In 1981, Coventry band The Specials’ seminal hit, a perfect storm of creepy ska and political invective, struck a chord with the British public. On “Ghost Town,” the band mourned the tragic post-industrial demise of their native city, which in their telling was becoming “a ghost town” where “bands won’t play no more.” The song, despite its gloomy, unambiguous political messaging, spent three weeks at number one on the U.K. charts.
Not since the band’s 2 Tone heyday has this English midlands city had a homegrown act as mercurial as Pa Salieu. And the young British-Gambian rapper has arrived with a mythological backstory: trauma, decamping to a family farm in his ancestral homeland, a frighteningly close-to-call near-death experience. 2020 had barely begun when — almost overnight — he became one of the hottest names in U.K. rap after his bright-but-tense smash “Frontline” went viral.
An ambient paranoia courses through Pa's small, diverse set of songs, sharing something murky and slyly vicious in common with The Specials’ most essential hits. Coventry's most famous export in popular music at the moment is actually London-raised rapper JAY1. Before him, Pa smiles, it was The Specials. “It's up to people like me, to be honest, to bring Coventry back.”
It’s a frigid, pre-lockdown London morning in early March, and we’re sitting down on a sofa in a brightly lit studio in the plush surrounds of Notting Hill — at least 100 miles away from his home estate, which is located near a strip called Hillfields. Enshrined in his excellent video for “Frontline,” it’s a place where tiny corner stores, his old school, violence, drugs, and inner-city debauchery reside, intermingle, and thrive. Following a late-night in Birmingham where he performed at a club night, the 22-year-old’s mind is on his home city, which is still recovering from a prolonged aerial attack by the German Luftwaffe in 1940, as well as economy-annihilating car factory closures in later decades. “Coventry is just hood,” Pa exclaims. This admission comes as no surprise. Misconceptions about cities like Coventry, propagated by Londoners and denizens of larger English cities, are rife.
"It's not a village. It's a normal city with a lot of blocks, a lot of hoods,” he continues. “Same hardships you'd see here [in London] or anywhere else.”
Pa is holed up — at least temporarily — in a London apartment for a few months now, having relocated to the capital for reasons of convenience. Wearing an ever so slightly glossy black tracksuit which carries reflective taped lines down its pants and top, with a feathery black-and-off-white Louis Vuitton scarf draped messily around his neck, he bares no signs of fatigue despite being up until at least 4am, in a different city, the night before. Though sleekly dressed, he’s no poser. Nor is he the kind of born-to-be-a-star egomaniac that waltzes into a room as if the world exists in order to placate their existence.
Charmingly vulnerable and coy in conversation, Pa has a lot to be happy about right now, even in the face of some scarcely believable set-backs. Years before he emerged from a digital puff of smoke, he imagined using spoken word as an emotional release. After his grandmother died in 2016, he sunk into depression, and writing poetry became a way of coping with her loss. A year later, tragedy struck again; his close friend A.P. was murdered. Shortly thereafter, a still-grieving Pa was hauled by a friend to a studio run by a guy named Jam, who would give Pa free studio time, helping him make music during lively sessions. There, Pa met his manager, and things have fallen into place ever since.
He’s one of those vocal artists whose speaking voice belies their performance range: the guy who snarls on “Frontline” about whipping white like Django is somewhere else. Some of this social awkwardness can be traced back to school. Abused by kids for his dark complexion, he'd often retaliate, ending up in trouble with his teachers. In England, one punitive response to perceived bad behavior is to exclude young students from school. In Pa's case, he grew detached.
“See me, being like this, not being able to speak to people. On my life, I blame school,” he says bitterly, miming sitting idly at a school desk. “Sometimes I can't speak to people, and I find myself alone."
His sometimes crippling timidity certainly doesn’t extend to his chest-beating, unpindownable music. His first song to break was 2019’s “Dem A Lie,” an unsparing rap song with skittering drums and g-funk whistles. Though this cut was featured on HBO show Ballers, it was actually 2020's alarm-system-siren-screaming “Frontline” — recorded two years prior — that blew his name up, highlighting his knack for melody and unpredictable, elliptical rapping. It was one of the best stage entrances in U.K. rap this year. The song — like much of his music — takes cues from afroswing, dancehall, and American rap. For reasons musical and physical, he’s also earned comparisons with fellow “Gambian bruda” J Hus. He asks innocently, “Do I actually look like him? I don’t think I do.”
