Pa Salieu wears jacket Moose Knuckles. Tracksuit Liam Hodges.
Pa Salieu: “There’s blood, sweat and tears on the frontline”
The young Coventry artist on his Gambian heritage, solitary nature and the epic journey to come.
Photography Bolade Banjo.
Pa Salieu wears jacket Moose Knuckles. Tracksuit Liam Hodges.
“I’m awkward in interviews, are the questions gonna be hard?” Pa Salieu asks, flashing a shy grin as he sits down with a cup of tea (six sugars) at his record label’s office in West London. While his apparent shyness is completely understandable -- he’s a newly signed artist, barely media trained, still unused to being in the spotlight -- he’s responsible for one of the biggest and boldest songs 2020 has seen so far, Frontline. He’s going to have to quickly get used to having journalists thrusting dictaphones in his direction.
Frontline is a murky banger that confidently flexes the 22-year-old’s vocal versatility. Pushing hard rap lyrics up against a fusion of Afrobeat melodies, it’s hook has no doubt already been called back countless times by DJs in clubs up and down the country: “They don’t know about the block life / Still doing mazza inna frontline!” The track offers an honest and real insight into the dangers that came with growing up in his hometown of Coventry, a post-industrial city in the heart of the Midlands that’s still viewed by some as having never truly recovered, financially or socially, from the hugely damaging blitz bombings in World War II, 80 years ago.
“It’s good for people to know about Hillfields, where I grew up. It’s the hood of Coventry,” Pa explains, matter of factly. “My cousins live near Roman Road in east London, it’s got the same feeling as my ends, but Coventry is more compressed. It’s a smaller town but there’s still areas certain people can’t go to.” The title of the track is a direct reference to a part of the city ingrained in Pa’s childhood. “The frontline is the strip where I’m from. It’s full of fiends. School was on the frontline,” he recalls, “And you’d just see madness there. You’d have olders trying to get you on. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s active. There’s blood, sweat and tears on the frontline.”
The picture painted by his lyrics -- mainly gritty, a little playful -- was brought to life in the accompanying video, shot on location, showcasing the reality of everyday life for Pa and his friends on the strip, while simultaneously cementing him as a new voice for the city. “Everyone was there on set -- it motivated a lot of people. We’ve never seen something like that on the strip,” Pa says excitedly. “Now when I’m in ends there’s fiends that stop and recognise me, man! It’s good because people are starting to hop on the music thing. There’s hella talent in Coventry, man.”
Despite the video racking up a million views on YouTube in under a month and elevating Pa to a much larger platform, he’s not getting ahead of himself, or forgetting where he came from. “I saw they played the video on MTV the other day, but growing up I didn’t have access to that. We didn’t have that Sky Box ting,” he laughs. “I’m just happy like, I would be grateful even if it was on 100,000 views.”
Despite his young age, Pa has already been on a wide-ranging journey, both spiritually and geographically, which seems to have informed his humble outlook on life. Born in Slough, he was sent back to stay with extended family in Gambia in his early years, before returning to the UK and settling in Coventry. “That’s what makes my attitude so different,” he says. “If I didn’t go to Gambia I probably wouldn’t be doing music. That’s where the culture comes from, where everything comes from.”
Pa is proud of his Gambian heritage -- declaring himself a “Gambian brudda” on Frontline -- and he’s also opted to use his real name, a rare decision in an era of acronyms and dozens of Lils. “Growing up, people called me Pablito or Pablo, but I’m Pa Salieu,” he says firmly. “I was named after the oldest child on my dad’s side, he died in Gambia when he was 21. He used to look after his whole family. So I’m carrying on his name.”
Family’s a big thing for Pa, and he attributes his musical success to the freedom granted him by his mum to express himself. Her family’s known for its creative side -- his auntie is a folk musician and played all around the world. “My mum is happy with me doing music, she’s just wary of what comes with it,” he says. But the main rule in his house growing up? “We always eat together!” Pa laughs. “It’s strict, you know what I’m saying? Very strict.”
School was not a positive experience for Pa, though. He often found himself targeted for his dark complexion and was punished when he retaliated. “People tried to take the piss but I didn’t take it. I ended up fighting all the time,” he shrugs. He got excluded from school. “It held me back. I felt like an outsider. I mentally had to make myself strong. Now I think I naturally exclude myself. I don’t talk to people, not even on social media.”
Those periods of exclusion exposed Pa to some high-risk activities taking place in his area, but he wasn’t lured in, resisting their pull. “I was one of the only ones out of my friends that didn’t get brainwashed into any of that” he says. The premature death of his close friend AP, coupled with the loss of his grandparents, saw him turn to poetry to express himself, and subsequently music.
“Writing helped me get away. I remember ends was drawing me in and I then got invited to record at a studio in Stoke-on-Trent and I thought ‘at least I can get out for a bit’,” he says. Pa quickly put in work during studio sessions, releasing a number of freestyles and his first underground hit Dem A Lie, a track calling out pretenders claiming to live his experience.
It ended up being used in an episode of the huge HBO TV show Ballers, but it was Frontline that blew up on social media and thrust Pa into the spotlight, though he admits he wasn’t convinced it would be a success. “I actually made it two years ago, but I thought I had better tunes, so I just held on to it. But it makes sense -- it’s the start of my story in a way.” This initial burst of exposure quickly saw comparisons made to another British-Gambian artist, J Hus, who responded by showing Pa some love on Twitter. “I respect him for doing that,” he smiles “I like the fact my man’s Gambian, but I’m just me. I don’t compare myself to no one. I’ve got different tunes coming.”
And Pa seems cautious of being boxed in by any labels, whether it’s the fact he’s from Coventry instead of London -- “Look at The Beatles, they’re from Liverpool. Come on bro, that way of thinking is lazy.” -- or a musical genre. “Right now, you’re gonna hear crud, innit. But it’s what man’s been through! You’ll see how it changes. I’m an artist, I don’t want to be just a rapper. My lyrics are inspired by everything. I want people to be able to close their eyes and just see. I want it to be like a movie, a movie about my life... This is me. I’ve had my life, learned my lessons, but I feel like I’m just at the beginning. It’s almost like I’m not even near being started.”
Photography Bolade Banjo
Styling Jade Douse
Photography assistance Florence Omotoyo