As a music editor, a large chunk of my work life consists of being peddled artists by ambitious PRs. However, if I take a look at my emails, it’s abundantly clear that women don’t receive the same push as men, especially in rap. While male rappers are supported by teams of producers, managers, and agents, women – not just in this industry – have to fight for their due. But hip-hop culture will suffer if only a small handful of these artists are showered with the bulk of the attention – often for reasons that have nothing to do with their music. In media we often wait until female rappers blow up to superstardom for us to announce, "Oh yes, I was supporting her!" With most of our work charting male artists’ success, it’s time to hold ourselves to task and keep the same energy for female artists. And when we’re speaking of MCs taking over, it would be a mistake to ignore Shaybo.
Calling her an up-and-coming rapper would be a disservice to the work she’s put in – Shaybo will tell you herself she’s “been rapping since limewire.” “People think I've come into the music industry and just blown overnight,” she tells me. “It's taken me 11 years of making songs, people taking advantage of my dream, having the door slammed in my face, trusting the wrong people.”
As part of rap’s nascent generation of women, Shaybo has spent the past few years making captivating, genre-redefining music and not receiving enough attention for it (chalk it up to the insidious requirement for women and minorities to be twice as good for half the reward). But Shaybo isn’t waiting for permission from an industry that’s often too late to recognize female talent, instead, with her new mixtape she’s claiming her rightful place in UK rap’s top ranks. Aptly titled Queen of the South – no, that’s not a Trina reference – the project draws parallels to its namesake TV series. “When I watch [the protagonist] Teresa Mendoza on Queen of the South, for me, it's about a woman who was incredibly naïve, who literally managed to boss her way up in a room full of egos and men and rivalry and everything, and she managed to get to the top… that’s me.”
Born in Nigeria, Shaybo grew up in South London, first Lewisham and later Woolwich. It’s this cultural tapestry that seeps into each of Queen of the South’s 11 tracks, particularly there when she’s rapping in Yoruba on “Dem Blues.” It's also felt in her lyrics, which she delivers with slick flows oozing with tenacity on tracks like the dancehall-infused “Bad Gyal” and “Broke Boys” with fellow femcee DreamDoll. Right out of the gate, Shaybo’s already proven that she’s harder than a lot of your faves. The challenge is shedding the gritty persona and showing something we had up until now only briefly gleaned: softness. “I don't always want to put this tough exterior on, but I struggle to find the balance," she says. "That's my issue, I'm so resilient that I don't know how to show vulnerability. I think because I've been through so much pain, it's made me tough as a rock. I get caught up in making music that empowers women, but I don't want to always empower them to be angry or strong. I want to show them it's okay to show vulnerability sometimes.”
Queen of the South allows listeners to hear rap that has the freedom to be masculine or feminine, rebellious or traditional, bold or vulnerable, interchangeable or all at once. Towards the middle of the tape, Shaybo “Ya Dun Know” gives way to Shayon, revealing an emotional depth that longtime fans may not expect. Sonically, there’s a switch from the heavy-hitting drill beats we know her for, courtesy of Beyoncé-approved producer GuiltyBeatz, who crafts a mesmerizingly new soundscape for the remainder of the tape – “[GuiltyBeatz] definitely helps me get there, the more calm side of me. It’s different from the music you've been hearing from me,” she explains. On tracks like “No Worries” featuring Wale and “Carry & Go,” Shaybo’s no longer just rapping over a beat, she explores her voice as an instrument in its own right. But it’s what she’s saying that you should really listen out for.
If hip-hop is a mirror reflecting and often magnifying society’s larger failings, its lack of support for Black women in particular is a fact that is unsurprising, and one that especially stings as known abusers continue to be rewarded with praise and platforms. When we concede that mainstream hip-hop has become largely defined by the negation of female voices and perspectives, we can also appreciate just how vital Shaybo’s Queen of the South is. On the song “My Sister” featuring Jorja Smith, Shaybo breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to her female listeners, pointing out the signs of an abusive relationship and encouraging them to leave. “All this gaslighting got you hallucinating,” she raps at one point, “Why’re you saying you’re sorry when you know you should hate him? / This nigga made your self-worth lower than the pavement.” In our interview, Shaybo reveals that her own lived experiences made her lend her voice to others who’ve experienced partner violence.
“I'm literally making music from my experiences,” she discloses. “Because I've been through domestic violence and abuse, which I don't think is spoken about enough within the community, especially with girls, it's not really something we can be open about. I mean, we talk to our friends, but we don't seek help and actually try to learn what things are being done to us. So I went through it and I studied social work to become a domestic violence abuse advocate. Now I can see the signs and I can make music from that place for girls who are thinking like I was thinking [...] I think anybody who's been through pain, different types of pain, once it's overcome, it just naturally makes you a very strong person. I think that’s why so many women relate to me.”
Shaybo’s candor provides an alternative to rap’s tendency to glamorize toxic dynamics. The genre, celebrated for its ability to document and honor the myriad ways that marginalized and oppressed people negotiate their existence, has tragically failed to provide that same space and enthusiasm for Black women. If anything, Shaybo proves having more female MCs in the fold can only enrich its legacy of storytelling. For Shaybo, “It’s not enough to just make good music. I feel like I need to break boundaries. It's going to take a long time, but I just want to break a certain boundary and get to a certain place so that the light can be shed on more females in the rap game.” And if we listen to this new class of female rappers, this may very well be remembered as the era when rap was its most powerful.