Fresh on the music scene, rapper Pa Salieu has been recognised as one of the UK’s most promising new talents. The 23-year-old has just won BBC Music’s Sound Of 2021, an accolade previously awarded to the likes of Adele, Ellie Goulding and Michael Kiwanuka.
“I was grateful even being in part of the top 10,” he said to BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac, one of BBC Sounds’ panelists. “There were some crazy talented people,” he added.
The award, voted on by a panel of 160 industry tastemakers – from Billie Eilish, Stormzy, Charli XCX, Foals to journalists and DJs – recognises musicians tipped for success in the coming years.
Reflecting on the win, Pa Salieu tweeted: “Madness! I have won BBC sound of 2021 so early on in my career it’s madd!! Love to my team all the judges on the panel and my BBC family!!”
The Coventry-based rapper released his debut single Frontline in January 2020, followed by his debut critically-acclaimed mixtape Send Them To Coventry.
Pa Salieu, who was born in Slough and grew up in The Gambia and Coventry, has been praised for his “hard-hitting lyrics” about violence, racism, friendship, and family. Per BBC describes he describes himself as the “voice for the voiceless” and his “fresh” and “inventive” and sound is said to bring a “unique perspective on Britain.”
Following the win, DJ Annie Mac said: “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.”
It’s music the rapper has delivered against all odds, after recovering from a near-fatal gunshot wound to the head in 2019. Clearly, the breakout star has an incredible story to match the music, here are five things to know about Pa Salieu.
Back in 2019, Pa Salieu was shot outside of a pub in his hometown of Coventry in a gang-related incident. He was just 22-years-old when he suffered shots to the head and neck but thankfully made a full recovery. Speaking about the terrifying incident, he explained to BBC that the experience taught him a valuable lesson about 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.”
Though he was born in Slough, Pa Salieu was sent back to live in The Gambia before moving to Coventry with his family at 8-years-old. The rapper speaks of The Gambia fondly and has shared intentions to help build primary schools and teach functional skills for children in the future. “Even though Gambia has poverty, the way you live is still riches,” he said to NME. “If you’re hungry there, you don’t even need to ask,” he says. “They’ll see and they’ll come and give you food. Everyone shares.”
Pa Salieu’s childhood in Coventry was far from easy and much of his experiences — from “trapping” to the deaths of close friends — are retold in his music. “I love Coventry, but I made it out of the hood,” he said to NME in a recent interview. “I feel like I’ve been cut from the system, but I will go and I will rise up like a phoenix.”
FKA Twigs is one of the major artists tipped to be working on Pa Salieu’s future material. The rapper praised the entertainer for being “humble” and her good energy. In his NME interview, he said: “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.”
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…”
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 “Then a few months after, my other best friend got killed.”
He added: “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.”
“To be honest, my grandparents. Simple, spiritual, kind-hearted,” he said to BBC when asked about his role models. 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,”
7 Things To Know About BBC Sound of 2021 Winner Pa Salieu The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Bustle.