The artist heads back to Gambia to realise a sumptuous audio-visual journey for her latest music
In the short film for Seinabo Sey’s new song ‘Breathe’, the famed saying of Kwame Nkrumah, ‘Forward Ever, Backward Never’, is emblazoned across a makeshift banner held up by four strong and stunning women wearing frothy frocks. The stirring quote from Ghana’s first President sums up Sey’s new mood. Having dropped this and two other dazzling, soulful and passionate songs in the past few weeks, ‘I Owe You Nothing’ and ‘Remember’, it’s clear that the artist is feeling more confident, more vocal and more daring than ever before. Touching on her own multi-cultural identity, on loving oneself as well as lost loves, and the strength of female solidarity, Sey’s first material since 2015 does not pull its punches.
The fresh material is also a home coming in that Sey shot all three films in Gambia where her father, the late musician Maudo Sey, hails from, and where the Sweden-born artist spent some of her childhood. “I lived there from the age of four to seven and even though I’ve been there many times since, my feeling for Gambia comes from that early period of my life. It is so shockingly different to Sweden but I would never change it, it’s given me more than anywhere else,” Sey explains. “With these films I wanted to show how beautiful it is. When US stars portrays Africa they water it down, which is natural because they’re not from there. But then African artists tend to want to American-ize everything. I wanted to find that middle ground that I miss seeing. I opened my eyes to remember all the little things I saw growing up that express that odd meeting of heritage and pop culture. I find that abrupt clash so interesting.”
All directed by Sheila Johansson on a “very hectic but so much fun” 10-day trip, each work features friends, family and street cast locals, and expresses a different mood. While ‘Breathe’ is about feeling peace and acceptance on African soil, ‘Remember’ featuring Jacob Banks reflects upon legacy and freedom. Taking visual cues from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, we see Sey floating majestically in a calm, all-encompassing ocean. Her arresting banner quote for this piece comes from contemporary poet Nayyirah Waheed: ‘Eyes that Commit. That is what I’m looking for.’ Most kick-ass of all though is ‘I Owe You Nothing’, for which a full-length video travels through Banjul’s barber shops, road sides, petrol stations and apartments as Sey delivers one abundantly clear message: “I be myself and ain't frontin nah nah nah.” In other words, if you don’t like or understand what you see, jog on.
While she credits Kelis’ ‘Been Caught Out’ for the confrontational tone of the song, Sey’s philosophical message comes from a very different oracle, Aristotle: ‘To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’ “When I don’t know what to write about, I read poetry and collect quotes and they end up on my moodboards. Aristotle’s words encourage me to be brave enough to write about what matters. It’s not everyone’s goal in life to be someone or change something, but if it is, you have to be prepared to say your opinion in every room.”
“It’s not everyone’s goal in life to be someone or change something, but if it is, you have to be prepared to say your opinion in every room”
Sey is certainly making a bold sartorial statement with these works. Styling Gucci runway looks and pieces from Swedish designers with outfits made in Gambia from counterfeit Burberry and Louis Vuitton logo fabrics makes for an effervescent fashion moment. “I went out there a week before with my stylist to find fabrics in the corners of markets and check out tailors. It was stressful as fuck but it worked out and I love the super weird mix.”
Sey has always been about the weird mix thanks to her musical tastes ranging from Beyoncé and Alicia Keys to Youssou N'Dour and Davido. Being half Swedish, half Gambian, she grew up as a rarity in the small town of Halmstad and relocated to Stockholm to study music as a teenager. After a stint in the experimental R&B outfit Death Chronic, she teamed up with producer Magnus Lidehäll and released her debut single ‘Younger’ in 2013, which fast became a powerful pop anthem thanks to her earthy, soaring voice. Two EPs and the album Pretend followed, as did multiple awards and accolades including a Swedish Grammy and appearing on a Swedish stamp. She spent three years on the road performing everywhere from Glastonbury to Roskilde and then got straight back into the studio to work on album number two, which lands this autumn.
“I was scared of taking a break and just wanted to start recording straight away to find a new thing. But you also need to live a little to have something to make songs about and sitting on a tour bus doesn’t give you that. I thought I’d be done in a year but it has taken me double that. It was frustrating and shocking but I’ve grown and am coming out the other side better for it,” she says. “Each song is different and good ones can come from nowhere. You can’t control it. I’m also trying to be more direct than before. I grew up listening to complicated, conscious hip hop full of metaphors and used to lean toward that, but this time I want my songs to be straight forward… When you have put your whole heart into something, it’s exciting to put it out there, see how people react, and move on.”
Breathe is available to buy and stream now on all platforms via Virgin Records
Seinabo Sey performs Stockholm’s Globe Arena on 5 October, 2018