“I’m So Happy I didn’t Give Up”: Seyi Shay, The Afrobeats Artist That Followed Her Dream
Interview & Words by: Timi Sotire
Photography: Derrick Kakembo
Stylist: Ihunna Eberendu
Make Up: Angel Aculey
Hair: Regina Meessen
Nigerian-based artist Seyi Shay’s lively sound is characterised by angelic, sparkling vocals. Every song is a melodic vibe: it makes you want to embrace the African groove. Her Nigerian accented English is fused with local slang and Yoruba, accompanied with beats that emulate the traditional West-African drums, placing them at centre stage in each song. One of her biggest hits, ‘Yolo Yolo’, that was briefly the soundtrack for Baileys in Africa, embraces the diverse sounds of Nigerian Highlife, Latin music and Afrobeat. The fast tempo, dominant trumpet sound and catchy hooks echo the big band, energetic performances of traditional Afrobeat artists such as Onyeka Onwenu and Salawa Abeni, who Seyi Shay credits as a few of her inspirations, “to me, they were just as big as the male artists of that era. So, for me, I never saw the difference in opportunity because of them. I guess that’s what inspired me to go hard.”
Seyi Shay was born and raised in London but moved to Nigeria as an adult in order to pursue her music career. Music has been an integral part of Shay’s life since she was a child, and it was Seyi Shay’s late-mother that advised her to move to Nigeria in order to pursue real success in music. “In the last year of her life, mother told me that she can see that my whole life revolves around music. She had a premonition that I would go to Nigeria, do music and be very successful at it”. It is clear that her mother knew best, and it was “very ironic that those were some of the last words she said” to Seyi, as her mother’s premonition has clearly come to fruition. Returning to the motherland was an easy transition for Seyi, who finds the community in Nigeria “really supporting" and mentioned that they naturally “gravitated to what I was bringing”
Building on this support from her native community, Seyi Shay is at a time in her life where she feels that she is ready to develop as an artist. “I’d say I’m ready for an evolution in my aesthetic and sound”. Seyi defines herself as an “alternative Afrobeat” artist: “some people would say it’s an alternative sound – it’s not your straight up Afropop, but the feel is Afrobeats, you still get that feel, that vibe”. Her music style is primarily a combination of Afropop and R&B, but Shay is adamant that she refuses to be confined by the limits that come along with assigning music to a particular genre. She prides herself on having an unconventional sound that still manages to exuberate the sound of Nigeria. “When it is me on the track, my listeners don’t expect it to sound like anything else. I want to keep that identity; I want to stay different.” For Seyi, it is all about nonconformity, pushing boundaries, and being out of the box. She is aware that listeners don’t expect her music to sound like anything else out there and capitalises on this. “I want to zone in more, to the niche of where my sound belongs”. Believing that she is at a stage where she has the ability to focus on a sound unique to herself, Seyi’s near-future is dedicated to concentrating on the elements of her music that set her apart from everyone else.
Having been in the music industry for over a decade, Seyi Shay’s journey to stardom has not always been on a continual incline, but she is finally experiencing the success that her late-mother dreamed of. Afrobeats as a genre is becoming mainstream in Western society, with artists such as Seyi who have been making music for years only recently becoming prominent on an international scale. She mentioned how she was feeling very proud of how far her people have come in furthering the genre. “Everyone wants to be Nigerian now!” She recounted how as a child, when she was living in England, the Nigerian children would hide their ‘Africanness’, but now, the younger generation of Nigerian children don’t have to feel ashamed of where they come from, they can be proud to be Nigerian.
However, the journey has not been easy for experienced artists like Seyi Shay, and she recognises how the struggles she went through in order to gain international recognition have paved the way for new Afrobeats artists to rise up. “I’ve been in Nigeria making music for around six years now, I think I was the first [Nigerian] female to get an international record deal with Island Records, around four or five years ago, and I was pretty much failed in a way, because they didn’t’ know what to do with my music.” Seyi described to me her experience starting out as an Afrobeats artist, noticing how her label was not confident in her different sound, which resulted in her being unable to release music at her own pace. But now, things are different, “Afrobeats artists have the power now to have control and release music when they want. It's definitely changed from when I was signed. When I signed, I had no freedom. And this affected the consistency of me releasing music, which I think held me back a couple of years and allowed my contemporaries to zoom past me.”
But Seyi Shay saw the bigger picture. “It’s a blessing in disguise, like this Teyana Taylor record wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gone through what I went through. Everything happens for a reason”. The ‘Gimme Love’ Remix featuring Teyana Taylor perfectly showcases Seyi Shay’s ability to produce an Afrobeat and R&B fusion, creating a drum beat that elevates the rhythmic element of R&B music. America meets Nigeria in this collaboration, and this cultural harmony is exemplified through Seyi Shay’s striking vocals that are partnered with Teyana’s gentle expression, with Taylor feeling inspired by Nigerian vernacular through lyrics such as “This kinda ting go make me marry”. Shooting the music video for an afrobeats song in New York reflects how Seyi Shay can effortlessly blend the African and Western lifestyle into an emotive anthem for love.
Seyi Shay believes that female support in music is of the utmost importance and recognises how support from other women has been integral in the development of her music career. One artist she specifically spoke to me about was Yemi Alade, “She is somebody that I respect greatly. She is a real African woman championing unity. People can take a leaf out of her book. That is where I would like to be. I want to get to a point where I can support my Nigerian sisters.” The reception from the people in Nigeria is no different, and Seyi Shay said that she is forever grateful to everyone who supports her. Living in Nigeria showed her the “power of the people.”. The tremendous amount of support she receives has actually driven her to tears, making her realise that her “God is really faithful”. Support from home is what is important to Seyi, “It’s a big world out there, and those in the West are not used to us yet. We are the only ones who can protect each other, help each other and keep each other grounded. You still need home.”
Throughout her career, Seyi Shay's faith has remained unshaken: “All of the things that have been happening to me since I moved back into Nigeria have just been grace. I’m faithful to what I love and what God gave me, and that’s my music man. I’m so happy I didn’t give up”. For someone who has been through so much and come out on top, I thought it would be important for her to impart her wisdom on any advice she has for young creatives. “Never give up. Especially if you know you’re good at what you do, and that you have something to offer to the world. Let me be an example.” As an artist who has been in the game for over ten years, Seyi wants to remind her listeners that her life should “be testimony that you can achieve what you set out to do. There were times when I was thinking that this will never happen, but I carried on because I had a feeling that if I continued, it will happen”. Seyi Shay’s perseverance in the face of adversity is was sets her apart from most artists. Through her tenacity and talent, Seyi will continue to achieve the success that she deserves.