“What I’ve Seen is That a Scar Will Stay:” An Interview with Pa Salieu

Julian Brimmers speaks with the UK upstart about his run so far, and his unique perspective on pressure, fame and success.
By    November 10, 2020
Photo by Will Robson-Scot

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2020 is quite an insane year to have an insane year. For rising British-Gambian star Pa Salieu it all began in January, when, after a first few notable singles and collabos, his track “Frontline” crossed over from UK drill and Afrobeats heads to a much broader audience. 

Born 23 years ago in Slough (the UK Scranton, if you’re into The Office), Pa moved to live with his grandparents in Gambia until he was 10 years old. Back in the UK, he spent his teenage years in Hillfields, a notoriously rough suburb of Coventry. Despite actively trying to avoid the street life, it caught up with him to a degree where he lost his best friend, AP, and later, in autumn 2019, he himself got hit in the head with 20 pellets of a shotgun. “Frontline,” with its stark visuals and siren-driven instrumental perfectly captured these times of hectic and paranoia that had him “fall in love with the nina,” as he sing-mourns in the track’s haunting bridge.  

It didn’t stop there. Pa returned to the studio shortly after being released from the hospital, and he’s been churning out a string of all-killer singles since. Seriously, if he stopped right now, he’d have whatever the music equivalent to a 300 game is. Or, to keep our metaphors in the UK, a 147 on the Snooker table.

On “My Family” he flexed perfect tag-team energy with East-London MC Backroad Gee, while “B***K” offered a more conscious dance bop. The two-track drop “Betty/Bang Out” featured a freestyled, smooth-bouncing afrobeats jam, and a drill-inflected flipside that couldn’t have been more perfect to get the critics (nerds) on board with its sampling of Japan’s “Ghosts” — famously the favorite song of the late K-Punk AKA Mark Fisher, the patron saint of the blogging era in the UK. 

There’s no reason to believe that to Pa, the instrumental was anything but a banger, tho. Fair enough. He’s known to listen to little of the music he’s been compared to or lumped in with. At one point in his teenage years, he told NME, he only had one Vybz Kartel song on his mp3 player for months, on a continuous loop. The elasticity and theatrics of dancehall’s top vocalists clearly influence his style to this day, most strikingly in his latest offering, “Block Boy.”

The unlikeliness of fledgling stardom in Coventry, a mid-sized, post-industrial city bang in the middle of the British Island, is proverbial: “Send them to Coventry” means to deliberately neglect someone. Purposefully paying them no attention. It’s also the title of Pa Salieu’s debut mixtape, slated for November 13th. — Julian Brimmers

I’m calling you from Germany, but we’re doing this for an L.A.-based blog. Did you get a lot of feedback from outside the UK yet?

Pa Salieu: I’m seeing a lot of Americans commenting, from Jamaica as well… So, yeah, I’ve seen a lot of people from a lot of countries reacting to the music. I love it. That’s exactly what I was aiming for, you know. Everyone can hear the sound and relate, or at least feel like they can listen to it. It’s different kinds of people as well, which I love.

I was on a group text the other day with music writers from different genres and we discussed the singles you put out this year. Funny enough, everyone liked a different one best. You’ve already covered quite some ground, stylistically.

Pa Salieu: You know what it is with me, yeah, my voice is my instrument. And people just connect to the sound, that’s with any music. Just be open. When there’s no genre, anyone can listen to it. And I want anyone to try to understand where I’m coming from, y’know. I don’t do a lot of punchlines, I just say what I’m about. For example, on “Frontline,” people can choose to vibe with the sound, but at the same time, if they wanna really listen, they can only do so because they already vibe with a sound that they like. I can’t be limited and it’s deeper than just rap. I don’t know if I’m explaining it right…

You do, you’re just saying it with such an ease. In “Frontline” you break out into these melodies while saying very rough things. In all of your songs you seamlessly switch from one style to another, it’s not something a lot of people can do convincingly. Did you ever have any training for your voice?

Pa Salieu: No, I can’t even sing, I don’t know how to sing. But I’m doing my best {laughs}. I just do it. The way it comes out, I don’t expect it to come out like that. I know it’s weird but I just hear flows in my head all the time. I’ll be in the studio and it has to sound exactly the way I hear it in my head. The beat is a big factor, I just go deep into beats. I connect to it. But everything that comes out is how I hear it in my head.

I found your music on GRM Daily in 2018, you then had some massive showings on the Mixtape Madness channel. In the UK you still have these independent music video platforms that can really help break an artist. How do you get on those?

Pa Salieu: You can message them! It’s easy now, anyone can message them. It would be useful if other countries had platforms like that, like their own Worldstar or GRM Daily.

Do you feel good about releasing in an era where you can put out singles on your own time, and you don’t necessarily have to have a full album or mixtape?

Pa Salieu: I don’t believe in rules with this music thing. Rules, I don’t believe there are any. If you don‘t like my music, you don’t have to. That’s my mindstate. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. No problem. But music is expression, you can’t control expression. Once you try control it, it will always change the results. Expression is freedom.

