Pa Salieu: “I’ve been cut from the system, but I will rise up like a phoenix”

The Coventry star is sitting pretty atop this year’s NME 100 list, and his journey to this point has been powered by determination and faith in his talents

Pa Salieu is hungry. The British-Gambian rapper is at his first NME cover shoot in London, and it’s running a tad late. The final round of photos are unusable; Pa has a reflective prop trailing across his face, left over from a jacket he was styled in, and it’s catching the light.

Varying solutions are offered but each less successful than the last. The smell of hot chips and kebabs wafts through the air. Casually, among the anxious voices, Pa reaches out for the lint roller in the stylist’s hand and brushes it across the offending area. Our snapper, Zoe McConnell, takes a few quick shots of Pa’s shy, smiling face. Success! Time to eat.

“I been in the studio late last night,” Pa tells NME after a late lunch and a fat spliff. “Mans look at me like I’m weird or crazy for not sleeping. You got one time being young. How many millions of years do I have to sleep? Right now is what matters. Life is very short.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

Pa Salieu knows this better than most – he’s riding an unprecedented wave of success. In little under a year since debut single, ‘Frontline’, and mere months since his debut mixtape, ‘Send Them To Coventry’, was released to critical acclaim, he’s sitting atop of this year’s NME 100 – our top tips for musicians who’ll dominate 2021. And no wonder he’s wanting to embrace every second living his life: just two years ago, he was battling for survival after he was shot at 20 times outside a studio in his hometown of Coventry. Since then, he’s been co-signed by the likes of J Hus and FKA twigs, and there’s a sense that his star is one that’s only set to shine brighter.

He dismisses all the hype with an air of caution: “Success means when I complete my task, innit? What I’m trying to build back home, I can say, ‘OK success is coming’. This is the progress. Progress is not success – I don’t see success. This is just progression.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Pa Salieu on the cover of NME

Publicly, the 23-year-old rapper is a loud and vociferous personality. Privately, he’s warm and affectionate, muted and calm. He’s curled up on the couch, hood up, face hidden when we speak in early December. It’s a direct opposite to the thunderous braggadocio present in his music. Most people in his position would be looking to capitalise on the success he’s created. When an artist becomes an overnight sensation, there’s no guarantee of long-term prosperity; most cash in and out. Pa sees it differently, always aching to get in the studio, away from the limelight.

“I’m just gonna do this music ting,” he says. “If you expect too much from this, you’ll be disappointed when one little thing doesn’t happen. I envision success, sure. But there’s no success yet. It’s the first few months of my career; I can’t be getting gassed.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

When ‘Frontline’ was released in January 2020, blending Gambian melodies with flecks of urgent drill and roadrap, it seemed to herald a new breakout star. Meanwhile, Pa buckled down and hit the studio harder for the follow-up. Singles ‘Betty’ and ‘Bang Out’ followed, showcasing his dexterity and earning plaudits from fans and industry alike. November’s debut mixtape ‘Send Them To Coventry’ was a forensic tour of Pa’s life, immediately positioning his sound as wholly fresh and inventive.

His humility, coupled with a compulsive one-track mind, stems from an internal belief that music, and everything that comes with it, is all part of a plan. “My parents came from The Gambia,” he says. “I’m the first generation here, so all I know is work.”

Pa Salieu was born just outside of London, in Slough, but being the eldest of three, a sense of responsibility has always weighed heavily on him. He was sent back to The Gambia, a small country on the coast of West Africa, when he was two to live with his grandparents for five years. His parents needed more time to work and to send money back home while they raised his siblings.

“There’s no freedom here in the UK”

When Pa came back to England, the adjustment was tough. His parents had moved to Hillfields, Coventry, a notoriously low-income section of the city. 14 per cent of neighbourhoods in the city are among the top 10 per cent most deprived in the country.

“Third or fourth week back in England, they told my mum, ‘It’s best to take Pa to another school,’” he recalls in a soft voice, shaking his head. Bullied for his accent, his clothes and his demeanour, Pa’s refusal to shed his love for The Gambia brought him enemies in the schoolyard.

He stood up to the bullies and fought back. “I was labelled an angry kid,” he says. “I never took shit but I was fighting because I was getting bullied, fam.” He kisses his teeth in disgust. “Only my dad can chat shit to me. Bully where? Bully this,” he says, flashing the silver rings that adorn his fingers. “No one’s going to take the piss out of me.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

In 2020, one in five children in Coventry live in poverty, a number that increases year on year. The Gambia’s poverty rate is 48 per cent, but Pa, like many other immigrants, sees these definitions differently.

