“I don’t know if it’s a hypocritical thing, or if I’m a bad person, that I expect people to listen to my music, but I’m here not listening to anyone,” Pa Salieu, the latest exciting, genre-blurring talent to emerge from the UK rap scene, tells NME. He’s recalling a time when he was younger where his only source of music came from an MP3 player he pinched from his cousin that had just a single track loaded onto it: ‘Touch A Button’, by the influential Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel.
Salieu would listen to that song over and over every day until the MP3 player eventually broke down. But now he sees a silver lining to that story: “Maybe it was good that I didn’t listen to a lot of music back then. Because what comes out [now] is literally what I hear in my head.” While Salieu listens to a bit more music nowadays (“I love the UK scene,” he makes a point of stressing), he continues to try and not let external sources, or what anyone else is doing, influence his output: “I never want to feel like I’m in a box. Music is freedom.”
His latest single ‘Betty’, which comes with the equally intent-signalling B-side ‘Bang Out’, is an intriguing and gripping listen as Salieu’s urgent verses build to a hypnotic, stretched-out dancehall hook. It’s a track that you can just tell comes from someone who’s not interested in doing things along genre lines, and has already landed the artist a spot on the BBC Radio 1 playlist. One of the top YouTube comments on the song’s accompanying video reads: “The way he rides on them beats. So unorthodox. Definitely the southpaw of the UK scene”.
“‘Betty’ was a freestyle,” Salieu tells NME over a Zoom call, perhaps going some way to explain the stark and unexpected quality the track has. “When I go in the studio, I just do what I hear in my head… I just start humming first. Then it just comes out. It’s all in the moment.”
It’s this impromptu way of working that resulted in ‘Betty’ “giving out different vibes,” Salieu says. And he’s more than happy to defy expectations: “You’d say: ‘Oh, he’s a rapper.’ But I’m trying to give another vibe… My genre is everything. I’m never going to call myself a rapper – I’m not going to take someone calling me a rapper. I don’t do genres. I do everything.”
As well as listening to Vybz Kartel on repeat during his school days, Salieu cites another major inspiration in his musical upbringing: his auntie, a folk singer in Gambia. Born in Slough, Salieu moved to live with his relatives in Gambia when he was young before later returning to the UK and settling in Coventry. “I used to see [my auntie] doing music when I was in Gambia,” Salieu recalls, going on to say that she’s been supportive of him following her down the musical route. “She’s very happy. I think she feels proud.”
But music runs deeper in the family than just his and his auntie’s talents — Salieu explains how the maternal side of his family belong to a West African tribe that’s renowned for being musically and creatively inclined. “That’s why I think this music is so spiritual to me,” he says. “I didn’t try to do music, I didn’t go out of my way… If it’s part of my tribe then it’s greater than what it is.”
Before ‘Betty’, Salieu was already gaining a buzz thanks to ‘Dem A Lie’: released back in August 2019, it exhibited Salieu’s confident flow over a skittering trap-like beat. While that track would go on to feature in HBO’s Ballers (starring none other than Dwayne Johnson), it was its follow-up ‘Frontline’ – which dropped right at the start of 2020 and has already racked up almost 2.5 million views on YouTube alone – that really announced Salieu onto the scene.
The video for ‘Frontline’ was filmed in Hillfields, the part of Coventry where Salieu grew up. During our conversation Salieu proudly dubs Cov as “the heart of England”, but ‘Frontline’ depicts the harsh realities of Hillfields, which ranks as one of the most economically deprived areas in the country. “They don’t know about the block life,” Salieu raps on the track. “Still doing mazza inna frontline.”
“It’s good for people to know about Hillfields,” Salieu recently told i-D. “It’s the hood of Coventry… The frontline is the strip where I’m from. It’s full of fiends… You’d just see madness there. You’d have olders trying to get you on. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s active. There’s blood, sweat and tears on the frontline.”
“I’m not coming from a good life,” he now tells NME. “But my music will have [a] very big meaning… I see a better life for me and my family now. I can see that life can change now, I don’t feel so trapped. I can see the view over the horizon.” Later, when speaking about the talent emerging from his home city (“there’s different sounds. It’s not just London”), he adds: “[Can] someone else like me in Coventry experience this? I believe they can now. If I can do it…” His voice then trails off.
Despite his rising status, Salieu is determined to stay grounded. “It’s just the start of the journey. I’m not going to feel like I’m a superstar or anything,” he says. “I know where I was a year and a half ago. This is all still new, so I’m not over-expecting.”
Part of the reason he appears to not want to get ahead of himself, however, is that he’s certain that he has so much more to offer. “This has just started. If it’s like this now, imagine what it will be like in the next year, or two months, three months — you don’t know. It’s exciting to see what more I create… I always feel with music that I can always do better.”
In fact, Salieu seems like someone who’s most excited about the last thing they created, so much so that he almost didn’t release ‘Frontline’ – a track that he actually made in half an hour and is now two years old – because he felt he had even better in him. “I’ll always be hesitant about what I put out,” he says. “I always think I can do better because I’m learning every day. I feel like I keep upgrading with this… It’s like a game, I keep unlocking new [levels] with my music.”
Back in January, just after ‘Frontline’ dropped, J Hus – another genre-blurring UK artist of Gambian heritage – reached out to Salieu, referring to him as his “brother” on Twitter. While a collaboration would make sense in many ways, Salieu says he’s mostly just focused on himself right now: “I’m excited and just paying attention to what I’m doing. I want to be a feature in my own tune. I want some of my songs to make people be like: ‘Is that Pa?!’”
It appears that one team-up we can expect from Salieu, however, is with FKA twigs, who he linked up in the studio with a day prior to us talking, subsequently posting a photo of the pair to his Instagram. “She’s sick, man. She’s doing what I’m doing – experimenting,” he says, explaining that they worked on “a few songs” together after twigs reached out to him. “She has strong energy. I love everything she’s doing with her music, so it makes sense.”
Overall, though, Salieu sounds just as excited as the rest of us are to see what he comes up with next. “I’m still in an early position. I’m going to feel like an impostor until I have a good body of work — until I actually show what I can do. I’m happy with what’s going on but… I feel like I have so much to say and so much to show.
“I’m my own teacher and I’m still learning. I aim for greatness.”
Pa Salieu’s new singles ‘Betty’ / ‘Bang Out’ are out now.