Seinabo Sey on Having Two Homes and Finding Her Place
“It isn’t that weird I’m so scattered in my emotions,” Seinabo Sey tells TIDAL. “Because I’m really from two different places.”
Born in Gambia and raised in Sweden after the age of eight, Sey had an identity that was steeped in two contrasting cultures. As an immigrant in Sweden, she felt a sense of otherness in a country that valued sameness. And as a Gambian, she sought a connection to a country from which she had been separated.
The daughter of popular Gambian musician Maudo Sey, Sey had the blessing of creativity and expression in the home as she was struggling to make sense of her “scattered” nature. “He’s the one that’s always told me that, instead of feeling like I don’t have a place in the world, I should be really happy that I can choose from the best of both worlds,” she says of her father.
Now, as Sey walks into her forthcoming album, the follow-up to her 2015 debut Pretend, Sey holds this sentiment dear. With lead singles “I Owe You Nothing,” “Breathe” and “Remember” ft. Jacob Banks, she dissects both her relationship with these two worlds and with herself because of them.
Read below as the singer-songwriter elaborates on her story and the body of work she’s soon to share. “This time, I felt like it would be good for me in my life to get to the point quicker and stop beating around the bush,” she says. “I think it’s more direct.”
I watched a video where you were talking about the meaning of “I Owe You Nothing” and how it took you some time after you wrote the chorus to find the significance of the lyrics. What does it mean to you now? Is it more about the energy of the song or more of a specific experience that you were able to tie it to?
It’s a combination of both. It started off as the energy, like a freestyle. I think I was scared of understanding what the chorus line is really about. I didn’t know how honest I wanted to be. I was drawing on several different experiences I’ve had over the last two years and in life in general. I write lyrics that often apply to a specific event in my life, but then I also zoom out in the lyrics at some point. It’s about living in Sweden and being a black person in a white society and feeling like you have to be really grateful to get a chance. Sometimes, I’ve felt like the token black person. Just really understanding that and rebelling against it is what that song means to me.
You filmed the video in your dad’s country, Gambia. Can you talk to me about how that came together — the style of the video as well as the people in it?
It was really important for me to incorporate things that I’ve seen growing up that I haven’t really seen in pop culture. I feel like there’s a wave right now where a lot of American artists are drawing influences from West African culture or African culture in general, but I felt like it’s a bit watered down. That’s not anybody’s fault. It’s natural because they’re American.
I felt like I hadn’t been seeing some things that I found really beautiful. I really wanted to show that in a major label kind of context. There are a lot of dope artists that are making beautiful videos that are from the continent, but I wanted to bring it into that world. I like the juxtaposition of the places that I’ve grown up in. To combine them is really interesting.
Do you have an audience in Gambia?
Not really. They know me because my song was in a FIFA game. Some people recognize me. I really like it because I feel so normal, and I don’t identify with being an artist when I’m there. Some people know my dad [Maudo Sey] because he was a pretty famous singer. My dad passed away four years ago, and he was a singer his whole life there. He was a very jovial, funny man. Had a lot of friends.
I’m sure he had a whole influence on you.
Absolutely. He’s the one that’s always told me that, instead of feeling like I’m scattered or like I don’t have a place in the world, I should be really happy that I can choose from the best of both worlds. That’s why I think I’m not scared of different cultures and feel like I can blend in in the way that I want. He really let me be free and explain cultural things so that I understand where they come from.
So you have this ability to combine your cultures and worlds. What is Swedish culture like, and how does it differ from Gambian culture?
Growing up in Sweden, the first thing I think about is the incredible security there. Everything is very organized and calm and controlled, and I think I take that for granted a lot because it’s the opposite of an adventurer. On the other hand, we have the law of not being special. Like, you’re not supposed to be special, you’re not supposed to stand out. We’re all supposed to fit into this one idea of living. That’s never really been natural for me. I really do have a love-hate relationship with Sweden, but I really do understand that both of these halves make a whole.
It seems like Gambia and Sweden are polar opposites culturally.
They definitely are. I think I realize that now more than ever. I’ve never been in Gambia as an adult for this period of time, three months. It isn’t that weird that I’m so scattered in my emotions because I’m really from two different places.
Do you think your style reflects that, the blending of these two cultures?
It does. When I was younger, I had a hard time. I felt like I had to be a lot more clear. Like, to be an artist, you have to have a lot more of a clear image. I’ve never felt clear. When you wake up this day, you feel like this. And tomorrow, you’re wearing a white or black polo, and that’s fine. But now, I feel a lot more free. And I’ve noticed that when I’m sad, I don’t express myself in clothing, and when I’m happy, I do. Now, I incorporate things that are from both places where I’m from. I also just like things to look nice. I love wearing makeup, big hair, experimenting.
What can you tell us about your upcoming album?
The album is coming out in September. I’ve been working on it for two and a half years now. What I set out for it to be was really honest. The lyrics that I was first listening to when I started to really love writing were Lauryn Hill, the MTV Unplugged albums. The kind of writing that I enjoy has a lot of metaphors. This time, I felt like it would be good for me in my life to get to the point quicker and stop beating around the bush. I think it’s more direct than my other music. The sound is a little bit more minimalistic but still feels grand — less instruments, but better melodies. It’s definitely my most personal lyrics.
TIDAL is proud to announce the world's first music service with High Fidelity sound quality, High Definition music videos and expertly curated Editorial.