“Even though Gambia has poverty, the way you live is still riches,” he says. “It’s not negative vibes. You don’t have crackheads all the time out there. There’s no freedom here in the UK. Can I afford a backyard here? No. It’s way harder. If you’re hungry, you’re actually hungry,” he says elongating the word to emphasise his point.

Pa’s voice is strained as he recalls his childhood in Coventry, but his face relaxes, peeking out of the hooded jacket to describe his childhood in The Gambia. “If you’re hungry there, you don’t even need to ask,” he says. “They’ll see and they’ll come and give you food. Everyone shares. We used to call the neighbours down and eat with us on these big plates. At least there’s freedom back home. If you ain’t got no money [in the UK], no one wants to love you. The world is different here.”

“Even though Gambia has poverty, the way you live is still riches”

The duality of living in two polar-opposite countries shaped Pa’s life. Though he was born in England, and loves the country and what it has offered him, he feels the government and society have failed him and others like him.

Pining for the Gambia of his youth, Pa found himself ostracised and “cut off” from British society. He would get kicked out of classes, excluded from gatherings and alienated from a culture he was already feeling estranged from. With nowhere left to turn, disaffected and alone, Pa looked to the streets for comfort, finding a sense of community he had sought his entire life. “When I was trapping [dealing drugs], that’s where I met real friends,” he says. “They understood it.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

Meeting like-minded souls in a highly unusual place also brought a realisation that, surprising to him, Pa had it better than some. “I had parents, innit,” he says. “My parents had it tough. I had it tough. But at least I had parents. I’ve got friends whose both parents are crackheads. Another is an orphan. How can you feel sorry for yourself if you always know someone that’s in a worse position? The only thing to do was break down or make it out.”

Initially, this mentality served Pa well. He would set aside money to ensure he had a future for himself outside of the poverty he saw, the violence and the horrors it brought. For Pa, trapping was a necessity, a way to earn himself quick money to get out of his reality.

“I was saving separate money for back home when I was trapping at 15,” he says. “People wouldn’t do that, especially at my age. It’s been put in me somehow. Maybe, I could’ve released bare tunes. I had the money for it, trust me. I take time. I’m on my own speed.”

“When there’s a beef, you gotta fire back with success”

During his adolescence, Pa was hesitant to kickstart his career in music, reluctant to invest in something that didn’t see immediate gains coupled with his lack of education in music. For Pa, and the hundreds like him from low-income backgrounds, there is no clear and direct path to being a musician, especially if they can’t afford the means to invest in themselves. He would listen to Tupac and Vybz Kartel on a cousin’s walkman when he was kicked out of class, but that was the extent to his musical inspirations. Plus, he didn’t even rap.

“Every music I listened to as a kid, I’ve always remembered in my head,” he says. “When I started freestyling, I was shit. But, in a short space of time, I got used to learning about my own voice, so this is spiritual to me, saying whatever comes in my head. Whatever comes in my head, I hear shit before I record it.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

Pa didn’t take music seriously until the tail-end of 2018. It was his best friend, AP, who used to encourage him. “He pushed me,” Pa says quietly. “He knew who I was. He was doing exactly the same as me, you know, trapping. But he had the heart, the bravery, the confidence, the other ideas.” AP created a clothing line called Money Moves, a side hustle to the trapping which gained an initial footing. Pa and his friends used to call him the “Hood Representative.” AP was murdered on September 18, 2018.

It’s a day Pa brings up with hesitancy before falling silent – the topic is still understandably raw. The mantle of hood representative suddenly fell on Pa. He spent more time in the studio, feeling the spiritual pull of it, welcoming him in while the streets’ last tendrils clung onto him. Eight months after AP’s murder, in May of 2019, his friend Manny got stabbed. “I thought, ‘Fuck that – I’m going to get out of here.’”

“It could be Jay-Z and if I’m not feeling the energy, it’s a no”

Pa learned that with the music, he needed to “follow the flow straight, don’t look right or left” but was also keenly aware that, as a career, it still felt like a fool’s game. The spirituality of music – the seemingly transcendental effects of it – enticed him. It also acted as an escape from the violence of trapping on the streets of Coventry. During this time, in a freestyle titled ‘Next Up’, Pa rapped, “Had a dream that I’m dead-up, head top red-up / Must’ve got blown by a two-barrel.”

It was over a year after AP was lowered into the ground that Pa was shot at twenty times outside a studio. Shotgun bullets lodged themselves in his head and neck, his friends grabbed towels and soaked up the blood. They called the ambulance and Pa woke up with his parents by his bedside, still alive, but with several bullets lodged in his skull forever.