Comparison’s aside, Pa’s steadily getting better. Taking out his iPhone, he excitedly plays “Betty,” one of two new tracks, which might be his best, most radical-sounding song yet. Even on bite-sized speakers, its combination of abrasive performance and towering drums feels monumental. The thumping beat and accented hook recalls the urgency of tracks on Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack more than anything J Hus has released. With each successive song and verse, he’s finding his own voice.
But it’s not just rapping that he uses to express himself. In school, he was naturally gifted at painting, and he still finds occasion to pick up his brushes for portraits he says are inspired by Picasso. He wants to paint something for every single — images he feels are evocative of the song’s meanings — which, as a collection, could be released alongside his debut mixtape, Send Them To Coventry, expected this summer.
The FADER: Tell me a little bit about your other early musical interests. What type of music did you grow up listening to? I hear some dancehall and American rap for sure.
Pa Salieu: I grew up listening to my auntie in the car. The years in Gambia were the most important years [in my life], up until I was 8 or 9. I did not listen to music like that. There was a phase I went through for a month where I listened to a lot of music. I stole my cousin's iPod and there was a lot of Vybez Kartel in it. So, that whole month, I had been listening to those tunes going to school. I remember being very interested in 2Pac's story — very interested. There was a phase where I was researching into his life a lot.
What did you find interesting about him?
He spoke with his chest. Woke. This is exactly what I'm trying to do as well: woke with it. I'm trying to explain my story, but be woke with it. I'm not trying to drive people to do what man's been through, but I am going to tell my story as it is. I'm not violent but I do have to explain the violence that I've seen; everything inflicted on me. I'm going to explain my story, and I don't care how it sounds; it will all make sense.
I had this idea that I told my manager about: I'm a Gambian boy, and I'm thinking of getting a drum from back home and, every show, I come on-stage, place it down, do my performance, take it away. I'm not gonna do nothing with it, but I'm gonna make sure it's there. People seeing it. Two, three shows later, I'm doing interviews: "Pa, why do you always bring a drum on stage?" Don't worry, I'll explain it in my mixtape. I like anything woke. Me researching about Pac helped with that.
What aspects of being woke do you mean?
It's my generation. I feel strong about my generation. All of us are here to change things. It's not like 50 years ago, but the government are more crud than anything. I've been stereotyped a lot because of my skin tone. I am Black but there are bigger things out there, man. There are so many great people in our generation, and I don't see color.
I imagine the period after your friend A.P and your grandparents had died was very difficult for you. Did it drive you to write music?
That's what I'm talking about: the violence thing. This is part of the story; it just has to be. I'm trying to have an impact, to have a good influence. If you wait for me, you'll see how this guy has matured in the music. But I will start with what I've seen. There's 100,000 people out there who feel the same way I feel, you get me? I can't even believe I'm here. What the hell! This time last year? Phew.
You spoke for the first time in your recent song with SL about the incident last year where you got shot in the head. Which, to most people, is a pretty crazy story. When you woke up, did it feel like a miracle had happened? Do you remember much of it?
All I know is, when I got shot, I said, “Fuck that, I'm not dying — allow it!” So I went downstairs, called an ambulance, bleeding everywhere, trying not to close my eyes. I had just finished a studio session, a mad tune. I'm pissed.
You remained conscious throughout this time? Where did it connect with your head?
At the back; twenty pellets, a shotgun. It was a drive-by.
There's one of two ways you could have felt afterwards: that you're invincible, or that we're all incredibly close to death. Which one were you leaning toward?
I was close to death, but I felt everything. Trust me, I'm not dying. I don't feel like I'm invincible but, no way, I'm not dying. People are dying around me when I'm trying to make the names live on and I die? I don't think God works like that.
In what ways has Gambian culture influenced you?
I've seen everything. Listen, I can't even get a garden in Coventry. In Gambia, it was a farm. My grandfather had a farm in his back garden. We didn't go to the shop to buy chicken — we had chickens in our compound. The vibes are different, and I don't know how to explain. For example, when it's time to eat in Gambia, we call the neighbors, fam — from everywhere. Big plates of food, everyone from different households eating together. Here? Nah. It's crazy, man.
Did you help on the farm?
Nah. The farm was literally in the back garden...well, it wasn't actually a back garden. He grew trees: apple trees, mango trees, everything.
Did you pick up on other cultural things: music, art, food?
My auntie influenced me. She does folk music, innit.
How would you describe her sound?
It's powerful. Her sound is powerful. I've never done music like that; I just freestyled and went to the studio.
Is there any collaboration down the line?
I've been getting so many sounds [from her]. She's in Gambia now, and I've been telling my cousin, “Yo, make sure you're recording her!” She's sick.