For most young, driven, artistically minded people, creativity has taken a serious hit this year. And yet somehow, Pa Salieu – the Coventry rapper taking UK rap into a mutant future – is having the time of his life. “I don’t smile, you know, but I’ve been smiling,” he says with a glint in his eye over Zoom. “I’m happy! I’m pushing myself, I’m unlocking new traits.”
The Gambian-British rapper has many reasons to be happy, despite everything. In the last 12 months, he has become one of the most hyped new musicians in the country, with everyone from FKA twigs to Virgil Abloh tapping his talent. Things really took off with “Frontline”, a gritty and urgent tale of “block life” set against twisting and colliding beats, which became Radio 1Xtra’s most-played song of 2020 to date and amassed more than three million views on YouTube. From there, his tracks only got weirder and darker, with “Bang Out” sampling the silky and ghostly jams of UK jungle favourite, Japan’s “Ghosts”.
Born in Slough, Salieu moved to The Gambia to live with his grandparents for five years, before returning to the UK to join his mum and younger brother and sister in Hillfields, a deprived area of Coventry (his brother, Tee, joined him for this shoot). Salieu’s lyrics don’t sugarcoat his experiences of hardship and violence growing up (several bullets remain lodged in his skull today after he was shot at last year), and yet, there are slickly playful moments that permeate the darkness. Where “My Family” depicts the grit of Hillfields, “Betty”, his other smash track, is richly melodic; club-ready and dancehall-tinged.
Sharing both a Gambian heritage and a polyamorous attitude to genre, Salieu has been likened by many to J-Hus, a comparison that doesn’t faze either artist. In January Hus tweeted, “I messaged Pa Salieu & told him not to watch what ppl are saying, to keep pushing & to be a Militérian.” To which Pa replied, “bro, I was born a Militérian.” But you only need to take one listen to “Block Boy”, the new single from his debut mixtape, Send Them to Coventry, to know that Salieu is operating on a totally different plane – a million miles from the trivia, and the trappings, of radio rotation rap.
Hi Pa. You’ve just moved to London! How’s life?
Pa Salieu: I’ve been in full work mode. My dad worked in factories most his life and my mum does cleaning and that; they both worked so hard, and that immigrant parent workaholic mindset, it transcends, it rubs off on your kid, it’s sick. I’ve been working on my new mixtape (Send Them to Coventry); it’s a real mix of sounds, it’s not like a normal mixtape. It’s a little album, you get an entrance into who I am, there’s a lot of flows because, you see, I have no genre. I’ve been pinned down for most of my life, so I’m not going to let it happen with something I enjoy, with something that I can control.
What do you mean, ‘pinned down’?
Pa Salieu: I got a criminal record young for carrying a blade. It was for my defence; I’m from the hood but they don’t understand that. With a criminal record, a normal nine-to-five went out the window for me. I’ve worked in warehouses for Hermes and Amazon; I can hack any kind of work but I only lasted two weeks; it was crazy. I’d go to the toilet and there would be racist shit written all over the walls. I am never working in no warehouse again. So when I got the chance to come to London to do music, to leave the strip and meet someone or get a link to go to the studio, I knew I had to really go for it. I can’t get a proper job, so I have to put one hundred into what I do. Music honestly saved me; there was no plan B. Making music is such a blessing. I have this outlet; I get to build something.
Take me back to Hillfields – how did it all start for you?
Pa Salieu: I had this Romanian friend, he was an international student and he had this studio setup where you could record music. I started freestyling and I just loved it. Then, on September 1st 2018, my friend AP got killed. He was my brother, my best friend. AP had started this clothing line Money Moves. He called it ‘hood representative’. Once he died, music started to pick up for me. Everything that happened, I deep it differently. ‘Hood representative’ always stuck with me. I am a representative of my hood, of any hood. For example, ‘Frontline’ is about my area in Coventry, but there are frontlines all around the world – London, New York, anywhere. AP was one of the only people to really motivate me. We shared the same vision, you know? He always looked at shit outside the box. Now I feel obliged to motivate (other artists in the same way). People haven’t even heard of Coventry, but to someone coming from the ends, where I’m coming from, I want them to feel comfortable, I want them to know that it’s in reach, it’s your time!
