eyi Shay—flushed in a kind of traje de flamenca with spaghetti sleeves—parries a particularly persistent fly bent on partaking in our conversation, which ensues on the compound of a quiet house on Archer Rd. (Dzorwulu). The insect disappears from around her ear, but it would not be long before it hovers by again. She readjusts the gold-rimmed sunglasses on her face—which serve as her defense against the rays of Accra’s noon sun, settles properly in her seat, and resumes the story of her love affair with Ghana’s capital.
“I love the vibe, the people, the food, [and] the jollof,” notes the kindly Nigerian singer/ actress via diction that recalls her Tottenham childhood. “There’s just an energy that keeps pulling me here.”
Over the past few years, Seyi Shay’s Accra trips have become frequent, typically for promotional duties, or to play a gig. Today, it’s the recent singles “Give Me Love,” and “Ko Ma Roll” that have brought her here. Known privately as Deborah Oluwaseyi Joshua, the sultry chanteuse enjoys appreciable celebrity in this town, but she’s looking to properly “blow here very soon.”
Both “Give Me Love,” and “Ko Ma Roll” herald Electric Package, Vol. 2—her soon-to-be-released 2019 EP. An experimental project which harvests indigenous West African sounds, its predecessor featured the likes of DJ Spinall, Vanessa MDee, Destruction Boyz, and Flavour. This new instalment, while it guests fewer appearances, supplies a very “intentional sound,” she points out.
A versatile performer, Ms. Seyi submits a hybrid of multiple elements in her craft; reggae, ska, hip-hop, R&B, salsa, Afrobeat etc. She wouldn’t reject the label of “Afropop act.” Indeed, she deems it accurate, seeing as she’s a practitioner of “popular African music.” And while she may not have a song that leans to, say, “Shaku Shaku”—which ranks among reigning rhythms these days—she believes that her music is relevant to the times, and caters to current trends in its own way.
“Yolo Yolo,” “Murda,” “Give Me Love,” “Crazy,” “Right Now”, and now “Ko Ma Roll” constitute five of her biggest hits till date, and all arrive in pulses independent of one another. While “Yolo Yolo” and “Ko Ma Roll” take the Afro- Salsa route, “Right Now” straddles the tender essence of R&B and the brazenness of dancehall. “Give Me Love” which features colleague Runtown, retains modern Afrobeats. “Murder” incorporates Caribbean feels, whereas “Crazy” is designed for fast-paced dance.
“How much influence one needs to be able to practice such an extensive array?” I probe. Her answer: one’s upbringing.
Born and raised in London by Nigerian parents, Seyi visited Nigeria every year since she turned 2, thus, by the time she decided to settle finally in Nigeria years ago, her deep cultural roots were fully intact. Growing up in 80s and 90s London also exposed her to numerous musical sorts, nurturing her ability to appreciate all kinds of harmony. For her vocal discipline, she credits her church/ Gospel choir background. Again, she read Music in college, before heading to university to study Business Management.
Seyi began performing as a teenager, joining the London Community Gospel Choir during their world tour. Prior to announcing her solo career, she belonged to now defunct girl bands Boadicea, and From Above (who supported Pop megastar, Beyoncé on the UK leg of her I Am… World Tour).
In 2011, she met veteran Nigerian musician, Sound Sultan, who suggested that she take her music back to the West African country that governs African music. It took some convincing, but she finally agreed, and hasn’t looked back since.
Our unsolicited guest re-emerges during my confession to Ms. Seyi that “Yolo Yolo” is a personal favourite, because of how excellently it balances dance rhythm with a powerful sermon of hope, and taking stock of one’s blessings. Seyi smiles a grateful smile, while simultaneously throwing a delicate back-handed slap over her shoulder to dismiss the fly—whom I cannot see, but who announces its return via irksome buzzing again and again. She suspects it’s a mosquito, I think it’s a housefly.
When “Yolo Yolo” landed sometime in 2017, I assumed that her infatuation with the Cuban rhythm was a one-off affair, but subsequent joints she’s wrung out have proven me wrong: her attraction to Afro-Cuban fusion is not a mere fling. Seyi credits Fela Kuti for pioneering that style, stressing: “more than anything, he influenced my affair with ‘Afro- Salsa.’”
