Seinabo Sey’s breakthrough album, released in October, is called Pretend, but there is nothing made up about her talent. This Swedish-Gambian singer doesn’t fit easily into any genre—except maybe great. With her unique voice and look, she is expanding notions of Swedish music and beauty, and soon she’ll be bringing both to New York: She’s scheduled to perform at the Standard during Fashion Week. Here, Sey (pronounced see) takes a break from packing her tour bag to talk to Vogue.com about diversity, her inspirations, and her striking braids.
On her hair history:
I shaved off my hair when I was 19. All of it. That was one of the best periods of my life. I was in Berlin with [best friend and hairstylist] Sainbou Chou, and I saw this little girl who had a short blonde look, so we cut my hair in that style. I did tons of stuff with my hair back then. I cut it asymmetrically and got bored with that, of course. In “Hard Time,” it’s pulled up and put in a ponytail, but actually, my hairline is so high because I had just re-braided my hair five times, and then it all kind of fell out.
For those two braids that I have on the Pretend album cover, it started with having a hairstyle that was really easy, that I could just whip together myself. Right now, I’m really enjoying wearing it curly because I’ve had it tied back so much, so I’m trying to get into my curl product—I use Shea Moisture—but the weather in Sweden is, of course, horrendous for this hair.
On developing an image to complement her voice:
I grew up a lot in Africa and in Gambia, and there are a lot of beauty things there that I don’t see in the society where I’m [living] right now, so I try to put some of those little things into whatever artwork I make. For example, in “Hard Time” there are a couple of . . . intricate kinds of hairstyles going on; those are all from old pictures of different tribal countries in Africa that we put together, as well as being really inspired by Janet Jackson’s music videos, like “And On and On,” or the videos she has where they’re all kind of sweaty and neo-soul-y. It’s a mix between that whole Africa thing and a lot of hip-hop I grew up around.
On being labeled a soul singer:
I find that when I talk to a journalist, and I don’t know where it comes from, people always feel like they hear Africa in the music. To me, it’s funny because I made the music with the whitest man on earth [Magnus Lidehäll]. The most Swedish-Viking-looking guy you’ll ever meet. There is nothing here that has, musically, been actively thought of as being exotic, but you see the color of my skin and you automatically kind of put that label on it. That being said, I don’t mind it because I really love soul music and I get a little pissed off if people don’t think it’s soul as well, so I’m never really satisfied. I think that maybe in 2016, we all can have different genres and [blend] together without having to speak about it that much.
On changing ideals of beauty in Sweden:
On a broader kind of commercial level, [women of color] are definitely not represented as well as we could be. At least in the U.S., you have Essence, you have Teen Vogue’s August issue where you put Imaan Hammam [on the cover], so you are trying, but we’re really far behind over here. That’s really the feeling that I have—but we’re still a very feminist country, so I feel like it’s getting better. We’re on the way.
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