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In October last year, Pa Salieu was shot in the head. He and two others were outside a pub when, after a drive-by, the bullets connected. After waking up in intensive care, he discharged himself two days after surgery and, one week later, he was back in the studio. The charged, dark-edged style of rap the MC makes is inspired by his lived experiences of poverty and violence in the West Midlands, and his close brush with death would become immortalised in a line on SL collaboration ‘Hit The Block’: “Frontliner, shot me in the head and I’m still breathin’”.
“I talk a lot of violence but this is the style of my story,” Pa Salieu says. “You have to hear where I’m coming from first.” That place is Hillfields; once an affluent suburb in Coventry, it suffered badly from aerial bomb strikes during the Second World War. “If you say ‘Coventry’, people think it’s a village or something,” he says, describing the concrete blocks that now form the skyline. Pa’s breakout hit ‘Frontline’, with its searing synths swinging like sirens, paints a more realistic picture of the roads he’s from – specifically, the strip that runs past his old school and a row of shops widely referred to as the ‘frontline’.
That part of the world has been labelled one of the most economically-deprived areas in the country by the UK government. The impact of the current pandemic was recently reported as being a ‘time-bomb’ of poverty for young people living there. It’s ironic, then, that UK rap – particularly drill – has been demonised by the government and conservative media for its portrayal of life blighted by austerity and neglect. “They call it a trap but that’s a lie,” Pa says, referring to the circumstances – in this case meaning drug-involved – that underprivileged people can find themselves in. “People let their distrust of the world fool them into thinking they’re nothing. They don’t want you to notice your power. I want people to notice their power.”
Today Pa’s at his manager’s office in West London, having just got off a call with Benji B and The Evening Standard. He moved down to London just before lockdown happened, and has been spending most of his time on Zoom sessions, writing and sorting out a home recording setup. He sees his current situation as a “PS4 game or something… every mission gets unlocked!” The day after we speak, he posts a picture of him and FKA twigs in the studio together, amusingly captioning it ‘#anotherweek’.
Pa’s been known to describe himself as “awkward” in interviews, but in reality he’s talkative and descriptive, launching into vivid metaphors articulated via a soft speaking voice. On the mic, though, his style is commanding and bold, posing questions and cutting off his own sentences. His unorthodox flow perhaps stems from the fact that he sees whatever he’s doing as “a movie,” he explains. “I visualise the video while I’m writing and recording. That’s why I come with this weird flow – I don’t care how I sound to people, you can call me an R&B artist if you want, you just better check my message.” ‘Betty’, one of two singles released recently, came out of a freestyle, he explains, mimicking gunshots with his ad-libs. There’s a duality to Pa that even he can’t explain. “When I’m in the booth I lose it,” he says. “I don’t know where I go. I can go to a session and I’ll just wile out. Then that’s it, back to Pa. Quiet.”
Born in Slough, Pa Salieu was sent back to Gambia by his parents aged one. “I remember being very jealous of my brother, like, why was I sent to Gambia?” he says, “but in the end it was the best thing my mum and dad could ever do. I know myself.” He describes moving back to the UK aged ten and seeing snow for the first time, miles away from his family farm where they’d eat dinner with all their neighbours and friends: “My culture – it’s very welcoming, it’s very open, it’s very proud of who you are.” School – situated on the frontline – was tough, as he was targeted for his West African dialect, but he turned it into a weapon that would eventually lead to his success. “I can’t run away from my accent,” he says, “most people would try and hide it – but that’s your DNA, that’s your instrument.”
It was the death of a close friend, AP, along with the passing of his grandparents, that propelled him into making music, as he sought to find an outlet for his pain. Pa became a regular at the Positive Youth Foundation youth club in Hillfields, which had a recording studio, and never looked back. “I just fell in love with the studio,” he says. “I have no plan B, to be honest. I want to empower kids that can’t access studios, can’t access nothing.”
Comparisons are inevitable when there’s a new face on the rap scene, and Pa Salieu is often talked about in the same breath as J Hus. Like Hus, Pa has Gambian heritage, and although their cadence is similar, this is where the comparisons end – where Hus often draws for the more sunshine-tinged side of afrobeats and melodic sax jams, Pa’s output is darker, pitting dub-fuelled influences like Roots Manuva and Rodney P with West African sonics, connecting the dots between grime, drill, dancehall, afrobeats and beyond. He presented an NTS show recently compiling “fire, sauce, flavour” from that part of the world, from Baaba Maal to Youssou N’Dour to Burna Boy. Pa also cites inspiration from Tupac and Vybz Kartel, whose ‘Touch A Button’ he listened to so many times on his cousin’s mp3 player that he broke it.
Pa is one of a growing crop of rappers to reject the M25-centric bias of UK rap, and inspiring other young artists from the West Midlands to follow in his footsteps. “I know there’s hella yutes doing music in Cov now, at least me doing music has motivated that, you know?” Channeling trauma into art, his next project is debut mixtape ‘Send Them To Coventry’, which he’s promised will arrive with his own Picasso-inspired visual art pieces. Looking past the immediate future, though, his plans are to buy land in Gambia where he can build schools. “I don’t want people to feel trapped no more, I want to change the world,” he says. “It’s my right to do anything I want in this world.”
Pa Salieu’s ‘Betty’ and ‘Bang Out’ are out now – listen to them here.