Mahdi Atif is a photographer, videographer, DJ and graphic designer who goes by the name FreakishNerd. Born and raised in Milwaukee, his artistry is inspired by a keen fascination of how living in the Midwest shapes the identities of those around him. Atif’s work has encompassed portraits, concerts, music videos, streetscapes, everyday life and more. Among his career highlights are filming QuestLove on a boat ride to The Cooperage for his DJ set, taking portraits for Tank and the Bangas for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, taking style photos of the Bucks parade for the SNKRS app, shooting for Summerfest, and going to Japan with Xavier Ruffin to work on a pilot.
Photography started for Atif in high school when he took an urban journalism workshop over the summer at Marquette University when he was 16. “The program taught us aspects of photojournalism, video stories, interviewing and writing,” he recalls. “We’d go out into the community and cover things for assignments, and I ended up really latching onto photography. I liked it so much that they let me use a DSLR camera for the first time and that was really cool.”
Sometime after that he got his first DSLR camera and began seriously exploring photography as both a hobby and a profession. Atif continues, “I was shooting every day. I went to school with Rodney Johnson—also known as Sptmbrborn – and he’d have his camera all the time so we’d talk about tech and share photos.”
After briefly attending college for art, Atif found he disliked it and left. He began learning on his own and teaching himself the ins and outs of his craft. The name FreakishNerd came from putting combinations of words together that he felt evoked inspiration. “I went through a big Childish Gambino phase, so I was kind of riffing off of him. I settled on FreakishNerd after a girl I was dating at the time said she liked it (laughs).”
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He takes the most joy in his work from the editing process, saying that it’s often not an artist’s favorite part. “I find a lot of peace and solitude in it,” Atif said. “There’s a huge sense of control I get from making creative decisions when I’m editing.”
Atif seeks to capture the Black Midwest experience in particular. “I feel as a whole, the Midwest is very warm, hardworking and just hilarious,” he reflects. “So many of my favorite comedians are from this region (laughs). Everyone’s very down-to-earth and real. When you look at how Black people have made their way and thrived in the Midwest despite things that have happened in history to limit us, such as 1-43 in Bronzeville here in Milwaukee. We still make our way through and hold onto what makes our core values.”
He began getting more into DJing around the time the pandemic hit, getting his first controller and practicing mixing during quarantine. Once things started opening back up, DJ FreakishNerd began throwing parties around the scene. “It was something that I wanted to do even before photography,” Atif said. “I took a Saturday DJing class in high school that was led by Jordan Lee; flexing that other creative muscle has kept me balanced and refreshed.”
He made some of his first mixes during the quarantine, “and there was an ‘incident’ while I was in a Clubhouse group called DJs Only (laughs). They had a Rookie Night where we had to submit a mix that had to be like eight songs or something like that using clean transitions, and I had spent that morning trying to get the timing down, but I was super nervous that it wasn’t going to go well. My mix was like the last one that they played, and they got to about the two-minute mark and stopped it, saying that it was too good to be from a rookie and told me that I can no longer submit to them (laughs).”
His first official DJ gig was in summer 2021 opening for DJ Gemini Gilly at Nō Studios. Since then, he’s played events such as the CopyWrite Magazine block party, Black Friday shows at Company Brewing hosted by Mocha Harris known as Vibeday, and a house music night at Company Brewing with DJ Bizzon and DJ Gemini Gilly that was hosted by Nic Stokes. “We’ve got to do another one of those house nights,” he laughed. “That one went crazy.”
The idea for Vibeday came from Atif’s involvement in the Soundcloud edit community; he explains, “You’ll have different versions of songs that you know but with different waves and beats. I’m really into Soulection and Joe Kay and that whole camp, and I wanted to provide a space like that here because there’s an audience for it. I’ll have a bunch of different genres at Vibeday; I’ll go from hip hop to Afrobeat to Latin music, plus I’ll throw in songs in other languages. I’ll play a lot of local music too, so you can come to Vibeday and hear some Genesis Renji, some Ammorelle or some Von Alexander. There’s something there for everybody.”
Atif hopes to put out a photo book that will be a collection of the last ten years of his work. “I’m trying to get some grants right now to help fund some of the projects I want to do,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest goal for this year.”
FreakishNerd is DJing La Gente Gallery’s Opening Night on March 11th and then he’s curating a Vibeday at Cactus Club on April 28th. To view his work, listen to his mixes or get in touch, visit his website at freakishnerd.com.
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