From the streets to stage: MC Sly Skeeta credits music and the Creator for success so far

A person can only couch-surf at their friends’ for so long.

Sal Ibrahim learned this the hard way.

It wasn’t the only thing Ibrahim learned the hard way, growing up in Winnipeg’s inner city.

“I experienced it anyway a young teen would,” says the Hip Hop artist whose stage name is MC Sly Skeeta. “Being with the wrong crowd, living place to place, staying at Salvation Army.”

Ibrahim’s East African father escaped war-torn Eritrea and arrived in Winnipeg as a refugee in the 1970s.

His mother is Anishinaabe from Skownan First Nation in Manitoba. She attended Pine Creek Residential School, as did her sisters and brothers.

Ibrahim says his mom and uncles and aunts experienced abuse and “other hurtful things that kids shouldn’t have to go through.”

The experience left her unable to parent, so his father, who couldn’t understand what happened to his mother in residential school, took over.

His father, who was a child soldier, believed his mother was “unable to be a fit parent or uninterested in being in his life.”

Ibrahim rebelled and battled homelessness and poverty.

“I had to learn the hard way, ” he says on the latest episode of Face to Face. “And, I think, people can definitely have that experience go the wrong way, in terms of you could be a drug addict, you could be in jail, or you could possibly even end up dead.”

“I’m a spiritual person, and I totally believe that Creator was looking out for me, that I was able to get through that and one of the ways was music.”

What started out as poetry, eventually turned into rhymes and ciphers where Ibrahim would freestyle and hone his skills. His boom box was his saviour.

Ibrahim started getting positive feedback from his peers and earning a reputation for his skills and wordplay.

He still remembers the first time he was on stage at a competition in Winnipeg with some big names in the city’s Hip Hop community. Ibrahim won second place.

Still, it’s hard to get noticed in the Winnipeg scene.

One way artists get their names out is through the International Indigenous Hip Hop Awards.

Ibrahim was nominated as a Breakout Artist of the Year at the inaugural awards in 2021, which was mostly held online due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The second-annual event was held in Winnipeg last summer. Ibrahim was again nominated – this time as best male Hip Hop artist and co-hosted the live event.

Ibrahim says the nominations and hosting the show has opened doors.

His plan is to release two full-length albums over the next two years. He also hopes to learn Anishinaabemowin.

“I didn’t grow up with my Indigenous traditional ways, I grew up with my African side,” he tells Host Dennis Ward. “So being reunited with my culture on my mother’s side – my Ojibwa side – it’s important for me to be connected.

“I have three beautiful kids that I want to break that cycle,” he says, “and teach them, as well, about where they come from and to be proud of who they are. But also being an advocate for murdered and missing Indigenous women and children, men and boys, which my mom has instilled in me – to be an activist.”

Ibrahim is also hoping to offer workshops to Indigenous youth.

“I want to empower our youth,” he says, “for First Nations on reserve to get involved in music, to get away from bad things. I know the resources aren’t there as much to get into music, so they may feel that this is not possible, but I’m about breaking those barriers, standing up for them.”

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