Photos courtesy of Shelem

 In 2018, musician Isaac “Shelem” Fadiga would finish up a Friday at his day job and head to the streets of Charleston, WV, to perform his songs on the sidewalk, hoping that those headed to the city’s nearby free summer concert series would hear something they liked.

He had just graduated from college and was determined to spend almost every available hour on music. Often, his days started at 7 a.m. with his full-time engineering job and ended at 11 p.m. with playing open mics for a crowd of a dozen — half of whom were other musicians.

“It just sucked,” Shelem said. “It was hard work. It was painful. But I did it because I believed it would land me something.”

Today, he’s playing more than sidewalks and sparsely attended open mics. In the last few months, he’s previewed his upcoming album at the Clay Center, recorded a television commercial for Tudor’s Biscuit World, a fast food chain synonymous with West Virginia, and squeezed in time to play a back-to-school show as part of the same summer concert series.

It started when Shelem was in high school and his brother downloaded music production software. While his brother was in the shower, he snuck into the room, hopped on the laptop and the beats came naturally.

“It was really intuitive for me,” he said.

Shelem went to Marshall University to study engineering and kept making beats and writing lyrics. When he graduated and started working full-time, he tried to keep the same time commitment to music, but it quickly became too much.

He hit a mental breaking point and learned to dial it back.

Today, his days still usually start at the engineering firm at 7 a.m. After he gets home, there’s time to eat and exercise before heading to his studio for a couple hours of work.

But music isn’t just getting behind a microphone; it’s also a business. Shows need to be scheduled, setlists need to be mapped out, merchandise has to be ordered, accounting needs to be taken care of and, of course, videos for TikTok need to be edited and posted.

“You would be surprised how little time I spend making music,” he said. Weeknights are for business, but weekends are for studio time.

“I really try to be open-minded whenever I’m coming up with my songs,” he said. “And I try to go in blank so that whatever has been on my mind lately can jump out.”

His most-streamed song, Suga Wata, came from a song by blackbear about a girl who goes around breaking hearts. After hearing it, Shelem wrote his own song from the perspective of a girl who’s trying to convince a man to cheat on his girlfriend with her.

“I wanted to take a topic, but I wanted to write my verses as if I were the fictional antagonist,” he said. Shelem’s inspirations aren’t limited to other musicians. On a trip to the Ivory Coast to see family, he visited an uncle who’d had a stroke and lived in a beautiful house with a pool. At the time, the uncle could barely move more than a few steps.

“Who knows how hard he worked to get all these things and who knows if he’s going to be able to truly appreciate them ever again?” Shelem said, adding that he realized spending money is a balancing act between saving and spending the money you earn before it’s too late.

From that came Swipe, a song where he raps about getting a call from the bank about a credit card fraud alert. Shelem tells them not to worry and that he’s “just living life, ‘cause as of lately I keep seeing people dying left and right so imma swipe.”

These days, he’s working on changing how he sings — and it’s not easy. He started to experiment with new sounds and a new vocal style after listening to Mannywellz, a Nigerian-born artist who blends soul and rap with African influences. Hearing how another musician transformed his voice has driven Shelem to try to do the same.

On his recent single Catch Me, Shelem sings more and raps less than his music from a few years ago. It’s a soulful melody about not falling in love with someone who doesn’t love you back, underscored by a driving beat.

Shelem admits that he writes a lot of happy songs but isn’t afraid to go darker from time to time. On stage, he’s a bundle of energy and has performed in a sailor’s uniform and a superhero costume.

He said that it’s because “Shelem” is larger than one person — it’s an experience for the audience.

“I want them to feel good, whatever form that takes at the time,” he said. Earlier this year, Shelem rapped a television commercial for West Virginia chain Tudor’s Biscuit World encouraging customers to try its new breakfast wraps. Over the summer, he also put on an album preview at the Clay Center and played several other shows around the area.

On the last night of Charleston’s free summer concert series, he did a back-to-school show that was “funducational.” Shelem and his band had on custom “We Got Skillz” shirts, classroom decor lined the stage and the singer’s costume changed from a lab coat to a construction hat to scrubs throughout the night.

Just a few years ago, Shelem was playing on the sidewalk outside — now, he’s on the stage.

With the t-shirts and career-themed costumes, the engineer by day, musician by night said he wanted to give a simple message for the kids in the crowd:

“Really, the only thing that matters is that you make sure that you develop skills. Because skills pay the bills.”