It’s mad to think that this time last year Pa Salieu had only just dropped his debut tune, the gritty, searing synth banger Frontline. In the 12 months since, the 23-year-old rapper has become one of the most talked about new artists on the scene, collaborating with FKA Twigs, M1llionz and Mahalia, as well as topping the prestigious BBC Sound of 2021 poll, a prize previously won by Adele and Haim.
Born in Slough, the artist was sent to Gambia when he was two to live with his grandparents before settling in Hillfields, Coventry when he was eight. This experience growing up in the West Midlands is viscerally recounted in his debut mixtape Send Them to Coventry, like in the explosive My Family, which talks of his violent upbringing and paper-stacking aspirations (“Chitty chitty, bang bang, four-door dinger /Ting go ‘clap’ tryna hit them figures.”). As well as the opening track Block Boy, where he raps “My name is Pa /I’m from Hillside /bust gun, dodge slugs, got touched, skipped death”.
As the UK breakout star gears up for his American TV debut on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, THE FACE sets out 10 things you abso-fucking-lutely need to know about Pa Salieu.
1. He’s grateful for his early childhood, spent in Gambia
“My grandfather had a farm. We had chicken running around. And we had a mosque on site and at a young age I finished the Quran,” Salieu told THE FACE last year. Despite acknowledging the high levels of poverty in Gambia, he appreciates that he “wouldn’t have done [all] that in the UK,” and praises the sharing mentality inherent to the culture.
2. His auntie is a Gambian folk singer
Gambian musical influences are strong in Pa Salieu’s music and it turns out he’s had a strong musical presence in his life.“My auntie is a Gambian folk singer,”he told Clash Magazine. “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…”
3. He never had a Plan B
An unfortunate charge when he was 17 meant that the young artist had a criminal record that prevented him finding employment. “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!” Luckily for him, it’s safe to say that Plan A is working out so far.
4. He survived a gunshot wound in 2019
In October 2019, Salieu was shot 20 times in the head and neck during a drive-by shooting outside a party in Coventry. “I came out of my session from London to Coventry and I got shot. But I knew I wasn’t dying, man. Hell no. I got something I am chasing. I dunno what. There’s obstacles but there’s fate,” he told us last year. Turns out he was right, two weeks later he was on stage with GoldLink playing the O2 Birmingham even though – at the time – he only had one song out. Want to see him live? Pandemic pending, he’s got a May 2021 concert in the pipeline at the O2 Birmingham.
5. But he still has 16 bullets lodged in his skull
6. His first gig was at Lovebox festival
In July 2019 Tiffany Calver brought Pa Salieu out, last minute, to perform live for the first time. Shook but unflinching, Salieu trusted Calver’s confidence in him and played an unreleased track to a crowd who, for the most part, didn’t yet know his name.
7. He was inspired to make music after his best friend AP got killed
After his best friend was stabbed to death in 2018, Pa Salieu sought refuge in the studio and decided to take his music seriously. “I had to get serious with it after my best friend got killed,” he explained to BBC News. “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.”
8. He’s working on a collaboration with FKA Twigs
A photo of the two working together on a now-deleted Instagram post in July started a rumour mill that the Magdalene singer would feature on Salieu’s future material. In an NME interview, the rapper praised the artist for being humble, commenting: “She’s got nothing to gain over me; you feel the energy. I care about people’s energies and what the heart is going through. It could be Jay‑Z and if I’m not feeling the energy, it’s a no.”
9. J Hus doesn’t mind the comparisons
When Frontline first dropped, it sent Twitter into a tizz with many commenting on the track’s resemblance to early J Hus. It was a comparison however that the afroswing pioneer himself co-signed, with Hus referring to Salieu as his“brother” to his 471.1k followers.
10. His dream is to build a school in Gambia
“Very soon I want to be able to start building infrastructure in music back home. I’m starting a vocational [school] by next year,” Salieu told Wonderland. “I’m gonna get a building in Gambia and start building it, hire some tutors to teach skills like construction, carpentry, just basic skills that a father can pass on.”