In 1981, The Specials sang about urban decay, unemployment and shuttered high streets in Coventry in their hit song Ghost Town. Some 40 years later, 23-year-old Gambian-British rapper Pa Salieu is addressing the same issues, and the same city, in his viral hit Frontline.
“How I describe it is that there is culture and it is intense,” he says over a crackling phone line from a London recording studio. “Just like any other city in England, there is a lot of madness that happens and a lot of good stuff that happens.
“Coventry is still a ghost town like The Specials said. Coventry is Coventry. That is exactly how I explain it in my music. Or my side of it. I have seen the segregation between the classes. But this is my ends. You lose friends very early.”
Salieu was born in Slough but moved to The Gambia in west Africa, where he lived out his earliest, and some of his happiest, memories. He eventually returned to the UK and settled in Hillfields, a suburb of Coventry, which he documented in said breakout hit, Frontline — a seamless blend of chilling melodies, drill beats and bubbling Afroswing.
“One of the maddest things if that Frontline was one of my first songs,” he reveals. “I wasn’t even comfortable with it coming out but I felt like I had to bring it out because that is where I am from, the front line.”
Salieu has seen more in his 23 years than many people do in a lifetime. He has been shot, lost friends to gang violence and drug abuse, and faced racism at school. Frontline was released in January 2020 and became the most-played track of the year on BBC 1Xtra.
It paved the way for a debut mixtape, Send Them To Coventry, released in October, its title a reference to an idiom with roots thought to go back to the 1600s, meaning to deliberately ostracise someone. “I feel like the system is cutting me out, labelling me this while I am going through that,” he offers. “If only they knew.”
In January he was named winner of the BBC Music Sound of 2021 poll, which, along with the Rising Star Award at the Brits, is often seen within the industry as a guarantee of future success. Previous winners have included Celeste, Sam Smith, Jessie J, Ellie Goulding and Adele.
Salieu’s aunt was a folk singer in The Gambia and that music influenced him, but not as much as the US gangster rap of international names such as 50 Cent and Tupac Shakur. “Folk music back home is the past,” he says. “It is a document passed generation to generation.” Salieu is proud of his African heritage.
At school in Coventry he fended off bullies who mocked his accent and dark skin — but through that experience he grew. “It was just the time but I came with pride. They tried to take the piss out of my dark tone or my voice or the way I looked. But I came with pride. I experienced racism but it also turned me into a man. I went through real life. I learnt who I was in Gambia. I learnt what life is here.”
In Hillfields, he lived among gangs but never joined one, and in 2019 he was shot while outside a pub in the city centre. He made a full recovery and posted on Facebook shortly afterwards a defiant message: “Can’t stop greatness like dat like dat.”
But, in a tragic twist of fate, Salieu’s friend, Fidel Glasgow — grandson of The Specials frontman Neville Staple — had been killed the year before in a stabbing, aged 21. Despite all this, Salieu is a deeply positive personality with a sharp sense of humour and a certain intensity to the way he describes his music.
“It’s like when your mother cooks for you,” he offers. “When she cooks out of love you feel the love when you eat. All I am doing is cooking with love — with the energies, with reason, with passion.” Being named BBC Music’s Sound Of 2021 winner opened many doors.
He recently featured alongside long-standing collaborator BackRoad Gee on grime pioneer Ghetts’ most recent album and, if you are to believe him, there is a possible collaboration with Stevie Wonder in the works. “I didn’t really expect it,” he says of his success.
“We applaud music. We do music because of the passion. It allows our voice to be heard. It is just the same thing. I didn’t expect it but whoever needed to hear it needed to hear it. That is why I say I have no genre. I do different types so it suits different kinds of ears.”
While he may draw from the melange of contemporary British music, Salieu is already making efforts to establishing himself outside any one particular scene. “Think of Michael Jackson,” he asserts. “How many times did he change his sound? I would call him a rapper… There were certain songs. I listen to music deeply when I listen to it. I am not trapping my voice. If I make music I am going to explore. It’s my field.”
Salieu moved to London in March, at the start of lockdown. For some young artists, the pandemic has been a stumbling block, but Salieu sees it as a gift — a way of removing all distractions. He has spent the intervening months working away in the studio and building relationships in the music industry.
“I couldn’t go to university. Now this is my uni and I am finally making my mum proud. It’s my uni and education time. Especially with this lockdown, it has just given me an extra boost. Remember, I hadn’t been in this music world at all until last year when lockdown happened so I am in a perfect position. I am not used enjoying all that. I’ve never been used to it. Luckily I am very woke. I see everything as a sign.” Send Them To Coventry by Pa Salieu is out now.