For Pa Salieu, Music is a Medium for Change

With a new Beats project, the British-Gambian artist has ambitions beyond rap.

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When Pa Salieu was a young child, he was sent from his birth town of Slough (a small town just outside of London) to Gambia, to live with his grandparents. Though he returned to the U.K. at eight years old, he believes the experience of returning to his ancestral homeland shaped who he has become.

“I went through something not everyone is lucky enough to go through,” he says. “I have so much pride in my culture because of it.” While there, he learned from his family’s tribe: “they do poetry, history, they’re music-related.” It fomented the idea that music was always inherent within him.

As an artist, Salieu only began making music three years ago, with his debut single Frontline arriving in January 2020, and a mixtape following by the end of the year. Yet over the course of last year, “Frontline” became BBC 1Xtra’s most-played song, while Salieu kicked off 2021 by winning the BBC’s influential “Sound Of…” award. His most recent single, Energy, has already emerged as one of the year’s anthems. All of this is part of a bigger plan for Pa Salieu, who feels a responsibility to tell his story, and those of people around him.

“Not a lot of people get out to tell their story coming where I’m coming from. I feel like I’m a living legacy, I’m the only voice.”

Salieu believes that the combination of his dual upbringings has forged such an outlook. “Having both of those made me someone completely different,” he continues. While living in Gambia gave Salieu a deeper understanding of his history and, as he puts it, “a knowledge of who I am,” his time in the U.K. is central to his lyrics, most clearly in the title of his debut mixtape, Send Them to Coventry — a reference to the city where he lived on his return to the country.

“England was my biggest lesson, it’s made me stronger,” he says. “I can speak to people younger than me with sense, with a bigger picture.”

For Salieu, it is important to shine a light on the things he has been through. “Not a lot of people get out to tell their story coming where I’m coming from,” he says. “A lot of close friends that can’t make it. I feel like I’m a living legacy, I’m the only voice. There’s going to be more voices, but with the situations I’ve been through on-road, hard times, life itself, this is our story. Nobody’s trying to hear our story properly.”

One recent example for Salieu came in late 2019, when he was shot in the head during an altercation in Coventry. For Salieu, it’s important to use his voice to highlight the reality of these situations, rather than the media depiction of what is going on. “If you’d researched me, they would probably have said it was gang-related,” he says of the shooting. “But that’s completely off, I was just a victim. This is really happening, people like me in prison, dead; these streets are stressful. I’m just a witness of it, I’ve seen why people went through certain stuff. There’s a lot of stories to tell, it’s not just me. It’s the truth.”

“None of this is for no reason,” he continues. “I got shot in the head, two months before “Frontline” came, and I’m alive. All of this is not for no reason. I believe in energies.”

While Salieu’s music career has followed a constant upward trajectory over the last three years, he is keen to move on from the rapper label that has followed him. “I’m not a rapper, I’m a musician,” he explains. “Anyone can rap, but to execute it so everyone has the chance to understand is different. After lockdown, I want my shows to be different, I want percussion, I want live instruments. My genre is a surprise.”

Embracing other types of music, and leaving the rap tag behind, is all part of Salieu’s plan to spread his message as widely as possible. “There’s a lot of people that don’t listen to rap, but I’m coming with a message,” he continues. “If I can change my voice into certain styles, I’m going to do it and, to an extent, I’ll master it.” At the heart of this is Salieu’s appetite for learning and trying new things, something which has been bolstered by spending much of the last year under lockdown. “We’re trying to go for greatness, something that can change someone,” Salieu adds. “I know there’s violence right now, but we’re trying to make history. It’s only right I keep learning.”

“I got shot in the head, two months before “Frontline” came, and I’m alive. All of this is not for no reason. I believe in energies.”

The latest stage in Salieu’s rise is a partnership with Beats, with a starring role in the new Beats Flex campaign. Like everything in his career so far, working with Beats has been a long-time coming for Salieu. “When I was in secondary school, I stole an MP3 player off my cousin, it was the only way of me listening to music,” he says, recalling how some of his earliest music experiences were through that MP3 player and a set of Beats headphones. “When the headphones broke I used to beg my mum, and then she’d look at the price. But I understood, because of where we’re coming from.“

The Beats Flex campaign is themed around community, something which is important to Salieu. “For me, community is unity,” he explains. “In my community where I’m coming from, it’s different kinds of people from all around the world, you realize that everyone is different. I’ve had so many people from different backgrounds, different upbringings, but going through the exact same things. Community is the energy that kept us close.”

This same idea runs through all of Salieu’s music, and his plans for the future. “I’m trying to do a festival in Gambia, I want to hold a festival every year, a Homecoming kind of thing,” he continues. “My reason is unity, my whole music is going to be about unity.” Salieu also looks back on the past year, in which he has put in place the building blocks for his future.

He describes his time now as an “education”, and when lockdown lifts he plans to take his message to a new level. “I’m open to learning, some people aren’t lucky enough to be open,” he says. ”All the basics are here, now just aim for greatness.”

You can stream Pa Salieu’s Send Them to Coventry on all major streaming services. The Beats Flex earphones are available now from the Apple web store.

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