D.C.’s Wale wrestles with fame and anxiety
On a Saturday afternoon in May, Washington welcomes him home with cloudy skies, warm and gray like the inside of a sweatshirt.
He’s taking a 24-hour reprieve from “The Gifted” to escort local welterweight Dusty Hernandez-Harrison into a boxing ring at the University of the District of Columbia, the campus where Wale’s parents first met.
Wale owns property in Atlanta, he sublets in New York and he tours constantly, leaving just a few months each year for the District, where he usually checks into luxury hotel suites like this one at the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest. When his road manager arrives from Maine Avenue Fish Market toting plastic-foam containers of shrimp and fried whiting, a room painted anyplace-beige suddenly smells like home.
“I’m getting my mambo sauce before I leave!” Wale says, and tugs a hundred dollar bill from the roll in his pocket, requesting seconds for the friends that keep pouring through the door.
They all call him Ralph. On Twitter, nearly 3 million followers know him as Wale “Folarin,” his mother’s maiden name. Put them together and it sounds like Ralph Lauren.
He was born Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, his family called him Victor and they raised him in a one-bedroom apartment on Peabody Street NW. One of his earliest memories of the neighborhood came July 4, 1990 — he and his older brother Alvin were outside lighting sparklers when “a crackhead came running out the building with my mom’s jewelry box,” he says.
His parents — Ayo and Doris Akintimehin, Nigerian immigrants who came to the United States in 1979, worked various jobs and attended the Celestial Church of Christ — became more protective of their sons. “I think all African parents are strict, though,” Wale says. “If you’re watching the news in the early ’90s in D.C., the mayor’s on coke. There’s a war going on out there. You ain’t going outside.”
So he grew up seeing the streets of Washington from the passenger seat of his father’s taxicab, fielding requests from the back seat and twisting the radio dial accordingly, soaking up whatever came spilling out. To prove it, he sings the chorus of Alabama’s 1992 country hit “I’m In a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” with a soft, sweet rasp.
Music made his world feel vast, but what he saw outside made it feel grim. He remembers a man, shirt wet with blood from a stab wound, trying to flag down his father’s taxi for a ride to the hospital. “It heightened my paranoia,” Wale says. From then on, he kept watch for the sentinel radio towers off Georgia Avenue, not because he dreamed of his voice being broadcast over them someday, but because they meant he was almost home.
When the family moved to Gaithersburg in 1994, he learned how to fight. “I didn’t deal well with people making fun of me or trying to get over on me,” Wale says. “Being a black, dark, nappy-headed kid when everyone was on the Tommy Hilfiger? I was light on the Tommy. Minimal Tommy!”
This is how Alvin, 31, a manager at a marketing agency in New York, remembers his kid brother growing up — cool, funny, outspoken. As teenagers, they’d obsess over the rap CDs Alvin bought from mail-order music clubs, sharing their discoveries with their cousins. (One cousin, actor Gbenga Akinnagbe, played Chris Partlow on HBO’s “The Wire.”)
But making friends was every bit as difficult as it was on Peabody. “We were the African family on the block,” Alvin says. “Spanish kids would try to fight us so the black kids wouldn’t make fun of them. Black kids wouldn’t talk to you because they thought they were going to catch something. And the white kids they bused you to school with, they don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
In middle school, Wale lobbed a rock at one of those buses and was sent to Mark Twain, an alternative placement school in Rockville, since closed. “That’s really when his mouth started to show,” Alvin says. “He wasn’t a bad kid, but he did things without thinking. . . . My mother was a very religious woman, and she would pray with him and try to get him to keep his cool.”
He simmered, graduated from Quince Orchard High School in 2001 and enrolled at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania, where he played football, fought with his teammates and squabbled with his coaches. He transferred to Virginia State. Started going by “Wale.” Then to Bowie State, where he dropped out for the last time. Those fumbled football dreams still nag him, but today, life as a rap star feels a lot like life on the Quince Orchard track team.
“You can beat everybody at the high jump, you’re number one, but you still got that cloud over you that you could have done better,” Wale says. “There has to be a point where you hit that bar and you fail.”