When rapper Shawn Smith thought he was sinking, he decided to swim.
The Southwest Philly native built a name for himself in his teens under the moniker Young Savage. He started rapping while in grade school, garnering underground attention with his freestyles on YouTube. In 2011, Smith, then 17, caught some serious spotlight after he spit a dizzying 20-minute freestyle on Cosmic Kev’s “Come Up Show” on Power 99.
The appearance promised him a steady ascent, but Smith wasn’t satisfied. Young Savage, he realized later, was a persona he couldn’t believe in.
So Smith stopped making music for a short while and sought direction from a higher power.
“I felt like I didn’t have any foundation and I didn’t have a sturdy team,” he tells Philly Weekly. “I wasn’t being who I really was – I was being what I thought people wanted me to be. Now that I’ve identified who I am, everything has been so perfect. I know the only reason that things went so well is because I found God. Nothing else.”
Rejuvenated, he ditched the Young Savage moniker and started going by his real name. And his music matured with the transition. Smith began incorporating more introspective themes to his bars.
“When I came back, I was such a new person, I couldn’t give my music anything less than the real me or a real perspective,” he says. “I figured if I was going to give the real me in my music, I had to give them my real name at the same time. My main thing is staying close to the streets and being exactly who you are. Being real – it’s just all about being real to yourself. I couldn’t preach reality and being real with a name like Young Savage.”
Now, Smith, 24, is shaking up the hip hop world and is being recognized by a list of notable figures in the industry. Last year, he appeared on Sirius XM’s “Sway in the Morning,” where he freestyled over Rick Ross’ “Santorini Greece” instrumental. His impressive wordplay and flawless bars gleaned a stamp of approval by the show’s hosts, Sway Calloway and Heather B.
His song “Heaven,” a single from his 2017 project “Sink or Swim: A Shawn Smith Story” was also spotlighted on “The Joe Budden Podcast.”
After the song was featured on the show, the song’s popularity increased tremendously. Smith said Budden later invited him to his home where they talked hip hop and the fledgling rapper’s future plans.
“Stuff like that people just don’t do for anybody,” Smith says. “It could have stopped at them giving me a shout out on their podcast. That was a platform enough. If anybody asks what brought Heaven to the next level it was the ‘Joe Budden Podcast.’ My man Mal played it. Being embraced by the people who’ve done it in a great way before you is always validation for you. I thank them all the time for giving me that validation. I know the work they’ve put in. They wouldn’t just cosign anybody. It says something to me.”
On the home front, Smith has also been recognized by Meek Mill, Black Thought and Freeway. Though he’s confident he can carry the torch as Philly’s next big emcee on the national stage, he explained he’d ultimately like to see the masses at the forefront.
“I really just like to see multiple people from the city win at the same time,” he says. “It always seemed like it would be one person at a time, and then another 10 years, there would be another person.”
One of the key driving forces in Smith’s hustle is his fierce determination to succeed. He often uses his personal mantra, “sink or swim” as motivation. Upon glancing at his Instagram page, you will see the phrase brandished on clothing and written in his captions. More importantly, he wants to use it to inspire his peers to unlock their own destiny. Smith explained that, ultimately, he’d like to use the name for his own record label.
“Sink or Swim is giving people a choice,” he says. “I got a lot of homies who think they can’t control their destinies. Sink or Swim is letting people know that they have a choice. You can look in the mirror and ultimately tell yourself what your future is going to be like. Anything is possible when you know God. I just wanted to motivate people and make them recognize that those two choices are the only thing that you have in life.”