Eyes lowered, head bowed, he gives no explanation as to why it happened, just that it did and, without having to say much, how it still haunts him. Pa won’t discuss this time – the short or long-term effects – and circles the conversation back to his responsibilities: to himself, his parents, his community, to The Gambia.

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

Of seeing his parents in the hospital, he says, “That was garbage… I will never let my parents see me dead. I can’t slip like this.” With a newfound resolution, Pa finally settled himself into his responsibilities and strived to be the hood representative he saw in AP.

Less than a week after he was shot, he got back in the studio. He signed a major label record deal with Warner before releasing ‘Frontline’, which he finished in 20 minutes. The song depicts the grisly scenes of growing up in the deprived area of Hillfields, and what Pa’s daily was like.

In a short amount of time, he went from being a petty criminal to being a breakout star. But is there a fear the streets would follow him into studio success? “Beef will never die,” he says. “It’s how you approach the beef. Calculated. You just gotta fire back with success.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

‘Frontline’ turned heads, but the response didn’t feel gratifying for Pa. “I found it hard to see the internet,” he recalls. “I wasn’t into social media tings. Since the start of this music ting, I’ve only been into promoting and pushing the energy I’m going to give to my music. There’s no Plan B. We don’t believe in Plan B.”

‘Frontline’’s success saw Pa burrow himself further in the studio. During the first few months of the pandemic, he sought refuge in his music, making, he says, “hundreds of songs”. 15 of these became ‘Send Them To Coventry’, which showcases his versatility and ability to flow over any beat presented to him. On the record, Pa portrays an honest picture of the lives many in the UK live while leaving space for reflective, melancholic songs which simultaneously uplift and energise.

“I love Coventry, but I made it out of the hood”

The mixtape’s title “means to completely cut off someone,” he says. “They used to send criminals to Coventry. And after the bombings [in WW2], the city built itself back up. I think the saying transcends me. I love Coventry, but I made it out of the hood. I feel like I’ve been cut from the system, but I will go and I will rise up like a phoenix.”

The mixtape caused Pa’s star to rise. He’s been a mainstay on radio stations throughout the UK and has found prosperity in America too. FKA Twigs reached out to Pa to collaborate, an encounter he brings up fondly. “She was humble,” he recalls of their eventual meet-up and collaboration. “She’s got nothing to gain over me; you feel the energy. I care about people’s energies and what the heart is going through. It could be Jay-Z and if I’m not feeling the energy, it’s a no.”

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

He sees this project as a stepping stone to a future where he can give back to The Gambia. “The future President of Gambia is probably listening to me right now,” he says. “We are trying to build primary schools. I’ve got an idea with busses with three different compartments that go around neighbourhood to neighbourhood teaching functional skills – skills that would help you become a carpenter, and then you can teach your children those skills.”

Pa Salieu is saving money from his music career to invest in The Gambia, but his ambition doesn’t stop at the country of his roots. Rather, he envisions a far grander picture – one that will take time, but which he wants to start work on soon.

“There’s no Plan B. We don’t believe in Plan B”

“Gambia is my top priority,” he continues. “I love this country, but I’ve got too much to do. I’m not gonna be dying in this country. I can’t be in the UK doing this music ting and forget about my home. Colonisation deleted my history, but I’m going to create my own. Music has a big hand in the unity of Africa.”

When it comes to his music, Pa is aware that fans are already clamouring for more of his distinctive mode of expression, more of his singular style of crafting music. His steely determination is evident when he talks; he knows that his future depends on the music he releases. He’s coy about any projects he’s working on with other artists – including Twigs – but Pa is sure to reiterate that any future projects will be dictated by him – and created for him – before anyone else.

NME Cover 2021 Pa Salieu
Image: Zoe McConnell for NME

Though he’s relentless in his work ethic, he’s also figuring out the first steps in what he hopes to be a lengthy career. And right now, what he wants to reiterate to fans, journalistic, critics, label heads – everyone, really – that expectations put onto him will only disappoint. “The way I put myself through school is the way I will carry on, which is to not exclude myself, but to keep myself away. The music is going to remain from the source it came, so they better not expect anything from me. Surprises, that’s it. This is me, bro.”

Pa deservedly sits atop of the NME 100: he is an example of original, raw musical talent, but just as interested as making a difference in the long run.

“You’re going to hear everything I do,” he says. “Whether it’s music or my work in Gambia. What I do will never disappear.”

Pa Salieu’s ‘Send Them to Coventry’ is out now

Styling by Holly MacDonald