How Wale Merged the Worlds of Hip-Hop & Wrestling With ‘WaleMania’

With WrestleMania XL inching closer, Wale’s anticipation is mounting. This Thursday (Apr. 4), the wrestling enthusiast won’t be lacing up his boots for a bruising Philadelphia Street Fight, nor will he be strolling down the ramps of Lincoln Financial Field, vying for WWE domination against the Head of the Table, Roman Reigns. That’s because he’ll be busy grappling with producing one of the premier highlights of WrestleMania weekend, WaleMania. 

Since its inception in 2015, WaleMania has been a unique fusion of hip-hop and wrestling. It’s not just another event on WrestleMania weekend, but a close-knit gathering where fans and professional wrestlers unite to celebrate the daring athletes who risk it all in the squared circle every night. 

“I’m a maniac every year because of that,” Wale told Billboard ahead of the event. “I always lean on [my partner] Kaz, but every year he always gets it done. I go through the phases of nervousness, and as it approaches, I’m cool, and Kaz is like, ‘It’s fine, it’s fine.’ Every year, there’s pressure because we need certain things to happen. I’ll be cool. It’s gonna be a good time, it’s gonna be packed, it’s gonna be sold out. It’s the same nervousness I feel when I hit the stage for a big show.”

Former music journalist and WWE writer Kazeem Famuyide joined Wale’s expedition around a decade ago, after the two realized they shared a profound love for wrestling. Over the years, Famuyide and Wale have produced incredible events for WaleMania, reeling in major talent from both arenas, including Scott Hall, Big E, The Usos, Westside Gunn, Flatbush Zombies and more. This year, the stage will be even brighter in Philadelphia, as the WWE celebrates the 40th anniversary of WrestleMania. With Wale and Famuyide at the helm, expect nothing short of resounding results leading into the biggest Mania ever. 

“I think that with Wale’s obvious experience and my experience in culture, we can bring something different to an industry that doesn’t see a lot of that,” says Famuyide. “I think that’s why it stands out so much and why it’s gotten so big over the years.”

Billboard spoke to Wale and Famyuide about putting together WaleMania, bridging the gap between hip-hop and wrestling, creating a safe space for Black wrestlers, and more. 

It’s been nine years since the inception of WaleMania, what were some of your favorite moments of the first iteration of it?

Wale: The juxtaposition of it. Nothing like it is now, but you could see that we had something.

Kazeem Famuyide: I remember that first one — and Wale, you remember Rey Mysterio wasn’t in WWE at the time? He was involved in a tragedy where the dude he was in the ring with passed away. 

A lot of the wrestlers got to see Rey [for the first time in a minute] – JR, Scott Hall – there was a lot of love in the room for Rey. From my point of view, I think we saw for the first time as fans the real cameraderie that really happens and the love there for a guy like Rey.

Wale: Inside the community – it doesn’t matter what company you work for, they just having a good time. They consoling Rey. You look back at it, we’ve lost so many people in that business and it hits 10 times harder when you get to this reunion every year. And see them get outside their character.

KF: I think the wrestlers love it even more than the fans. A lot of times WaleMania is the only time they’ll see each other all year long. I think the talent and the folks behind the scenes love it as much as the fans do and it kind of reminds you of the community of wrestling that’s bigger than just putting on a five-star match.

It was a lot of cats who were closet wrestling fans. Now for whatever reason, they feel like wrestling is cool again. Do you feel like WaleMania is responsible for playing a part in hip-hop being more receptive for their love of wrestling?

KF: Wale will never say, it but I’ll say it for him: Wale was spending his own bread to go to these events any time WWE was in town. That same WrestleMania weekend [where] we’re in San Jose and he’s spending thousands of dollars was the same week he’s dropping The Album About Nothing. And we’re in a church watching Ricochet wrestle and Apollo Crews and Rich Swann and all those guys. He has a legit love for the business and the people in it.

He’ll never take credit for the hip-hop connection with wrestling, but all you gotta do is look at it. He’s been the nucleus of it all. Whether it’s in front of the camera, behind the camera or creating relationships in WWE or AEW, he saw this world of professional wrestling where everyone can kick it and get along treating it more like a professional sport. The respect around it grew. A lot of folks that grew up in the Attitude Era are like, “Okay, it’s not a real sport, but as a grown man, you can appreciate the athleticism and what it takes to do it year in and year out.” Wale’s been there — and it’s not just for the looks.

As somebody who has covered hip-hop culture as a writer/producer, I could see the shift. WaleMania, as big as it is a part of his brand, I think of how big it’s gotten with everyone else. I think that’s a big part of why it’s been easier to be digestible for the common/casual fan of wrestling. 

Wale: The biggest [genre of entertainment] out there, arguably.   

I think it’s dope that it’s not just WWE-centric.

Wale: We got guys that only got one match under their belt. It’s just an experience for them to meet some people and get in some rooms. A lot of stuff goes on behind those doors. That’s some of the stuff I enjoy most to see people. Remember when everyone picked Kofi [Kingston] up and we knew he was gonna win the next day? 

KF: Booker T was in that building too. Even though we felt it was gonna be Kofi’s moment, there was that little bit of uneasiness. We were like, “Man, if they don’t do right by our guy, it’s gonna be rough. At least we got tonight.” At least we got to bask in the love for Kofi, and he was kind enough to pull up and receive that love. 

Wale talks about folks with one match under their belt. That same weekend we’re lifting up Kofi on our shoulders is when I kicked it with Swerve [Strickland] for the first time. He just signed to NXT and he had a buzz. He came through, and clearly wasn’t as big as he is now. Just seeing the evolution of folks that have pulled up to experience it, there are folks that pulled up that I’m a fan of that I didn’t know pulled up to previous WaleManias. Like, “I was just kicking it in the back trying to have a good time.”