On that record, produced by DJ Coublon, Seyi, who enjoys the privilege of celebrity, manages to relate with impressive credibility, the daily truths of ordinary people. What is the technique there? It’s a question I have also earmarked for Burna Boy should I sit down with him, seeing that he now stands as the most credible voice of the street, constantly supplying anthems tailored to the specific sentiments of the lower class—most recently with “Dangote,” christened after Africa’s wealthiest man, and emphasizing hard work and perseverance.
“I sing my truth,” Seyi cuts into my thought. For every song she has issued, she was “in that place.” This characteristic, she believes, is why her songs embody so much life and colour—whether recorded with live instruments or not; why she keeps getting booked over four/ five-year-old songs.
“I sing from my soul.” Indeed, “some people would say I’m a soul singer.” Even if another person wrote the song, the goal is to render it in a way that is authentic. In other words, “sing their words to life.” If she takes any other route, she’s convinced that listeners would not believe it—it would be just another Pop record which goes latent after a couple of months. With Seyi, a cardinal rule is to affect. “Everybody needs to connect with something.”
By listening to her songs, addressees of her music can therefore accurately determine her emotional space at a given time. She was in an unhappy place around the time she recorded “Yolo Yolo,” hence it was written as encouragement for her. It is why the song, in its delivery, is both reflective and hopeful. And ultimately, “everybody loves a positive song,” she says.
I bring up a specific line from the record; one that has stuck with me for a long time: “pickin wey they carry for back no know say journey far” (to wit, the child being carried on his mother’s back is oblivious of the distance of a trip). What inspired that statement?
“You can picture this line,” she launches her response. “As babies, when our mothers carry us on their backs, we don’t think of the troubles of life ahead. In fact, we cannot even see where our mothers are carrying us to. All we know is that we’re going somewhere. We have no worries—and that is when you’re a child.
As you get older, you start to realise that what you felt then is not forever. You start to realise the journey.”
Here’s another way to interpret that verse: “as an adult, you can look back and say, ‘when I was a kid, I didn’t know this is where the journey would take me to.’” When she was lamenting to Klem—with whom she penned the song—just how discouraged she was, he spoke that proverb to reassure her. The words invoked tears, and then a masterpiece.
Seyi is thankful for her talent for many reasons, key among which is the fact that it provides avenue for her to navigate her emotions, so that, she doesn’t have to resort to drugs or “extra crazy shit” to safeguard her sanity. She acknowledges that “a lot of artists are hiding behind stardom and fake shit, and there’s hardly an avenue for release, because what they’re singing is not even true. They’re not driving Bentleys, or rocking expensive jewellery—that’s their way of hiding what they’re really facing.
“But for me ooh, I just say my truth, and it’s my therapy,” submits the chanteuse, this time, allowing a strong West African drawl.
“I know that there are other girls and guys out there that can relate to my truths. There must be—because we’re not all pushing Bugattis and Ferraris. If people can relate to artists like me, who are just being real, that’s outlet for them.” Why? “Nobody is perfect, and you cannot be perfect.
“You cannot be perfect,” she repeats, “maybe to your mother, or to your father.” Even to our parents, Seyi is quick to add, there’s always one thing we fall short with. “Once you embrace your imperfection and try to do your best all the time and just be happy with yourself, that’s the height of perfection.”
Well what about the following theory then: that often, it is artists we look to, to make sense of the world? Is it not by aspiring to an artist’s heights that we aspire to perfection; the glamour of her videos and her model-type contours which shape our conception of the ideal body? In other words, is it not the duty of an artist to therefore be perfect?
“No,” she smiles, in the way your grandmother would before dosing up insightful advice. “The duty of an artist is to be flawed,” so she can inspire others.
“Because—let me tell you why I don’t agree,” Seyi carries on with her emotive retort: “a lot of artists hide behind a façade; a lot of artists hide behind a world they have created for themselves—one that they expect people to buy into.
“If that resonates with their fans, that’s on them.” But, when said artists fall/ make a mistake, what is left of their followers who believe in them? Seyi lets the question hang.
“It’s really about what you see as perfection, and drawing inspiration from whoever you admire. The duty of artists is to be honest and open, and say, ‘yes, I’m telling you my story in hopes that it helps you, and helps you know that you’re not alone.”
