"There’s no Plan B. This is a gateway..."

Pa Salieu has faced down bigotry, escaped poverty, using music as his tool. His story, his music, is one of 2020’s defining qualities. As he puts it: “This is bigger...”

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When Pa Salieu reflects on his time spent living in Gambia with his grandparents as a child, the fondness of those memories is radiant. “Everyone’s one family, like one of those places where you’ll leave your doors open and expect an invite from your neighbours daily to come and eat. We had a mosque in our house. We got a little farm at the back, that kind of vibe … freedom,” sighs the 23 year old. “Even though we didn’t have much, we had space, we had food. That’s why I’m not so materialistic. I know what matters, I know the definition of rich. I know the power of space.”

Born in Slough, he eventually returned to the UK, to Coventry and was met by street-level bigotry and the institutional racism that allows such poison to flourish. “I came back when I was seven or eight. Throughout school it was hard. My first time in a primary school, I got kicked out. When I came from Gambia these kids were trying to bully me and I stood up on a table and started shouting!”

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“I’ve always been strong about who I am. You know how people used to hide away that they’re African? I was never that guy. I learnt who I am in Gambia, young age or not. No-one could take the piss. I went to secondary school at a time when Africans weren’t really the ones, innit. This is 2011, 2012. There were people stuck in an old school mindset, you’d rather get called ‘Yardie’. But me, I weren’t ever taking it. I went through school with them trying to say I’ve got anger problems … they tried testing me for ADHD. I felt like I ain’t gotta explain myself to them, so long as I know I’m doing right. I always knew why I would switch and deep down I knew that teachers knew too because trust me, it [the racism] was blatant. School was another lesson.”

Pa’s quiet voice becomes animated when he speaks of the isolation of Coventry in relation to the UK, and the deprivation of Hillfields (where he came up) in relation to the city itself. “London has the most cameras in this country. A lot goes on outside it. I could’ve died [last year Pa was shot in the head in Coventry city-centre] and no-one would’ve known, that’s how deep it is. ‘Send them to Coventry’ is an old saying that means completely cut somebody off. Coventry’s a small hood, and Hillfields is a jungle, the blocks are a concrete jungle. I feel like it’s been segregated … the whole set up is mad.”#

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As the children of immigrants, our trajectory in life is so often informed by a desire to give back to our parents, for all they sacrificed to keep us afloat on this cold island. Pa’s journey reflects that, and much like his experience of the education system, structural prejudice played its part; being a young Black man who’d had contact with the law, he found his opportunities limited. “I was a quiet kid, my mum used to work a lot and I raised my siblings with her. I’ve put in work. When I was 17 a situation happened, I got arrested and got given a criminal record. I called jobs, I tried, I can say I tried. I didn’t get accepted to 95% of the jobs I applied for. I had like two warehouse jobs. Even Nando’s! I had like two months there fam, until I got fired! Come on man, I tried but I’m not that guy.”

Today, a career in music is allowing Pa to secure his family’s future. “There’s no plan B. This is a gateway. I can help my mumsy. I can make some generational wealth while I have the chance, doing something I love. The energy you put towards this world, in some way or form it’s gonna come back to you. If music is gonna make sure my mum’s calm, my descendants are calm, then it is what it is.”

Perhaps it was written that Pa would flourish as an artist; music is in his blood. “My auntie is a Gambian folk singer. She goes around the world, and she always used to come to my house every year. So I used to be around music, just not in it. I’ve always felt intrigued. I love what she does, I love the feeling she gave at naming ceremonies, weddings, I admire it.”

Due to the nature of Pa’s past life, walking the tightrope between risks and wins meant he had limited time to take in music. “I never listened to music regularly like that, it was just when I could. In school I’d be in exclusion rooms trying to listen to YouTube on the sly. I’d listen to whole mixtapes in one go! I even took my cousin's mp3 player and listened to it on and on and on. I was listening to Vybez Kartel, 2Pac and Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, because he speaks Wolof as well.”

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As an artist, Pa embraces the fullness of his lived experience to carve his own lane in Black British music. He documents the harshness of his surroundings with an emphatic, vibrant flow punctuated by West African inflections which speak to his heritage. On January’s Jevon-produced breakout hit ‘Frontline’ Pa proudly announces himself as a “Gambian brudda” while breaking down the realities of his past life in Hillfields, over an inescapable siren-like synth.

Of the circumstances that led him towards “doing mazza inna frontline” Pa is beautifully succinct. “I was around life, real life. You just gotta survive innit. You gotta eat.” But perhaps fate intervened. “If it wasn’t for being on road I probably wouldn’t even go to a studio. I went to a friend's house to do whatever and there was a studio there. The whole idea of putting down my story and my message and then listening back to it. I fell in love with it. I still feel the same way now. Everything happens for a reason.”

Pa rediscovered the freedom and space he’d known in Gambia, within the confines of the recording booth. “It’s something special, it’s not a joke innit. When I go studio I feel free. It’s a different feeling. That’s why I don’t believe in genre.”

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Genre-blurring is becoming increasingly common in UK Rap, but it doesn’t feel forced with Pa. His verse on the cross-country UK Drill heater ‘Year Of The Real’ is sub-zero chilly, but full of his diasporic swagger. May’s double drop ‘Betty / Bang Out’ showcases exceptional versatility; the former fuses gritty bars with Afroswing and Jamaican dancehall elements, while the latter is sonically closer to Grime, with a vocal sample reminiscent of UK Garage.

His most recent offering, an explosive collaboration with Backroad Gee entitled ‘My Family’, ups the levels of UK Rap once again, with Pa taking advantage of every single pocket on the brooding Fanatix produced banger. The resulting vibe is perfectly described by the man himself as “the cultured tone of energy.”

The music he’s released so far has been impressively distinct, but Pa feels the key to realising his full potential is a long overdue trip back to Gambia. “I ain’t been for time. When I go back, my whole music will probably change. You need to know this is the start. I ain’t been in Gambia with this knowledge of music, so once I get there you don’t know what I’ll unlock. Every time you go back to your roots and find yourself, that’s how you’ll evolve, that’s my belief anyway. I just look at my auntie the artist for what matters, I’ve never seen her care for numbers, she goes for the message. Back home music is about your ancestors, your past, who you are.”

While Pa’s music might tap into the past, his intention is to help shape the future. “I’m a Gambian boy, a Gambian artist. This country [the UK] taught me what life really is. I found out what racism is here. I found out about violence. And with my sound, I want everyone to feel it, there’s hella people like me. This is bigger than what it is. What I say today could affect the minds of tomorrow. It’s gonna make sense.”

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Pa Salieu's new mixtape 'Send Them To Coventry' will be released on November 13th.

Words: Robert Kazandjian
Fashion: Sabrina Soormally
Photography: Vicky Grout

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