At the turn of the millennium pop culture was dominated by the search for the next big music group and TV schedules were crammed with shows like Fame Academy, Pop Idol and Making The Band. Hopeful musicians flocked to auditions and in 2009, Seyi Shay found herself in the heart of the music industry machine. “I was managed by a guy called Matthew Knowles, who’s Beyoncè’s father,” Seyi recalls as we settle down for a chat in South London.
Fresh from her rooftop photoshoot, Seyi is at once glamorous and welcoming with a smile and a handshake as we get down to the business of unpicking her story in music. Seyi got her first glimpse of what it takes to be a superstar vocalist by putting in the hours, the training and the commitment, with the best in the business. “For about four years, I was part of a girl band, he [Matthew Knowles] managed the girl band and we actually moved to America. We moved to Houston. The girl group was put together in the UK, he came to London and whipped us off to America, we underwent bootcamp which consisted of interview training, choreography training we worked with the whole Beyoncè set up.”
Matthew Knowles notorious training regime was designed to create resilient performers, vocal stamina went hand in hand with precision choreography, “we worked with Frank Gatson, [Beyoncè’s] mum was our stylist, [Matthew Knowles] was our manager.” Seyi felt herself rising to the occasion, “we were putting together an album called ‘Breaking From Above’, actually that’s where I got to be the most creative because I was lead singer and lead writer. So I got to really express my R’n’B side. We were under the wing of Matthew Knowles, right? So we were coming out of the whole Destiny’s Child get up. I think they were trying to manufacture us to be a cross between Destiny’s Child and the Spice Girls because the group consisted of five girls, all different backgrounds. Two white girls, one mixed race girl and two black girls.”
The Matthew Knowles training process coupled with the chance to express herself creatively as lead songwriter had Seyi feeling like she had found her element. Naturally, and in keeping with the times, a reality series followed, “we shot our reality show called Breaking From Above with MTV at the time, we got a great sense of what it was like to be in an Americanised girl group kind of thing. Bootcamp showed five girls coming from the UK, settling in America and becoming a girl band and, kind of like, in the place of Destiny’s Child – that was the idea. It didn’t quite work out, but it did get aired in 66 countries globally. Then it did get syndicated to Nickelodeon and other channels around the world, so that was a cool experience. Having cameras and stuff in our faces, under the bed, in the toilets – everywhere we go! Shot that for three months, Beyoncè made a video appearance on the seventh episode, that was really cool.”
At that point all the girls were a bit frustrated that we were signed to Sony, signed to Matthew Knowles Musical World Entertainment and still not getting any headway
The girls went to on to join Beyoncè on the UK stint of her ‘I AM’ tour, performing in stadiums across the country. Expectations continued to build right alongside their momentum but their breakthrough moment failed to materialise, “it just became harder and harder for some reason.” The band (then called From Above) went on to enter the X Factor in 2011 and it was their failure to secure a place that eventually led to the breakup of the band, “I think at that point all the girls were a bit frustrated that we were signed to Sony, signed to Matthew Knowles Musical World Entertainment and still not getting any headway. I think a lot of us just became impatient and wanted to do other things. So we didn’t break up because of girl rivalry we broke up because timings and ambitions were divided – it was difficult for everyone to be on the same wavelength at the same time.”
Seyi returned to her hometown and it was there, back in Tottenham that Seyi continued to experiment with her sound, “thankfully I was always encouraged in the group to be myself and to pretty much express my songwriting. I had a best friend at the time, called Harmony Samuels – he’s now known for winning lots of Grammy’s; he found Ariana Grande – we were best friends and he’s Nigerian. We used to go to the same church. Naija church right? So a lot of the Nigerian praise and worship music was African, where a lot of the Afrobeat comes from if you like. So I always had that rhythm and I always had that pattern of writing, being from Tottenham where there’s a lot of Nigerians as well as Caribbeans too. The studio was in Tottenham as well, I think the influence was all around me. Harmony and I started to incorporate Afrobeats into our sound.”
What’s in Nigeria for me? What am I going to be doing in Nigeria? What kind of music?
It was to be a meeting with legendary Nigerian rapper, comedian and recording artist Sound Sultan that would spur Seyi’s return to the continent. “My mum had died some years before and she always used to say to me ‘you know I just have this feeling this music thing – you’re going to end up in Nigeria doing it’. Almost like a prophecy, it was so weird. And I always used to say to her ‘no. What’s in Nigeria for me? What am I going to be doing in Nigeria? What kind of music?” When Seyi met Sound Sultan at a studio in Tottenham, he ended up reviving the very same prophecy from Seyi’s mother, “he was like, you have a really good voice where are you from?” Their shared heritage and interest in each other’s sound propelled Seyi to take the leap and return to Nigeria in 2013.
On her return to Nigeria, Seyi fell back on her Matthew Knowles training and began working to get her talent noticed, “I did a lot of shows for free, just to get noticed. I supported Rick Ross, Chris Brown like, everybody that was coming to Nigeria or popping off in Nigeria at the time I supported them, and actually it wasn’t really my songs at the time that made people interested, it was my performances. And I owe that to the training that I had with Matthew Knowles and bootcamp.”
Seyi took the lessons from her upbringing and her much loved Naija church in Tottenham, the slick showbiz refinement of working with Matthew Knowles and live instrumentation elements of traditional Afrobeat to create her own contemporary style. In 2014, with the release of the tracks ‘Murda’ and ‘Right Now’ Seyi found her sound in a new and modern Africa, “when I released ‘Murda’ it was like an overnight turnaround. Then I realised maybe people were waiting for me to find my identity. So I found my identity in that song and it was elements of ‘80’s Reggae in London and Afrobeats in Africa that’s pretty much the formula that broke me out to popularity. The following song we decided to follow the same formula, we released a song called ‘Right Now’ which again, was Reggae but Afrobeat and lyrically, melodically Naija.”
Seyi’s success lies in her deft ability to blend cultures, “I know how to speak Yoruba very well and Pidgin very well. So I kind of had an upper hand in that area, I incorporated it into a lot of my Western style and then incorporated the Western into the Naija beats and kind of started to find myself, I will always say that Reggae sound comes from growing up in London.”
Now fully established in the continent, and having recently signed with Island Records internationally, Seyi is ready for a homecoming. There’s never been a better time for Seyi with the UK Afrobeats scene flourishing and she’s chosen collaborations that are guaranteed to hit the right tone. “I think it’s a fantastic generation,” she says when I ask her thoughts on the modern Afro sound “and a fantastic time to be alive, doing what I love with musicians as talented and authentic as Team Salut and Eugy. I’m part of the revolution if you like, and I feel very proud of where I’m from. Now more than ever.” Teaming up with rising star Eugy and UK production trio Team Salut has already proven to be a winning formula for her first look with Island.
Seyi Shay is unafraid to mix tradition and future sounds in a voice that’s all her own, and she’s on track to make her sound ‘Your Matter’.