Shay D talks with Libby Skilton about women in grime, merking and new album ‘Figure of Speech’.
“I can make a hot banger / Mash it up / But the fat boy on the radio can never gas it up / They wanna give airtime to accomplices / Who want to keep our people gassing minds that are impoverished.”
In new track 'F The Radio', north London rapper Shay D tackles head-on the hip-hop hierarchy that gives rise to derogatory and negative rivalries. It’s a subject that gets her fired up: “Gatekeepers and programmers have made everyone relevant to hip-hop redundant – and all they are doing is making music for 12-year-olds. Trying to prescribe to you what’s cool and what isn’t by some middle-class person that lives in, like, fucking Hertfordshire.”
Shay believes the music that mainstream radio plays, promoting violence and “shotting bags”, is just another way for the System to eradicate anyone that doesn’t fit into the vision of London: millionaire’s playground. “All these channels, all the hip-hop they put out, all the fucking Fire In Booth content. All this shit that is about ‘yeah yeah yeah I merked this guy, yeah yeah yeah I did that, yeah I shot this.’ You’re like ‘Bruv, are you working for the fucking government?’ Because you are. You’re doing what they want you to do.’”
Shay won’t let this stop her from trying to get her message out, though, putting on events and grinding. The 30-year-old has put politics and social-consciousness at the heart of her tunes, a mindful approach to music that has gained her a strong and dedicated following. As part of the Lyrically Challenged Collective – the group behind London’s Women in Hip-Hop nights – Shay is ensuring that female voices are being heard. She is an advocate for “starting a dialogue” with music.
Shay D walks into the coffee shop Cafe Beam in Crouch End with a warm smile and greets the staff, who clearly know her. “I didn’t have internet for a little while so was in this coffee shop every day. They’re used to me now,” she laughs. Dressed casually in a tie-dye sweater, parka, jeans and backpack, she orders herself a coffee and gets comfortable in one of the big ornate armchairs. She has been crafting words since she was a little girl and also dabbles in spoken word: “I was the only child; it was just me and my mum. So I had to entertain myself a lot. You have to be creative when you’re an only child. I used to act out stories but play every character; it’s so weird. I have stories that I’ve written, stapled together and then illustrated them so they look like little adventure books.”
Shay’s mum used to take her to the library every day so she could rest while Shay wrote stories and poems. In her last year of secondary school, she noticed how the boys were starting to MC and, being a tomboy herself, she had to get in on the action. “I used to hang around and listen and be like, I swear I can do this as well. So I went home and started writing these little bars and lyrics so next time it happened I could spit. It was like this validation of, ‘I’m sick as well, it’s not just you guys’. There were no other girls doing it; I got really competitive.”
Shay kept at it but was looking for other women in the game. “When I discovered Da Brat I was like, Rahh! There are girls doing this and they look cool. I can relate to them, they look like how I dress, they sound like how I sound.” From then on Shay knew what she wanted and that was to be a sick MC – but she didn’t want to just make music for the club, she wanted to convey something deeper.
Shay D’s new album Figure Of Speech covers topics from domestic violence to gentrification. “If my song can highlight that problem for someone to talk about, maybe there might be a little revolution in someone’s mind or their life – that’s what I use hip-hop for. My music needs to have a purpose or a message otherwise I wouldn’t make it.” Unlike other artists whose musical inspirations are typically other musicians, Shay is more likely to be motivated by events going on around her, or sounds themselves. Playing with her long thick hair she explains: “Music influences me, like actual beats and sounds. I’ll listen to James Blake and then he’ll do this really haunting riff on something and I’m like ‘oh that’s just made me feel really emotional about this.’ So I’ll write about that.”
The album itself was written partially on holiday. “I was writing, I was going to work, doing gigs, rehearsing, going to studios. It was really fragmented and when I had about six or seven songs, I was like, ‘you know what, I’m never going to do this, I need to go away somewhere.’ So I went to Cyprus for ten days.” Shay has a defined idea of how she wants her music to sound. Although she loves the new heavier sounds she thrives on a more “low melancholic” vibe, which can be heard on tracks such as 'Get Money' and 'Bad Boy' with Somali singer Faisal Salah, an artist she adores. “He opens his mouth and everyone shuts the fuck up. It’s almost like prayer song but he writes his own stuff. He’s got a really husky sad sound.” It’s a voice that complements her music. The whole album lends itself to a much more 90s infused style of hip-hop, but this is something Shay loves – citing artists like Mobb Deep and Tupac among her favourites.
The artwork of the album, produced by South London artist JOYce Treasures, references Shay’s Iranian heritage. It’s a portrait of the artist made up from her lyrics, traditional Middle Eastern patterns and a poem she wrote, which was handwritten and translated into Farsi by her mother. Explaining the cover she says: “The top of my head is a Phoenix, that’s from Iranian mythology, and the poem makes up the clothes. And around the face, it says Figure of Speech into the hair. She [JOYce] put so much thought into this, man, I really love it.”
Beyond the music Shay struggles with being the centre of attention and asking a room of people to hear her speak. The idea of making everything about her disturbs her soul. Screwing her face up, her confident voice softens: “Sometimes I’m even like, why am I doing this, who cares? It’s weird you have these really dark places as an artist. Where you’re anxious because it’s such an arrogant role to be in and it feels narcissistic. It’s really weird, it’s such a weird medium.”
Moving forward, Shay plans to tour the album internationally, has a booking in Athens and expects to play Norway, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. She is on the line-up for this summer’s Boom Bap Festival in Suffolk, UK. As she gathers up her things she reiterates her sentiment that she is here to make music that spreads a message: “I try to go out of my way to have a very human connection with an audience and try to be really humble. I’m not perfect. I am not the best rapper in the world. I am doing this for all of us. I really try to go out of my way to be like that."
– – –