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Märta Thisner

Seinabo Sey on her newfound confidence and Moonlight-inspired video

The Swedish pop star explains how she stood up to industry sexism, and why her new visuals embrace her Gambian heritage

At the age of 27, singer-songwriter Seinabo Sey has come to a realisation: she owes you nothing. It’s the mantra of her first single in three years, “I Owe You Nothing”, on which she announces over stark, jagged electro-pop: “I don’t have to smile for you / I don’t have to move for you / I don’t have to dance, monkey dance for you.” It’s taken a few years for the Swedish-Gambian artist to get to this point – and she still sometimes finds herself suppressing her feelings to avoid conflict – but as much as possible, she tells herself: “Fuck it.”

This newfound confidence ripples through Sey’s new music, which is even sleeker and bolder than her brilliant 2015 debut album Pretend – though it still grapples with difficult feelings. In the minimalist, gospel-inflected “Remember”, Sey has a conversation with her own ego and emerges with a sense of freedom. The video, which was directed by Sheila Johansson and NewLand and partly inspired by Barry Jenkins’ cinematic masterpiece Moonlight, is premiering below.

Taking a break from recording her new album in Stockholm, Sey spoke to Dazed over the phone about the pain and joy of making music with “the patriarchy hovering over me all the time.”

What can you tell me about “Remember”, and its themes of legacy and impermanence?

I think I actually wrote it to myself. I know I did. One part of me just wants to be remembered, wants people to like my music, and like me. Another part of me is like, “You know damn well that you've been liked and that doesn't make you happier, but if you just want to be remembered we can fix that.” I'm talking to my ego in a sense. I teamed up with Jacob [Banks], and we turned it into more of a love song, but it's about wanting to be remembered for all of the good things, and hoping that you can walk out of a relationship – whether it be with myself in time, or with a person – feeling a sense of freedom.

Why did you decide to film the video, along with “I Owe You Nothing”, in your father’s home country of The Gambia?

I wanted to show people something I hadn’t seen in a major label pop context, if it's not from like, Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé. I love and respect them so much, but when African culture is filtered through Western or American eyes, it kind of dilutes it a little bit, and all of the things that I'd see growing up don't really make it to the final product. I just wanted to show the little weird things and give a more nuanced picture than I had seen before of those parts of the world.

“It is incredible that some women are still making music, still want to make music, still believe in the power of music, when so many have been so terribly abused” – Seinabo Sey

The video for “I Owe You Nothing” starts with the quote, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing,” which made me wonder about the responsibility of artists to do or say something about the state of the world. Do you feel you have a responsibility?

I live in Sweden, so we kind of shy away from taking responsibility for anything ever. I get that, but being a black woman waking up every day in this body, I have to take responsibility. We can carry on making art about nothing – and don't get me wrong, songs about “nothing” will make you happy, which people really need in hard times – but art and music reaches people. If you infuse it with something that you really feel, that can seep into people's hearts. I really do feel that it's the responsibility of artists, in times like this, to actually really try. If the world burns down, nobody's gonna be listening to music, so we have to try to do something. I mean, I'd rather just sing songs about my bullshit love life forever, but I feel like there are more important things, right now at least.

You recently co-signed a letter calling out the Swedish music industry for abuses of power. What made you want to sign it?

It was just in solidarity with the people who have gone through terrible things. The patriarchy is hovering over me all the time, it's everywhere, but I haven't been sexually abused, I was just in shock reading people's testimonies. There's such strength to being able to share your story, and (being) brave enough to call people out who have so much power. It is incredible that some women are still making music, still want to make music, still believe in the power of music, when so many have been so terribly abused.

You’ve said that being in the studio is “always very traumatic”. Has it been any less traumatic this time around?

Nope. It's fun maybe 25% of the time, and the rest of it is me pounding my head into a wall, and analysing way too much. I've had a rough couple of years. I've tried to make things up, I've tried to have other people write songs for me, but at the end of the day (I have to) experience some aspect of the song to make people believe it. I wish it wasn't that way sometimes, but I really have to have gone through any pain or joy to find the complexity of the issue.

I know you’re not finished with the new album yet, but so far, how do you think your sound has changed?

It's a little bit more clear. I really wanted to chill out with the metaphors and just be straight to the point. It's been hard, because I always believe that if I tell my truth, it's gonna lead to conflict, and I'm very scared of conflict. I've also been bullshitting myself a lot, and tolerating things that I really don't want to tolerate. Right now I'm just like, “Fuck it. My intentions are great, if you misunderstand it that's on you, that's not me any more. I don't owe you an explanation.” I'm tired of explaining myself to society in general.