When you first started going to the studio, did you have a lot of encouragement from people to go wild on the beat and express yourself that way?

Pa Salieu: I generally didn’t have a lot of support. You know what, people thought I was gonna die or get sent to prison, not that I would do music. Where I’m coming from it’s real, innit. I just like proving people wrong, I guess. But no, I didn’t get no motivation, I just fell in love with the studio.

You’re from Coventry, but you had to go to Stoke-on-Trent to record?

Pa Salieu: Yeah, because there is no opportunity like that where I’m coming from. Not for long tho! I wanna put up hella opportunities for anyone trying to do what I’m doing.

You want to build a studio in Coventry?

Pa Salieu: Yeah, just anything to make it easier. It wasn’t easy for me.

But who helped you out first, when you started recording around 2017?

Pa Salieu: One guy, his name is Shinx, he used to drag me from Coventry to Stoke-on-Trent. Just because he can drive, y’know, he said it doesn’t cost him a lot. Certain people did give me a little chance. No matter how little you think it is, it’s all motivation, and that’s always a big thing to me. It’s helped me a lot. I remember I used to be in Frontline, man, doing what I’m doing. And Shinx would just pull up one day a week and say, “Pa, you’re ready?” And I’ll be like, “yup.” Blessed to all my friends, see you later, see you later, I’m going to work now {laughs}. Any kind of chance I had, I took it, little or not.

That’s fantastic.

Pa Salieu: It’s still a journey though, nothing has happened yet. Nothing.

To be fair, a lot of things happened. Millions of people have watched your videos, you’re on the cover of all these magazines, even before your first big release. I can’t imagine what a year you must’ve had.

Pa Salieu: Listen, it’s been good! But all work. No resting. Not kicking back here, just working, working. That’s why me and my team, we are not tryna watch nothing. We’re acting like nothing happened, you know. We need to stay focused. That’s the only way, man. I started music not long ago and this is happening now. For me it’s just about what can I learn for next year. What could happen next year? I love that. I’m in love with the studio. The same feeling I had the first time in the studio, that’s exactly the same feeling I have now.

You start one of your verses with “Humble Over Anything.”

Pa Salieu: That’s what I’m saying, that’s why I’m not watching nothing! I refuse to, I refuse to admit that something big is happening. I stay oblivious, I don’t want to see it {laughs}. I mean, let’s go, we’re aiming for greatness. We’re trying to send a message, and it’s not just music. It’s not just about me. To me, the future president of Gambia might be listening to this music. You never know. Future leaders could be listening to you and what you do will impact the next generation. My mum told me if you use your youth wisely, you’ll be very happy tomorrow.

Do you enjoy the moment, still?

Pa Salieu: Yeah. Before this I was lucky, but I was taking risks all the time. That’s not good for your mind. This is way different, I’m seeing good energies now. That’s what’s happening, I’m learning, I’m changing. In a good way.

I once interviewed this veteran grime MC from London, K9, whose story involves jail-time and, akin to your story, the loss of a close friend. He also told me that putting out music and performing will never feel like stress after what he’s been through.

Pa Salieu: Exactly. And now nothing can put me down. Because I’ve seen too much. Everything is a blessing right now. If I breathe tomorrow, that’s a blessing.

So what kind of message do you want to put out to those people then?

Pa Salieu: Unity! Unity, unity. I want people investing back home in Gambia as well. Building an infrastructure. Regardless of it being 2020, we’re still left behind… It’s bigger than what you think. Change will happen, man.

You are very vocal about what’s currently happening with the uprisings in Congo and what’s happening in Nigeria with the protests against this murderous police force, SARS. Do you feel the Western world is still too ignorant towards these struggles?

Pa Salieu: You know what it is? They can carry on ignoring, I don’t mind. Now, this generation… how many people like me do you think are there. It’s A LOT! We gonna go back and unite, y’know. The only problem is that we ask, we ask, we ask… we don’t need to ask. We need ourselves, we need to unite. That’s what I believe. And watch me, this music will be a part of it. I’m so sure of it, I’m more than sure. I’m gonna have a hand in building the infrastructure back home. It’s madness, 2020 is a revolution. It’s not necessarily good but it IS happening now. We all see this. So much we’ve been ignorant towards, and now we see everything. Everyone is running on Covid-time, they be locked in, and we cannot run from the news. We cannot run from what’s happening and we all see this. It’s alright. This is the next generation. You don’t know if the next Prime Minister or the next President is listening to you. You don’t know what will give them motivation. Everyone has a hand in shaping this world, and everyone is here for a reason.

You are 23 now, right?

Pa Salieu: Yeah.

How did you end up with such a perspective on things? It feels like you skipped a couple of steps – most people, if we were destined for success at your age we’d have been ignorant as hell. I guess that’s self-absorbed and privileged. But where do you get the confidence to speak in such a selfless and positive mindset?

Pa Salieu: Yeah, yeah. Confidence, do you mean I should be scared, or…?

