Rapper Pa Salieu wins BBC Sound of 2021: 'I am the voice of the voiceless'

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment & arts reporter

Related Topics
Media caption,
The Sound of 2021 winner tells stories of friendship, family, violence and racism

Rapper Pa Salieu has won BBC Music's Sound of 2021 - identifying him as Britain's most exciting musical talent thanks to his adventurous, infectious tracks with hard-hitting lyrics about life and death on the "frontline" in Coventry.

In topping the Sound of 2021 list, Pa Salieu follows in the footsteps of previous winners like Adele, Ellie Goulding and Michael Kiwanuka.

He knows the headlines could have been different, however.

"If I died last year," he begins, reflecting on how he was shot in the head outside a pub in his home city in 2019. "If I actually died - in their eyes, I would be a criminal."

That's how he believes he would have been perceived by the authorities, the press and the outside world.

"'Gang related. Drive-by shooting.' Trust me, the whole perception would be different right now. You would have never heard of me. If you do hear of me, it's, 'That's that kid that died.' 'Gun crime.' 'These foolish youths.' No."

Image source, Aliyah Otchere
Image caption,
Pa Salieu has 16 shotgun pellets in his skull after being shot in 2019

The life Salieu talks and raps about is murky and precarious. He has been in trouble with the law, arrested six years ago for possessing a knife - for his defence, he insists.

"Police used to say I'm in a gang. I wasn't in a gang. I was never in a gang. Because I used to try to survive? I got caught with a knife when I was 17? What, because I'm paranoid of the streets?

"I got shot in the head. People get killed every day for no reason where I'm from. I don't expect no-one to understand."

Forty years after The Specials' Ghost Town painted Coventry as a city in decline, Salieu raps about it as "COV, #CityOfViolence".

But he now wants to be the voice for those who could not make it out, like the two close friends who were killed. "Our voices count," he says.

Image source, Rosie Matheson
Image caption,
He moved to Coventry's Hillfields neighbourhood at the age of eight

Salieu's debut mixtape Send Them To Coventry - named after the saying for deliberately ostracising or marginalising someone - can also be life-affirming.

Now 23, he was born in Slough, then spent six years of his childhood in The Gambia before being sent to Coventry at the age of eight. His fresh voice has a lilt that serves to soften the edges of the stories he tells.

Musically, he has more depth and guile than most two-dimensional hip-hop pretenders. His smart wordplay is delivered against an inventive range of backdrops, from the slowed-down siren of Frontline - the song that started to build his buzz early last year - to the soft slow-jam synths of More Paper.

"He has a unique perspective on Britain," says BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac, who was among the 160 tastemakers who voted for Sound of 2021.

"His songs are exquisitely produced, with enough restraint for Pa's voice to shine through and have the space to tell the stories of his life. They are stories of friendship and family, of violence, exclusion and racism, and they act as timeless evidence of British street life at the turn of new decade."

Read the full interview with Pa Salieu below.

What is BBC Sound of 2021?

  • Around 160 tastemakers voted for their favourite new acts, with the artists then ranked according to the number of votes cast.
  • The tastemakers included DJs, music critics and TV, radio and web producers, plus artists including Billie Eilish, Stormzy, Foals, Charli XCX and AJ Tracey.
  • A longlist of 10 was announced in December, with the top five revealed this week.
  • Previous winners include Celeste, Sigrid, Years & Years, Sam Smith, Michael Kiwanuka, Ellie Goulding and Adele.
  • Find out more about the Sound of 2021

How has 2020 been for you?

2020's been sick. It's just been a year of taking life in. I'm excited for next year and what's to come, and 2020 has given me the chance to see the light. The light's there but I'm still in that tunnel.

Your auntie is a folk singer in The Gambia - did she inspire you to get involved in music?

She's always been around and she goes to so many Gambian and Senegalese events. Folk music is part of your past and who you are. Back home, that's what it means.

But me getting into music was out of nowhere. I just saw a studio and fell in love with it. I was like, "Woah, I like how my voice sounds in this." I could basically make my voice into an instrument.

You were sent to Coventry when you came back from The Gambia?

Straight to Coventry, yeah. Straight to the trenches.

What was it like - why do you call it the trenches?

