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Pa Salieu, Afrikan Rebel from Gambia to the Frontline

At Le Guess Who? Festival in Utrecht, PAM sat down with Pa Salieu to discuss what it means to be an Afrikan Rebel, the name of the Coventry rapper’s latest EP. From his childhood in Gambia to his militant future ambition.

Pa Salieu rolls deep. Backstage at Le Guess Who? festival I found the Coventry rapper with a hefty entourage in decked out jumpers and designer coats. Pa was in the corner of the dressing room in a sea green tracksuit getting some shots taken with a photographer. My interview started without Pa, his entourage grilling me on the basics; “Why are you here? What do you know about African music?” and so on. I rolled with the punches and gave my answers straight up. Gradually suspicion turned amicable. Humble beginnings, love for music, and an invitation to the psychedelic Nyege Nyege after party happening down the street was enough to earn some nods and daps from the crew.

You’re the first person we met with any manners around here,” one of them said to me as Pa got his last photos in. 

Pa Salieu – Bad (ft. Aitch) Official Video
Enter the Afrikan Rebel

Pa came and sat down across from me, staring me down with heavy eyes and rough mistrust. The entourage, making a semicircle on either side of us, fell silent. A fan hummed in the background. 

So what does it mean to be an Afrikan rebel?” I asked, breaking the silence and referring to his most recent 3 track EP of the same name. Pa looked back, flared his lip and responded, “What do you think it means?

From that moment I knew this was no ordinary interview. Pa is not flexing, nor does he have anything to prove. It’s a consequence of the “Frontline”; a reference to the Coventry block and name of Pa Salieu’s massive hit that lives in the brutal realities of Coventry street life. 

You won’t believe what I’ve seen already,” Pa explains to me, “and this is not that time for it. But I’ll tell you one thing, it makes that Afrikan Rebel movement even harder.” 

So what does Afrikan Rebel mean? Pa would suggest to listen carefully to his music and figure it out for yourself. That said, “Afrikan Rebel is not just music” Pa explains, “Where the world began, where did humans come from? It’s like that….if you understand, you’re a rebel, if you don’t…” Pa shrugs, “you get me?

© Jelmer de Haas
From The Gambia to the “Frontline”

I still didn’t get it and wasn’t planning to front like I did. Then again I hadn’t had the same degree of existential intervention Pa has experienced in his 24 years. Maybe it’s losing a close friend at a young age, or the 9 shots taken to the head. Perhaps it’s his notorious run-ins with the law that lead to a cancelled headline show near his hometown. In any case, for Pa, this is not a game.

I’m not a punchline artist. If I say this, it’s something to be thought about.” 

For most, Pa’s story begins in 2020 with the release of the single “Frontline” followed by his critically acclaimed debut album Send Them To Coventry. From there Pa went on to headline shows, appear on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and run the full circuit of certified success. 

But Pa’s story begins much earlier, spending the first 8 years of his life in his parent’s native Gambia living with his grandmother. There, Pa was brought up alongside his aunt, a traditional Gambian folk singer, and in a world that differed starkly from his later experiences in the UK, by his own account. 

You know what gets shown back home, it’s only poverty and that. It’s not just poverty. We have less. There’s stuff being robbed from us. But you see a place full of love that will survive with little. See that’s different,”  Pa explains

I was born in this country (UK), I was raised in Gambia. So I saw an element of me and my past, where it should be. Of love. And I came here, and there’s love but it’s very different. There we eat on one plate. Everyone eats with their hands. Growing up that fixes something into your brain. You come here and you eat with your own plate. Singles, singles.”

He remarks, finally, “I was selfless there. I saw what selfishness is here,” followed by a weighty pause. “I never experienced racism until I came to this country…”  

Pa Salieu – Shining (feat. Tay Iwar & Zlatan)
A symbol not an image

The more we speak the more I begin to see the outlines of Afrikan Rebel. It’s a return to the source, a washboard for preconceptions. It’s romantic and esoteric, but grounded in instinct. Whether I’m catching on or not, one can hear in Pa Salieu’s music the same elusive aesthetic. It’s the insanely catchy “Style and Fashion” feat. Obongjayar or the dancehall-trap with BlackRoad Gee on “My Family”, each track is hyphy and foreign.  

If you don’t look at other songs and try to be influenced by this and that, you’ll have your own DNA.” Pa explains. “Even if you can’t sing you have your own thing. Me back home in the suburbs you get people actually dancing to the drums. It’s a rhythm. There’s a lot of rhythm. You see them outside, they jumpin’. This is rhythm. Fighting,” Pa mimes a few punches, “it’s a rhythm. It’s science bro. Either you deep it or not. Everyone has their own journeys. My perspective is different

Perhaps it’s also related to Pa’s frequent references to “energy” like in the closing track of his debut album.

Why you keep wastin’ your еnergy?
Never let them draw out the energy
They just want you fall ’cause their jealousy
Yeah, protect your energy

I try to pin the idea under a microscope, but Pa won’t budge. Even for this wordsmith, descriptions of this feeling are ambiguous. “This is why I call it spiritual,” says Pa. “I grew up in a mosque when I was in Gambia, you know what I’m sayin? When I got into music all these melodies, all this everything. I know I ain’t done no choir lessons. It must have come from elements. In life, you learn without even realizing. It’s just normal. Humans. Spiritual. It came from nowhere and I use it to take it somewhere. Luckily for me, this is a symbol not an image.” 

© Jelmer de Haas
Militant Motherfuckers

I’m intrigued enough at this point. There’s gravity and consequence in each phrase. But where is this mass pulling? To what end is Pa Salieu trying to move bodies? The method is clear; rhythm. Head bopping, fist wielding rhythm. Catch Pa’s work with Slowthai, Aitch, or Prettyboy D-O if you need another taste. 

This is not philosophy, this is all by force.” Pa Salieu exclaims. 

I asked where all this rebellion comes from, in a roundabout way to get to where it’s going. “That comes from real life.” Pa says without hesitation. I’m from Coventry. Facts is what you’re getting, in my own way. And the rhythm will always be there because that’s within me. It’s within everyone isn’t it? It’s all a pattern fam.” 

So what’s next?” I pleaded, doing my best to get a straight answer.

It’s a rise of militant motherfuckers. It’s that time.” Pa says, giving me a look to let me know he’s serious. “It’s that stubbornness time. We don’t care bro. We don’t care. It’s love or no love. We don’t care if it’s no love. Either you look forward with us, or it is what it is. My music ain’t to please nobody. But my music ain’t cap (isn’t fake). You gonna hear how it is.” 

Strong words. 

And again, if you’re not understand, you’re gonna have to go back and listen.” 

Listen to Pa Salieu’s latest EP Afrikan Rebel