Sometimes, you just want raps that rattle your bones. In an era where everything feels stagnant and unsure, encountering an artist worth rooting for off the strength of their conviction on the mic feels more than special, it feels like a blessing.
Coventry-raised, West London-based Pa Salieu boasts a fearsome delivery. The 22-year-old rapper, originally born in Slough in the UK, raps with such gusto, he feels like a stiff north wind coming to blow the roof off every house his music graces.
Pa Salieu barrels through beats, as evidenced by his two big singles, “Frontline” and “Dem A Lie.” It’s so much deeper than hits for Pa, though, who almost lost his life months prior to a shot in the head.
“Before I got shot in the head, do you know how many times I’ve dodged bullets?” Pa tells me with a fire to his speech. “Everything I’ve done was for my [survival].”
For a majority of our talk, I let Pa Salieu air out his emotions. He’s lived through a tremendous amount in a short number of years, and his music carries with it a potent image of his upbringing and times on the block.
“I’m not used to positivity, you know?” Pa admits sheepishly. “What I felt last year, someone is feeling exactly what I [felt]—not knowing the kind of stuff that can happen. I believe in [energy] a lot. If I hit the right energies [in my music], it will change people’s lives.”
Pa Salieu has the heart of a lion. During our interview, he frequently pauses to make sure I’m hearing him, asks my name to make sure he’s hearing me. His spirituality is potent and radiant. He makes music so people from the block—all blocks around the world—can feel his energy and know they’re being heard.
“I’m so glad I did not die,” he says at the end of our call. “There’s so much stuff I need to do.” Amen. Amen. A-fucking-men.
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did rap first come into your life?
Pa Salieu: Rap came into my life when I was in school—a lot of people [from school] were rapping. I wasn’t into music like that, but I loved listening to Tupac, Vybz Kartel, and my Auntie from back home. She’s a folk singer, not [a rapper]. Vybz Kartel is my favorite when it comes to music; I never listened to grime, but grime influenced everyone around me. I just went to the studio and fell in love with it. Never stopped recording after that. I fell in love with being able to tell my story. In school, I didn’t do good, you know? But I fell in love with poetry, art, and design.
I read that before moving to Coventry, you were living in Gambia for some years. How did that impact your career and passion for music?
With me going back home, I would’ve been a different person… I wouldn’t be deep in my culture. Back home where my Auntie is a folk singer—telling about your past, your ancestor’s past—that’s how I look at music. I’m trying to put [on] my culture and explain my past.
Earlier this year, you got some words of wisdom from J Hus. What did that mean to you?
That meant a lot! The thing with J Hus is he’s from my country as well. That’s sick. Motivation helps me a lot, you know? That made me come back to London, seeing people my age making music and enjoying living. That just motivated me. I do music because I love it; I genuinely love it. I’m trying to send out my message. All those people who can relate to me, coming from where I come from? That’s mad! Last year, it was different. I would’ve been on the block, or something, risking it all. I don’t know…
I think you mean life has changed for you very quickly.
The music… I didn’t do it by looking up to no one or trying to chase no one. I’m trying to send out a message. I don’t believe in genres. If I can speak, I’m gonna speak with my chest.
It’s more than being a rapper; it’s about your message.
Yeah. I’m not used to positivity, you know? What I felt last year, someone is feeling exactly what I [felt]—not knowing the kind of stuff that can happen. I believe in [energy] a lot. If I hit the right energies [in my music], it will change people’s lives. People falling in love with something and carrying it on; it’s my time to do that. It’s paid off okay. I would’ve never believed this [success].
Earlier this year, you told The Face, “My black culture is vibrant and fun, so my music will also reflect that too.” How important is it for you to have fun and show that side of Blackness?
It’s culture. I’m lucky to have been born in this country and experience things. I can’t forget, I have a culture that’s different. Being different is… the biggest thing. I like the word different. Without my culture, I believe I’d be in a box, doing what everyone’s doing. I find originality [in my culture]. My culture allows me to… I can explain myself. I can say my ancestors are warriors, and I know a lot about my history. My culture allows me to make it make sense with my music.
In that same interview, you talk about loving the studio. Working as hard as you do, how do you keep from burning out?
I’m not allowed to burn out. I get carried away sometimes. I forget to eat; it’s the studio, innit? When I go to the studio, my head goes somewhere else. Even when I’m in the booth itself… The flows that come out… I hear the voices in my head, how I’m gonna execute a song before it’s done. If I can’t get it, I get annoyed, so I’ll be in the studio without eating until I get it right. It’s spiritual to me. For example! “Frontline,” I made it two years ago. It’s a freestyle. Literally took half an hour to lay it down. Just came out my head. I just hear the beat, and I don’t know, but it’s crazy. Do you understand?
It’s really like that for me and writing; I go somewhere else.
For real! I find it a good thing.
Finally, you talk a lot about being wrongfully profiled (“Dem A Lie,” “Frontline”) by police in your music. Could you talk about that struggle and how it’s impacted your career?
I take pride [in] my heart and my intentions. Actions matter, but intentions as well. I just believe the stuff I’ve done in the past… I left it all. Anything [I’ve done], I had to do to survive, I ain’t never been a criminal. I ain’t got a bad heart. I never harmed no one. Everything I’ve done is for a reason—me selling whatever… I was hungry. I don’t want to say the hard times, but we’ve had it pretty hard. When my grandparents died, that’s when I started selling this and that. Whatever I do is to help my family.
Before I got shot in the head, do you know how many times I’ve dodged bullets? Everything I’ve done was for my [survival]. So many people relate to me, you know? Police, they profile me as someone I ain’t. They profile a lot of people. They close down youth clubs, the only thing that helps us keep sane. It’s not normal. If you’re coming from where I’m coming from, you’re 15 and suffering [from] depression. The worst thing is, people like me will never say we’ve been through depression. But I’ve seen all of it. And it’s all in my music. It’s not about my name—I don’t chase views. I don’t chase nothing. I’m bothered about my message.