Interview Class of 2021: Pa Salieu

From Coventry to magazine covers across the country, Pa Salieu is the undeniable force shaking up the face of British rap.

If you were on the hunt for the new face of afro-futuristic rap, Coventry might not be the first place you’d look. But by skating over Pa Salieu, you’d be doing the scene a solid disservice. Born in Slough before moving to the Midlands, the 23-year-old has been making waves through his ability to blend the sounds of British cities with the rhythmic pace of Gambian dancehall and West-African percussion, crafting stories that tell the truth about inner-city living without glorifying their hardships.

If Pa sounds confident in his delivery, it’s because he’s truly lived the life he raps about. On the day of his first single in October 2018, his best friend AP was the victim of a fatal stabbing; in October 2019, he himself was shot in a drive-by attack, sustaining head injuries that could easily have ended his life. Three weeks after the incident, however, he was supporting GoldLink at Birmingham’s 02 Institute with a Warner Records deal in hand. His words? “You can’t defeat a man with pure energies.”

Both life-changing experiences have fed directly into his music. Back in January 2020, we met ‘Frontline’ - a defiant, waist-winding hit that racked up 3.2 million YouTube views with its disposable camera vistas of Hillfields, eyes always darting past the horizon in search of a big break. It’s a track that he says he wrote in a mere half-hour and nearly didn’t release, but one that demonstrates his keenest abilities – to push rap in new directions that don’t rest on the laurels of what’s gone before. For a guy that’s been bigged up by J Hus and hugely influential designer Virgil Abloh on Twitter, and taken selfies with FKA Twigs in the studio on Instagram, he’s lining himself up as someone happy to play with visionaries, but also someone adept at experimenting with the form until he finds something uniquely his own. This year’s ‘Betty’, ‘Block Boy’ and ‘My Family’ all hint at understated greatness, with last month’s full mixtape release ‘Send Them To Coventry’ tackling huge and ever-timely issues around racial tension, inequality and personal identity, drawing on drill, grime and afroswing.

Though each of Salieu’s tracks would go hard in the club, they’re always underwritten with a determination to carve out a new path, of pushing to be an ambassador for other young people in similar circumstances. After all, it’s not strictly about where you come from, but where you’re going - and in 2021, this self-professed, not grime star but “everything star” is headed to the stratosphere.

Tags: Pa Salieu, Class of 2021, Class of…, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the December 2020 / January 2021 issue of DIY, out now.

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