. “I stopped recording music for a long time. I didn’t do much because I was just out there living, doing things differently, you know what I mean?”

But an offer to purchase a family member’s house promoted Shemy and his wife to move closer to the city. They found jobs that allowed him to build a studio in the basement. The birth of his daughter Elliot in 2017 put a fire under him to step back into music—an industry many cite as a young man’s game. Having released Before I Turn 30 and Oh We Rapping? in 2019 and 2020, respectively, it’s today’s release of Awkwardly Confident that takes the crown. The 12-track album sees Shemy confidently traverse a range of genres, including pop, punk-rock, R&B, and Hip Hop, certifying him as one Flint’s great and sees him at his best.

“Awkwardly Confident is a lifestyle. When s*** isn’t in your favor, you still have to be confident, and it’s going to be awkward. You’re awkwardly confident because there s*** pulling you down, but you’re still confident, or you’re confident when you shouldn’t be,” he says. “As an artist, I need to be confident in what I do. There’s a heartbeat to the music, and I am doing this because I love music. It shines through my art, and if you recognize that, it was made for you.”

You can find Shemy on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and on his website. His new album, Awkwardly Confident, is out now, streaming on all platforms.

Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.