In conclusion, Seyi’s definition of perfection comes down to being herself. An apology follows the pronouncement: “sorry,” to whom it may concern—and then she promptly withdraws it, chortling “I’m not sorry.” One must not apologize for who she is.
One other characteristic of Seyi’s songs is that they arrive with superior vocal technique, embellished with superb adlibs and elegant high notes. However, she observes, the Nigerian music consumer doesn’t really care for singing, whether it’s E flat or F sharp. “They just want you to make them dance. That is it!”
The art of singing technically may be waning, and auto-tune is seemingly allowing many the temerity to label themselves “singers”, she says—but thankfully, acts like the fast-rising Teni, and sister Niniola have maintained a certain standard, even if they’re singing on a Pop record.
“Real voice—not just labalaba music,” Seyi expounds. “So, there are people who are really breaking that status-quo—thank God.”
One more thing on the perfection question, and she wants to be perfectly clear about this: when she sings, the overall intent is not to necessarily hit perfect vocals; the intention is to connect: “if my vocals are perfect—well, that’s just because of where it’s coming from.” Again, because she comes from a church /gospel choir traditions, she’s trained to keep a certain level of vocal discipline.
I don’t remember what next set of questions land us here, but somewhere during the dialogue, we are discussing how songs—in their varying forms– come about for Seyi. She notes that there isn’t a single way to construct music. “Give Me Love,” for instance, emerged in the spur of the moment. She didn’t have to write it. In the studio, she just got behind the microphone, and began “speaking in tongues”—but with melody. The melody was great, hence she decided to put lyrics to it.
“Honestly, with melody that comes from heaven like that, you can’t even fight it—there’s no more perfection than that, so you just do it that way,” she remarks.
Creating “Murda” happened slightly differently: during a studio session, Shaydee (who guests on the song alongside Patoranking) began freestyling the verses that would end up being the joint’s hook. The melody hooked her immediately. As she recalls this story, she cracks into a smile, and then immediately finds herself singing it:
“She say she want murder/ she say she want do that thing/ she say she want murder…”
She didn’t write “Ko Ma Roll.” Ace Tune, an act she recently signed, did, but she made sure to deliver it as convincingly as she knows how to.
My next question has to do with stereotypes of the contemporary female Pop singer; that she can only truly hit commercial accomplishment by staying within a specific set of subject matters, mainly love, sex, and dance. She disagrees: “I don’t think so, sha,” tendering in a piece of evidence she knows all too well—her 18-track debut album, “Seyi or Shay.”
“The subject matters are so vast—“a spiritual one, a love one, a baby making one, a balling one, a flossing one, a down one, a hopeful one, a prayerful one[…] music is music, and whatever occupies your mind or heart as an artist, you have a duty to deliver and speak it.
“Seyi or Shay” wasn’t a perfect project for the singular reason that she shouldered every aspect of its making; from recording, to mixing, through mastering. It was not the best version of herself in terms of sonics or delivery, she says. The revelation surprises me, because “Seyi or Shay” stands, to me, as a very effective project; pouring with high-profile features and singles that were quickly picked up by radio. Seyi must have noticed the surprise on my face, and compensates me with her next sentence: the album’s excellence rests in the fact that she was just being herself on the project.
Seyi has to be on a plane back home soon, but she will take a final question.
Here it is: how does she manage to hold her ground in the same ecosystem as Davido, Tekno, Wizkid, Mr. Eazi et al? Afropop is highly male-dominated, and only a handful of female acts have truly ascended “A List” status. Indeed, one can count—on one hand—singers who lead the female contingent. Seyi is one of them—as are Tiwa Savage, Yemi Alade, and a few others.
She doesn’t have a ready answer, but deems it a “great feeling to be part of those pioneering new-age Afrobeats.”
“I just thank God, because I don’t know if I really know how popular or influential I am—and I don’t really look at that because I’m still trying to a certain place that I don’t believe I have reached yet.”
That being said, she remains thankful that people are familiar with her music and know her by name; affording her the chance to “make a livelihood from what I love.”
“That is dope,” she exclaims, to end the conversation.
Recipient of multiple awards, Seyi Shay, 33, is slated for SXSW (Austin Texas) March 14-16. She also headlines two nights (May 28, 29) at the Boisdale of Canary Wharf—London, in support of Electric Package.