No, but how come you’re so secure of your purpose and of the message you want to put out there in your art?

Pa Salieu: The things I wanna express are honestly just in my head, just like the melodies. I can’t keep stuff in. That is why I fell in love with music, because it’s the only thing I can express myself in. Everything in my head, I keep it, and I isolate myself. So, whatever there is in my lyrics, it’s exactly what I’m thinking about at the time. It HAS to come out. Without music I probably go crazy. I’d probably be still in the hood right now, doing crazy shit. What comes out of my head, it’s truth. Unapologetic.

Tracks like “Frontline” or “My Family”, the darker tracks, I guess, they’re so urgent because you write them while you’re still in a bad place, or shortly after you’ve left that kind of lifestyle. Is it harder now for you to get back into that state of mind when you were in Hillfields, Coventry, in the midst of it all?

Pa Salieu: What I’ve seen is that a scar will stay. If it’s bad enough, it will stay there. So regardless whatever your experience was, another younger generation is experiencing it right now. It won’t go, so you have to talk about that shit. People ignore the circumstances and then label you the bad guy. The criminal. I’ve got my first criminal record for having a shank on me, a knife. You know why I had that knife? Because I’m not gonna die. I didn’t have it to go stab people. But I’m not dying, you know I’m saying. I come from a place where it’s easy to die. I got caught with that knife, so I have a criminal record. OK. Now I can NEVER have a normal job. What am I supposed to do? I tried warehouse, I can’t do that. What other options do I have? Just the roads, the roads, roads. How I got into music was at a sell, y’know. I was at this guy’s house, he wanted some weed. I went to his house and saw a studio and went “WHAT? What is this, let me have a go! You have everything here, let me just stay and try record {laughs}.” That’s the story of my music. The music saved me, literally. Otherwise I was gonna die. Trust me, it’s that crazy what the roads does to you. I know what it does to a good person. People don’t see it or they don’t care. They label you the bad guy, that’s it, remember, you’ll always be the bad guy. That’s how I felt like. I thought I was a bad guy. No bro, now I will tell you exactly what is going on. And I’m gonna say it in so many ways, so many different flows, you’re gonna have to get it.

And it’s important that you do that, you know, packaging your story that way. Because a large portion of the people now listening to you would’ve never known about the struggle you endured in your area.

Pa Salieu: Remember, “Frontline” was this year, all the frontline shit was this year. I was still in the hood. I ain’t no waste man. So many young kids that got shot this year, they died. My friend was too young to die. All my friends were too young to die. My friends got locked up 14 years, for what? For defending themselves. But they’re the bad guy, innit. It’s crazy. Some of my friends will come out 2023. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna set up jobs for them. I’m trying to open a Gambian restaurant in London and I won’t hire any security. I wanna make sure my friend comes out of prison, gets his security license, so I can make sure he comes with me and has a chance to fix up his life. I’m trying to fix everyone’s life. You can’t do that as one man, but I will try. Me making it out, it makes someone else believe in themselves so they can come out, too. And you know what I’m gonna do now that we talked about it? I’m gonna build a studio back home. I’m only here to see and to go back and help. That’s it. See what’s going on, then go back and help.

Photo by Will Robson-Scott

Doing something that’s sustainable, building something for people to help themselves seems the way to go right? Especially now with all these youth clubs closing down, all these recording studios closing…

Pa Salieu: And they’re building more bookies, more gambling, casinos… it’s fucked! We gonna change this. It’s nothing to build a youth club, you just need funds. I’ll make sure I make the funds by next year and we’ll see what I do with this. I will try, I can’t change the world but I’ll try. And I’ll make sure people start thinking like me. I know they think like me, because it’s not greed that creates change. That’s why I said that nothing happened yet. I may have 5 true followers, don’t let this 100k {on social media} fool you.

Your new singles, “B****K” and “Block Boy,” is that the style you’re going after on your mixtape, Send Them to Coventry?

Pa Salieu: [laughs] You’ll hear… I don’t know man, I don’t even know how to explain it yet. I just want you to see what I’ve learned. I’m excited for what I’ve learned. The mixtape is coming out on November 13th and before that I’m doing a live stream, I’m performing nine tracks on my Youtube channel. If you can, tune in. It’s my first show.

I’ve been meaning to ask you about that, not being able to play shows and all… Wouldn’t you have loved your breakout year to be a different year than 2020?

Pa Salieu: No, I would have taken ANY year. You know what, COVID favoured me, you know why? Because I’m awkward. I told you, I love isolating myself. If the whole thing was earlier, I wouldn’t have known how to perform and all that. I do now, because I’ve been practicing. So now I’m ready next year because I’ve learnt so much this year. I wasn’t ready. I’m real shy in my own time.

So… going back to my initial question — which of the tracks you put out in the first half of this year do YOU think is the best one?

Pa Salieu: Oh, my favorite? Out of those I’d pick “Betty.” That one because I was only playing when I made that. I didn’t even write, I was just on the mic, freestyling {laughs}.

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