I think the growth with this industry, Wale and the entire event has been beneficial, because at the center of it all it’s always been about celebrating each other, having a good time and giving back to the industry. It’s probably the wildest weekend of the year – hell, we’re gonna celebrate y’all and really enjoy it.

Looking at past videos, WaleMania gives off a family reunion vibe. How important is it to provide that looseness not just for the fans or wrestlers, but for everyone involved including the hip-hop acts?

Wale: I’ve been on tour and had to do WaleMania, and I’ve been off tour, but I’ll say this — this is by far the busiest day of our year. It’s the most hectic. We’re passive-aggressive to each other, we’re mean to each other, but when the lights come on, it’s hard to explain. There’s a lot of the universe working in our favor on them days. The timing of it all is crazy, and the moving pieces and not getting people in or phones not being on – it’s a lot. But it’s worth it to see everyone happy where they are. It’s worth it to pull up to WrestleMania and Triple H say, “I heard you guys had a blast last night.” That acknowledgment from the higher-ups and the OGs – people like Booker T – that s–t be making it worth it.

KF: As big as it’s become, it’s still very much a grassroots event. It’s not a massive production putting this thing together. It’s myself and Wale hitting people up personally. It’s been word of mouth. I think the reputation of the event perceives itself. It went from this underground, “If you know, you know” kick-back event to people saying, “I’m flying to Philadelphia, and if I don’t get to WrestleMania that’s fine, as long as I get to WaleMania.”

It’s been a common theme — and I think that’s because of what Wale has helped build with this thing. It’s a really unique, one-of-one situation and event, where if you wanna come enjoy different parts of the culture, there’s different ways to experience it, and this is one of those ways. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone come from the hip-hop world that has no idea what this is that doesn’t say “this s–t was hella fun,” and an amazing experience. That’s what I love about it. I know the wrestling community is going to be super-supportive, but what I get a kick out of is folks that aren’t even wrestling fans at all that are like, “This is a vibe that’s fun as hell.” They come and enjoy themselves, [hear some] good music and meet folks they would never meet under these circumstances.

Is there any pressure on WaleMania to live up to the momentum of Wrestlemania XL, knowing that this will be the biggest Mania to date? 

KF: I think the reason we get along so much is we’re both ultra-competitive in our own ways. I think we’re both trying to outdo the last year, have bigger moments, greater partners, bigger experiences for the people who buy tickets and doing it in bigger venues. I think just naturally both of us being super competitive. I compare it to when LeBron [James] and D-Wade teamed up — they’re both these ultra competitors, but that competitiveness is what they have in common, and why they’re so great together.

There’s always pressure and stress. There’s a million things that could go wrong, but it never really does. By the time the night gets there and the vibes get there, it always finds a way to be an unforgettable night. As much as there are benefits to the show production, it’s really the memories we create. You could scroll down the #WaleMania hashtag and see the photos, videos, the pure organic excitement and memories people make from it. To do that, you gotta put pressure on yourself or you get complacent. “It was good, but it wasn’t [this year]” – I never wanna hear that. I wanna hear that it gets better and better every time out.

It’s a diverse crowd that comes through but it’s been dope to see you guys highlight the Black community. You give that space to Black wrestlers to be showered and praised. How important has that aspect been for WaleMania?

Wale: I think it’s one of those things you never want to be heavy-handed with, because it’s already implied. To be heavy-handed, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing it for the right reasons. They know this is a safe space for us. We gon’ love on each other, we gon’ support each other, we gon’ talk about whatever’s on our minds, we gon’ dap and we gon’ sip something good together and chill. We have guests of honor every year, so it’s kind of implied. We never wanna make it where there’s so many platforms that do that, but it’s cool. To make it how it is, it’s unique.

How do you word it, Kaz? You the loquacious one. It’s a unique thing we’re doing, where we don’t want to be heavy-handed with it, but it’s extremely implied. 

KF: WaleMania is for everybody. When we first started doing it, the roster didn’t look like the roster now. I’ll say in the last four years plus, there hasn’t been a better time to be a Black wrestler. 

Wale: Or a Black wrestling fan.  

KF: There’s top stars, fans, work-rate guys, super-entertaining guys. When I was growing up, in entertainment in general, you fell into the trap of the tokens. They’ll throw you a token Black guy here and there, and there’s usually one spot for the token Black guy, and that’s the gimmick. 

Now, like we’ve seen in many forms of entertainment, it’s been a lot more diverse. Just as far as the many different ways the Black experience takes place. That helped with the growth of WaleMania. It’s definitely implied, like yes, this is the party for the n—-s. At the same time, everyone wants that invite. I don’t want to say the “C” word, but everyone wants to feel like I’m cool enough to be in this building. This year, we’ll have those type of folks like, “I can’t believe this guy is up in here.” You can usually tell when the folks are more comfortable around the brothers and sisters.

I’ll tell you a story, even last year and years past, Rob Van Dam is one of my favorite wrestlers growing up. Rob Van Dam is a staple of WaleMania. We love RVD. He brings his girl, he might roll a jay or two, he’ll come and kick it with everybody and put on some music. It’s so many wrestlers of all creeds and colors that pull up.

Wale: Jim Ross, I think [was at] WaleMania Cleveland. Me and the good ol’ JR were smoking a good ol’ jay a couple years ago. It’s for everybody. That might be why they come to get something different. 

I just want to say we definitely want to shout out a lot of the other pillars in our community, like Smoke DZA, Westside Gunn, Flatbush Zombies and the guys who come through. They come through off the love. We gon’ go to their stuff too. It takes a village. We not in competition with anybody. Unfortunately, throughout the years we’ve seen people try to compete and it didn’t go well. We not in competition with no one.

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