As music fans, we’re always on the hunt for new sounds and creators. Through Highsnobiety Soundsystem Co-Signs, we’re connecting with the next generation of artists that we’re excited about. These are the origin stories of those pushing boundaries and shaping the future of music culture.
Where: Coventry For Fans Of: J Hus, Burna Boy, Headie One Playlisted: "Frontline," "B***K," "Energy"
Located 86 miles northwest of London, the industrial city of Coventry is the second biggest in the West Midlands. It’s best known for rebuilding itself after being ravaged by the Luftwaffe during World War II’s infamous “Coventry Blitz” in November 1940. Self-described history lover and Coventry-native Pa Salieu connects deeply with his city’s story: “They used to make artillery in Coventry,” he explains. “So, our cathedral got bombed, [and] it got built up again. And that explains what I’m trying to do as well; rise from the ashes like a phoenix.”
Perhaps where he’s most directly applying this metaphor is to a drive-by shooting in October last year, in which 20 shotgun pellets connected with the back of his head. “I didn’t have time to rest. I just got shot in the head and I’m going back to music,” he recalls. “I discharged myself. [What] the hell? I like keeping my mind off my situation, so I wasn’t gonna stop. God knows, I wasn’t even healed, but I was performing. Performing with GoldLink; my brother called me up — I think it was a week or two after I left the hospital. I would have gone mad.”
Luckily for him, 2020 had other plans, and, like most of us, he ended up with plenty of time on his hands. “I’ve never experienced certain stuff until the past four months,” he says, from his new home in West London. “‘What’s there to smile about?’ That was my state of mind. I was scared to smile. I didn’t see no light at the end of the tunnel. Right now, I can see both sides; this is a kind of life other people live now, where there is positivity. You can turn this into a positive — I’m proud of being able to deep that.”
With time to reflect and create, Pa is laser-focused on his purpose and responsibility as a voice for his generation. “I look through everything in detail,” he explains. “Take in everything. Use it for the right, throw away the bad. Like getting shot: take away the badness, take in what it's done to me. It revived me. The old me is dead. I’m seeing the bigger picture now.” He’s certainly made the best of a bad year, proving to be one of the most exciting breakthrough acts to emerge from the densely populated UK rap scene. Not only has he released two of the most played songs on BBC 1Xtra, but he’s appeared in campaigns for Burberry and Givenchy, and counts a long list of tastemakers — including Riccardo Tisci, FKA twigs, Virgil Abloh, Oliver El-Khatib, Tiffany Calver, and Benji B — as fans.
In conversation, the 23-year-old veers off into deep soliloquies, documenting his thoughts like a captain's log before bringing himself back to the present, with phrases like “trust me,” or, “in due time.” When we talk, he’s preparing for the release of his debut mixtape, Send Them To Coventry, which sketches out his life so far — he’s saving a lot of the finer detail for his debut album — shading its way from the darkness of the street life on cuts like breakthrough hit "Frontline," to its lighter, uplifting conclusion with empowering and celebratory songs like "B***K" and the Mahalia-featured "Energy."
“You know, it’s a shame, I have to talk about my life right now,” he says, meditating on the mood of the tape, which boasts production from Felix Joseph, Jevon, and Kwes Darko. “There’s so much goodness that I see as well that I need to speak about. But everything in due time. I’m not coming from happiness right now. I’m finding myself, I’m healing myself… or trying.” The title of the tape itself is another historical reference: “'Sending to Coventry' means to completely cut someone off,” he explains. “They used to send criminals to Coventry. I’m showing them what life is in Coventry, showing them what’s really going on."
Born in Slough, Pa was raised by his grandmother in The Gambia until he was 10 years old and he returned to Hillfields, a suburb north of Coventry city centre, to live with his parents. Adjusting to the culture shock of attending a predominantly white and Asian school in the UK forced Pa to become somewhat introverted during his formative years. During some of his darkest times, when making music wasn’t even a consideration, organizing his thoughts into notes became his therapy: when his grandmother passed, and again a year later when his close friend AP was murdered. These notes would later become the foundation for his music. “I came into music out of emotion, released my energies I’ve been holding up,” he explains. “Instead of holding it in my head, most of it I put on notes on my own phone. I found a little confidence.”
Sensitive to the world around him and deeply influenced by energy, Pa stumbled across a studio in the accommodation of an international student from Romania. “I ran into a studio in these streets, man. Trust me, I had a little clientele who had a studio in his house,” he remembers. “I never expected it! I was like ‘Yeah, you can have this for free.’ So I stayed there for a couple of nights, experimented with everything. Found a way to put my words down.” He recently reconnected with the student, driven by a need to express his thanks. “Motivation is a big thing,” he explains. “It might be nothing to you, but it’s something big to somebody else.”
Given his personal development due to that motivation, he feels a responsibility to pass on that inspiration to others. While he shares his experiences in the streets through his music, he’s careful not to glorify it. “I want young lives to know this,” he starts, “Trust me man. This ain’t a joke. The hood’s a trap, man, and people need to know this. People need to see what’s going on. I’ve got so many close people that turned into crack fiends out of circumstance.”
Pa understands the inner-workings of the trap first hand, and was lucky enough to make a narrow escape: “I had my criminal record and I know how hard it is to find work,” he explains. “The harsh realities: the only reason into that situation was to defend myself. But in the eyes of the law, I’m a criminal, right? So I tried looking for jobs. But CRB checks, there’s no jobs, I know the answers. So what I got into, I got into out of circumstance, and I found music with it. Opportunity will always come.”
In the studio, Pa says that experimentation is key. While he remains set on what he wants to say and the story he wants to tell, he stretches the use of his voice as an instrument to its limits in order to provide the vital originality and versatility that’s pushing his work forward. “I’ll sing if I want to, I’ll rap if I want to, I could do drill if I want to,” he offers. “How I word things, I could word them properly, but this is my own lingo — unapologetically. There’s reasons behind what I say.”
To reach global influence, Pa Salieu understands that he must first go deeper within himself. “I don’t believe in competition. They don’t move like me, they ain’t move like you: your sauce is your sauce,” he says, as much an affirmation to himself as motivation for anyone listening. “I aim for classics. I spent so many years battling myself and now I’m in competition with myself to help myself. See where this DNA gets me. Let me find out who I am. I’m chasing something, I can’t look left or right anymore. There’s something bigger out there. Maybe I’ll have a tune one day that will transcend to the whole world.”
Highsnobiety Soundsystem Co-Signs is a new monthly feature, curated by Grant Brydon. Check out the previous episode of Highsnobiety Co-Signs with Kaash Paige here.