Hillfields was the ends. You’d go round the corner and there was a street full of prostitutes. Mum was a cleaner, she was a hard worker and out a lot of the time. So I helped, taking my brother and sister to school. You wake up, walk to school, all you see is fiends, come home, all you see is fiends. That’s ‘Frontline’, you know what I’m saying? All I know is what I saw. It was the hood, my secondary school was (on the same) road (as) ‘Frontline’, I’d never been to the seaside in England until last year. I’d only seen beaches when I was in Gambia.
Do you think it’s harder for British rappers coming up from outside of London?
Pa Salieu: Take hip hop; it started in (the Bronx), but it spread across New York, then there’s a scene in LA, in Atlanta. You know what I’m saying? Now that’s what’s happening here too. There’s more than just a UK scene; it’s London, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham – seeing (Manchester rapper) Aitch, that makes my heart go... It’s mad. If you’re in the hood, you’re in the hood, wherever you are. Coventry is not like London; there’s less opportunity. The only part I loved about it is the culture. I know Urdu words, Afghan words, I know Somali words. There would be 50 different nationalities just in Hillfields, you know? That’s the good thing, the culture.
Do you think you wouldn’t have gotten involved in crime if there’d been more youth clubs, more opportunities?
Pa Salieu: Yeah. I never went out of the (area), like I said; I never even went to the seaside. So many people I went to primary school with turned into crackheads or died because of the roads. What opportunities were we getting? I’m telling you, this year I’ve seen more positivity than I have in my whole life. I believe in the blessings of a mother. The only positive thing I used to see was my mum and my sister. At school, most of the people teaching me thought I was a dickhead. I felt like the school was taking me for a dickhead, and so I’d sit in the exclusion room listening to tunes on my cousin’s MP3 player. Vybz Kartel, Tupac... Music was a release for me. It was my outlet. I couldn’t listen in class so when I was in the exclusion room, I made sure I really listened, really took it in. I loved Tupac. He would talk about what was happening on the roads so unapologetically. I just found it relatable. I’m African, I’m proud, this is me, this is who you’re going to get. You know? I’m not a punchline rapper, you’re going to have to listen to what I’m saying.
You spent several years living in The Gambia as a child, did you enjoy it there?
Pa Salieu: I got sent there so my mum could be the breadwinner for her parents – till the day my grandma died, mum would always be sending money back. I remember so much from when I was there, even though I was just a kid. Mum is always shocked when she reads the stories in my interviews. I loved it. I was a proper grandbaby, you know? The favourite, innit. My grandma lived in a town called Bundung and my dad’s parents lived in Serekunda, one of the big cities. They used to have a monkey at the house, and there was a whole field of mangoes behind our yard. I used to climb the mango trees all the time; these are experiences that you can’t have here. My grandma liked to go off sometimes and be isolated; she’d go on these religious pilgrimages – you know when you just cut? That was my grandmother. I understand why I have certain traits, they’re from her. I like to be on my own too, to do my own thing and just get to work. I’m so lucky I got sent to Gambia; it made me stronger. I remember one time my grandma took me on the ferry from Banjul, the capital city, and we ended up in this small village called Fas Chaho. I don’t know how to explain it but it was such an experience. There were huts and donkeys everywhere; Gambia is just a different feeling, you know?
How did you adapt to life back in the UK? What were you like at school in Coventry?
Pa Salieu: I was a cheeky kid. I wasn’t a troublemaker, but I always ended up getting excluded. School failed me. I’m dark, my African accent is strong but it was even stronger back then. In those times it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be African – well, it was always cool to me. I was very proud of who I was, that’s what Gambia did to me. I’ve lived in a place where nobody gives you dirty looks because everybody looks like you. You’re not going to take the piss out of me. So when people at school dissed me about being African, I wasn’t gonna let it go. I didn’t take any of it; I stood my ground. I always fought back.
You went to a Positive Youth Foundation youth club – did that impact your creativity at a young age?
Pa Salieu: I just called them and started going. It was one of the only clubs in my area. It had a studio so it was a chance to do music. I loved it, I am one hundred with youth clubs, we need more for kids. The hood is a draw-out for kids. Money is money. If a kid’s hungry and he knows where he can get money, he will, you know? When my grandmother died, that’s when I thought, fuck that, the ends is not drawing me out. I can’t put my mum through that.
Lyrically, your song ‘B***k’ is both a celebration of culture and a critique of racism. How did it come about?
