A conversation between the Swedish-Gambian pop star and London zine Sister
Sister is the essential girls’ zine created by editor-in-chief Beccy Hill while she was at university. Its ninth edition is the sound issue, with Swedish singer Seinabo Sey glittering on the cover. Get your copy of Sister here, and below, read their full cover story, and see the dazzling shoot.
“What’s the difference between making an album and a comeback?” I speak to Seinabo Sey on the phone from Stockholm. The Swedish-Gambian singer is about to take the train to Gothenburg for a week’s vacation after finishing up in the studio, where she’s spent the past three years recording her second album. “I mean to me, it’s not a time out at all, because I’ve been in the studio basically every other day for all of that time. But I guess the way music works nowadays people would call that like a comeback or something. I hadn’t really thought about it that much until recently when people started telling me that...”
I get the sense that making music isn’t the easiest thing for her. “I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of sound I want, what I want to keep from last time, and what I need to change and make better.” However, Seinabo has dropped three singles so far in 2018 – “I Owe You Nothing”, “Remember” and “Breathe”. Seinabo describes her writing process for the powerful and self assured, “I Owe You Nothing”. “We did something that we call beat roulette, it works like Russian roulette, and they just play me a beat where I have to freestyle over it. So I freestyled the chorus for that song, and then it took about a year to ll the verses up with something that I felt was strong enough, but also vague enough to be able to apply anything to it. That’s really what I wanted, because I love it when stories are able to open up and become something for the listener, rather than being so clearly my experience.”
Visuals for all three singles were shot in Gambia, where Seinabo’s father is from. “The idea of me shooting there has always been a super distant dream. I never ever thought I would have the money or be able to get a crew to do that. I was so blessed to be with the people that I wanted to follow through my vision with.” Gambia has started to feel more like home to Seinabo as she has gotten older, despite being brought up in Sweden. “I really feel like I’m not a complete person if I don’t get to be in both places. I’ve come to terms with that and realised that about myself, so I’m just going to do all that I can to go there often.”
Seinabo has always been extremely open about not feeling like she belongs in the primarily white society of Sweden. However, she says she has started to feel better about it in recent years. “I guess I’ve been able to control my surroundings more. It’s a very conscious choice, like all my friends are people of colour and we try to, even though there’s not very much urban culture here to be honest, we just try to speak to each other and speak more openly and vocally about it. So I feel less alone even though the situation is pretty much the same.” She says going to Gambia has helped her to be able to be herself, which comes across strongly in the lyrics for her single “Breathe”. However, when I ask if she’d ever move from Stockholm she responds without skipping a beat. “Oh yeah, absolutely. Definitely. I’m ready to leave. I’ve been thinking about going to Paris. Senegal has also been in the back of my mind for two years now, so I might go there. But then again, it’s just this problem I have with (the language) French!”
“I tried to not be so scared of not being liked – I realise as a woman that that is probably my biggest fear” – Seinabo Sey
Being in the studio for the second time has given her a new lease of confidence.“This time around I knew so much more and I wanted to experiment. It wasn’t always easy to get people who are pretty set in their ways to do that, but I’m very curious about music and I really want to try new things, and for me that was a hard thing as well. It was a balance between inspiring people and kind of forcing them to do what I want!” It seems this was a huge learning curve for Seinabo. “I tried to not be so scared of not being liked – I realise as a woman that that is probably my biggest fear. And I just realised that it’s bullshit, and I want to get things done so I’ve had to rewire my brain.”
When we speak about being a female artist, Seinabo is quick to point out that whilst women being oppressed is one of the world’s greatest injustices, it’s not up to her to use her platform to rectify that. “I think it’s absolutely within an artist’s right to not be literal or political, and if we only express ourselves through our music, I think that nothing else should be expected from us because that’s really all I’m promising to be good at.” This is amplified by being a woman of colour – to use her own words, she doesn’t want to put any more responsibility upon herself. “As a black woman, I feel like we just need to be able to be carefree. Of course I’m going to speak about the experience of being a black woman forever, because I am and I enjoy that, I also think it’s needed, but I don’t want to talk about more than in my music.”
Seinabo’s father, Maudo Sey, was also a musician who drummed with a popular afro-pop band called Ifang Bondi. He died in 2013. Whilst she starts off by telling me that he neither encouraged nor discouraged her from getting into music, once she decided upon her path, it was all or nothing. “I remember for a while that he was pretty harsh. I haven’t thought about this for a very long time but he would be like, if you’re going to do this, then you have to do it properly, you have to rehearse. I guess that stuck in my mind, but it’s the standard of being raised black and getting to hear your whole life that you have to work twice as hard as everyone else, at whatever you do.” She goes back to her thoughts on black women needing to be more carefree. “We have to start, and this might sound weird, but embracing our mediocrity, and things we do which are mediocre, and to just live in that fully. I realise that I stop myself from doing all kinds of things because I’m not an expert at it, which is a privilege that white people have.”
From October, Seinabo will start a short tour of Scandinavia. This she says, is her favourite part of her job. “I’d say it goes touring, music videos, and then the rest of it, haha! I love touring, I’ve missed it so so much, I really feel like a part of my whole personality has been missing because I haven’t got to do it in like two years.” She says if she could change one thing about the music industry, it would be the extreme fixation on appearance. “I don’t think we’ve done anything where women can just stand with a piano or with a guitar, in a t-shirt and jeans and just be a rockstar, it’s so unfair.” She has a point – it’s hard to imagine a female equivalent of Ed Sheeran being responded to well. “We miss so much music because we don’t want to look at the people creating the music. It’s ridiculous, I feel like that is the saddest part of my job.”
When I ask Seinabo what her plans for the rest of 2018 are, she remarks “Oh God... stay alive!” I think most 20-something-year-olds can relate (myself included). “I feel like for once I just want to try to do this and have fun. I’m not super obsessed with perfection anymore, so I just want to be excited about everything, that’s my goal for this year.” With her new album out, things are bound to get hectic, and I admire her attitude. “We’re young people, and we should really be excited about what’s going to happen and not be so worried about everything. At this point I know I can survive almost anything, so the rest of this shit is just going to have to be fun.”
So what can new listeners expect from I’m A Dream, Seinabo’s latest album? “There’s one song that’s an iPhone recording in its entirety. There’s a lot of songs with live instruments, as well as a couple of the produced Magnus (Lidehall) tracks that are like so vital, and make everything go full circle.” As someone who started singing professionally when they were in their late teens, it seems that Seinabo is not only just discovering who she is, but really starting to embrace that as well.
On the phone she is softly spoken, extremely polite, but I get an underlying sense that she knows exactly what she wants. She might not want to be a political poster girl, or use her platform for activism, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t extremely clued up about the world around her. “I just feel like there’s a disconnection with a lot of things in society, and we’re not really connecting.” However, she continues “There’s always hope, but sometimes I just feel like I should maybe be more proud of myself for not losing it because everything points that way, some days. Can somebody just get me an award for staying alive?” Whilst I feel her pain, I imagine they’ll certainly be different kinds of awards on the horizon for her.