Coventry rapper Pa Salieu is combining social commentary with positivity
In 1981, The Specials sang about urban decay, unemployment and shuttered high streets in Coventry in their hit song Ghost Town.
Some 40 years later, 23-year-old Gambian-British rapper Pa Salieu is addressing the same issues, and the same city, in his viral hit Frontline.
"How I describe it is that there is culture and it is intense," he says over a crackling phone line from a London recording studio.
"Just like any other city in England, there is a lot of madness that happens and a lot of good stuff that happens.
"Coventry is still a ghost town like The Specials said. Coventry is Coventry. That is exactly how I explain it in my music.
"I have seen the segregation between the classes. But this is my ends. You lose friends very early."
Salieu was born in Slough but moved to The Gambia in west Africa, where he lived out his earliest, and some of his happiest, memories.
He eventually returned to the UK and settled in Hillfields, a suburb of Coventry, which he documented in said breakout hit, Frontline - a seamless blend of chilling melodies, drill beats and bubbling Afroswing.
"One of the maddest things if that Frontline was one of my first songs," he reveals. "I wasn't even comfortable with it coming out but I felt like I had to bring it out because that is where I am from, the front line."
Salieu has seen more in his 23 years than many people do in a lifetime. He has been shot, lost friends to gang violence and drug abuse, and faced racism at school.
Frontline was released in January 2020 and became the most-played track of the year on BBC 1Xtra.
It paved the way for a debut mixtape, Send Them To Coventry, released in October, its title a reference to an idiom with roots thought to go back to the 1600s, meaning to deliberately ostracise someone.
"I feel like the system is cutting me out, labelling me this while I am going through that," he offers. "If only they knew."
In January he was named winner of the BBC Music Sound of 2021 poll, which, along with the Rising Star Award at the Brits, is often seen within the industry as a guarantee of future success. Previous winners have included Celeste, Sam Smith and Adele.
Salieu is proud of his African heritage. At school in Coventry he fended off bullies who mocked his accent and dark skin - but through that experience he grew.
"It was just the time but I came with pride. They tried to take the p*** out of my dark tone or my voice or the way I looked. But I came with pride.
"I experienced racism but it also turned me into a man. I went through real life.
"I learnt who I was in Gambia. I learnt what life is here."
Being named BBC Music's Sound Of 2021 winner opened many doors. He recently featured alongside long-standing collaborator BackRoad Gee on grime pioneer Ghetts' most recent album and, if you are to believe him, there is a possible collaboration with Stevie Wonder in the works.
"I didn't really expect it," he says of his success. "We applaud music. We do music because of the passion. It allows our voice to be heard. I didn't expect it but whoever needed to hear it needed to hear it."
For some young artists, the pandemic has been a stumbling block, but Salieu sees it as a gift - a way of removing all distractions. He has spent the intervening months working away in the studio and building relationships in the music industry.
"Especially with this lockdown, it has just given me an extra boost. Remember, I hadn't been in this music world at all until last year when lockdown happened so I am in a perfect position.
"I am not used enjoying all that. I've never been used to it.
"Luckily I am very woke. I see everything as a sign."