Pa Salieu: I was just feeling energies, I deep everything in it: ‘Skin tone black, the lifestyle Black, but they fear the fact.’ You know what I’m saying? I remember my 18th birthday. I went to Ikea and got into a lift; there were these two white women and a kid who saw me coming in. The women both got out of the lift and the kid stayed. The doors closed, the lift went up and one second later these two women come out of the other lift right next to me, looking for the kid. OK, I get it. I’m scary. A Black yute in a hoodie, I need to cross the road so I don’t startle people. It is a fear, that’s why the word ‘Black’ is censored in the title. That’s what I feel like, something about me is an insult I don’t know about. But why? One of the lyrics is ‘Realise you’re my brudda, fuck a skin tone / Coming from the heart, bro, listen to the Black tone.’ I feel like tunes like that are needed. I grew up around white people, I grew up around Black people, Indian, Kurdish, Afghan, Pakistani, you know? I know how important culture and unity is. I know people get it, and I know more people will get it. You know, this generation is different; we ain’t taking shit, man.
“(In the studio) you’ll see me like I’m possessed or something! I won’t talk. You’d probably think I’m weird” – Pa Salieu
Last year you were shot. Did coming that close to death alter your outlook on life?
Pa Salieu: I knew I wasn’t going to die. Trust me. I’ve been shot at. I’ve been stabbed. But it’s never touched, you know? It was scary, I felt weird but I knew I wasn’t going to die. I got straight back up. I walked downstairs and told one of my boys, ‘I think I’ve been shot... am I bleeding?’ I turn around, he’s seeing blood everywhere, he takes me to the toilet, my friends get some blue hand towels, they’re trying to put them on my head, and I’m like, no, fuck this, I’m not dying in a toilet. An ambulance took me to the hospital and I remember seeing my dad cry. That changed everything. I didn’t want to put my mum through it. I discharged myself, what, five, six days after? Then, two weeks later, I’m on stage with a shaved head with GoldLink, playing the O2 (in Birmingham).
Do you feel hopeful about the future?
Pa Salieu: Yeah. Our generation ain’t a joke! You saw how racist this country is, I feel like we’re very stubborn now and nothing’s going to pass us like that, you know? I see it. This is about unity. I went to the Black Lives Matter protests – it was mad seeing the unity of everyone, I feel strong on it. Music is one of the keys to that and I think it’s going to be a big key in uniting Africa, I’m telling you. Look at (Hackney group) NSG; they’re building a studio in Ghana. I’m so proud of all this stuff going on. We’re all building.
You posted a picture of yourself with FKA twigs, have you guys been working together?
Pa Salieu: Yeah! She’s so cool, like a big sister. She’s just sick. She reached out to me and I fucked with her energy straight away. I’m proud of everyone around me that’s taking their time to help me. I’m proud of everyone I’m working with.
What’s it like being in the studio with you?
Pa Salieu: I don’t know, you’ll see me like I’m possessed or something! I won’t talk. I go to the studio (and I’m) writing, writing; I’m so focused. I just tap in when I’m there. You’d probably think I’m weird.
I bet your mum is proud of you – what a few years...
Pa Salieu: She is. She wasn’t into the music, but (she’s into) what I’m aiming for. She’s a good woman, man. She’s a good woman. She’s just been giving and giving my whole life, and no one ever gave back to her. She doesn’t know how to say no, just like my grandma. That’s why I want to give back. I want to build schools back home in Gambia. My grandfather built a madrasa (Islamic college); me and my cousin were the first ones to go and now there’s about 600 students. So I’m seeing that and thinking, ‘OK, this is what my family has done. Now I have a chance.’ This thing that is happening with me right now, it’s a gateway. I don’t feel like I’ve done enough yet, I ain’t nowhere close to building my school, but I have to, I have to do it.
Send Them to Coventry is out now
Hair Nathaniel Bury, make-up Kristina Ralph Andrews at Future Rep, additional cast Tee Demba, set design Fin Sullivan, photographic assistant Darren Karl-Smith, styling assistants Archie Grant, Guy Miller, Andra-Amelia Buhai, movement director Abdourahman Njie, DOP Jake Gabbay, production Rebecca Williams, post-production Purple Martin, animal handler Ryheem Gordon, special thanks The Columbia Hotel