Gambia is sick. I was born in England but my first language is technically Wolof. In Gambia, I learned who I am and what I am. My history, my culture. In England, I learned what life is. This is real life. Two different kinds of lessons. I feel like I'm lucky.

Was it a shock to come to Coventry?

Yeah. In Coventry, Hillfields is a hood. It's the gutter in that area. Since Gambia I was sent straight to Hills and [went] nowhere else. Watching the ends [streets] change, watching the years go by, nothing really changed. The violence just went worse. More youth clubs closed down. Survival - that's what I learned in Hillfields.

I didn't see crackheads or crack-fiends like that in Gambia. When I was a kid going to school [in Coventry], you have to pass fiends. You have to pass night workers. It was the morning, but night workers were still about, you know what I'm saying? Never did I know most of my friends were going to turn into crackheads, most of my friends are going to die from the circumstances of the ends. That's what I learned here. Real life. You know what I'm saying?

Image source, Rosie Matheson
Image caption,
Singer Mahalia appears on Pa Salieu's track Energy

Being shot must have been terrifying.

Actually it's less painful than getting stabbed. It's shocking not knowing if you're going to live or not. That's when it's shocking.

I was just trying not to close my eyes. It's scary but it's the weirdest feeling I've ever had. I was more focused on the blood coming out.

Has that changed you?

Nah. A lot of stuff to open my eyes has happened way before that. The music, I had to get serious with it after my best friend got killed. Then a few months after, my other best friend got killed.

Everything I've learned back home is embedded in me, everything I've seen here is embedded in me. Trust me, I should be strong regardless of that gunshot or anything. It's another eye-opener. I've been shot at, but it's never actually hit me until that moment. It's just normal. All I can do is look forward, as always.

Why did somebody want to shoot you?

I don't know. People get shot every day. Wrong place, wrong time. People hate on you. It's the hood. It's different. It is a treacherous world, believe it or not. Very treacherous. People die for no reason every day. It's life.

The thing that matters is what you're going to do with it - let it eat you up, or rise above it? Getting shot is the same as getting fired from your job. What are you going to do with it? Rise up, or what? That's life. Everything is a lesson.

Image source, Aliyah Otchere

You said you got serious about music after what happened to your friends - is that because you decided you had to do something with your life?

I always say, either break down or make it out. There are so many friends that have lost their life, turned into crackheads or [been] in prison for a very long time. Their voices ain't going to be heard like that. I'm going to be the voice of that as much as I can. That's my intention. Hood representative. No-one can understand what we've been through.

But I know a lot of people who've been through what I've been through, or coming from where I'm coming from, can relate to that. That's their voices. So many voices can't be heard. It's so sad. I am the voice.

And that spurs you on?

Yeah. My best friend had a clothing line called Money Moves before he died. You see why I hit music even more after he died, because he was one of the first people to try to do something. He went and printed his own shirts. Started it. We all started helping, pushing it. When I started music, he pushed me the most.

Is there a message you want to send with your music?

Build. Unity. That's what we lack. Where I come from, we lack compassion. It's going to have to come from me. I'm not a punchline artist. Everything I say is exactly how I feel and exactly what I see and exactly where I'm coming from. My message is just build, build, build. Break down or make it out. Protect your energy. Protect everything.

Sound of 2021 - the rest of the top five

Who are your role models?

To be honest, my grandparents. Simple, spiritual, kind-hearted. That's all that you need in life. You can be the richest or the maddest businessman in the world - you need pure vibes, that's what counts.

Coventry is UK City of Culture in 2021. Is it a good place to make music?

It just needs more opportunity. There's so much talent. Different kinds of music, different cultures infused with their lives. But it lacks opportunity, which we need to push, which we will push.

Image source, Aliyah Otchere
Image caption,
Send Them To Coventry got glowing reviews when it was released in November

Do you know Coventry's musical history, people like The Specials?

Yeah, my best friend that got killed, his granddad was Neville Staple, he was in The Specials. [Staple's grandson Fidel Glasgow was stabbed to death in 2018.] I knew his granddad used to make music but I never knew the powers of it. Then he just died. So it's not a joke. His name has to live on.

What are you aiming for in 2021?

I aim for progression. Just building, still. I'm so laid-back, bro. I work every day - I ain't slept for the last five days - but I'm so laid back as in I don't pressure myself. I accept that this is the start.