On collaborations, family, new projects and more.
It’s a quiet Thursday evening and I’ve entered a Zoom call to chat with singer-songwriter Shaé Universe, who has been making waves in the U.K music scene for her impeccable vocal agility and unique drill-infused R&B sound. I am five minutes early and, having experienced my fair share of painstakingly awkward first meetings over video call during the pandemic, am admittedly a little nervous. However, as soon as Shaé enters the call, I’m put at ease. There is an effortless charm and positive energy about her, even over Zoom.
Having gained recognition from the likes of Chance The Rapper and Jorja Smith fairly early on in her career, Shaé has quickly become one of the most promising artists in British R&B. She traces her artistic journey all the way back to being at school, where she regularly took part in talent shows and discovered her love for creative subjects. ‘All I’ve ever studied is creative subjects, whether it’s Drama, Music, Dance, Media, Photography. Everything creative is just me’, she comments warmly. It was music though, which she had always had a particular passion for and imagined herself pursuing professionally. This passion was what first led her to posting covers of songs on Twitter. Faceless and intimate, these videos showcased Shaé’s soulful tone and impressive vocal control, culminating in thousands of retweets. She recalls,
‘music has definitely been something that I’ve always wanted to do, but honestly, when I was doing those covers, I had no idea how to get into the music industry. I had no clue what I was doing, and I didn’t even know that those covers would then eventually lead […] to people kind of demanding for me to be my own artist.’
She went on to release her debut single ‘Big Mistake’ in 2017, an empowering track about the underestimation of women’s abilities. Whilst this release felt like a full circle moment for her, Shaé admits freely that it came with a certain pressure and added vulnerability since she had acquired her online following solely through covers up until this point. Her family and friends, however, supported her through it all.
During our conversation, Shaé expresses an especially heart-warming gratitude for her parents’ continuous encouragement. She explains that, ‘in our [Nigerian] culture, especially people of my parent’s generation, they don’t really believe in creative subjects as a real career path to pursue’ since they are not always immediately lucrative. We go on to speak about how, in the case of first-generation immigrant parents, this perspective can largely be attributed to wanting to make the most out of the immense sacrifices that come with moving to a different part of the world. In spite of this cultural view towards creative careers, Shaé’s parents have always nurtured their daughter’s interest in music as they believed it to be more of a spiritual calling than merely a hobby.
In addition to providing her with a strong emotional support system, Shaé’s family have occasionally influenced the work she creates. The concept of the video for her single, ‘Levels’, for example, was first suggested by Shaé’s sister, whom she describes as a ‘visionary’. In the video, Shaé embodies musical icons such as Aaliyah, Grace Jones, Erykah Badu and Missy Elliot, amongst others. ‘There were these very monumental moments in my upbringing where each and everyone one of the women - the queens - that I embodied in the music video had an affective impact on me’, she remarks earnestly. In addition to charting her musical influences, the video suggests Shaé’s own future success and icon status, reflective of the song’s lyrics in which she unapologetically asserts,
‘You think you playing me, but you just messed up
This ain’t no make believe, you know I’m next up
This that different degree, another level
I know I’m all I need’.
When elaborating on the song’s inspiration, Shaé explains that it was born out of instances in which she had felt overlooked within the music industry. She tells me,
‘Everybody has greatness in them and it comes in different forms. Not everyone that you meet is going to identify with that. So, some people might dismiss that because they don’t relate, or they can’t relate with your specific calling, whatever that is. I’ve encountered that a lot in the music industry and I wrote that song from the standpoint of ‘as long as I believe in myself and know where I’m going, and people that are like-minded and have similar energies gravitate towards me, I don’t need your approval of the greatness that is in me’ […] That was the basis of the song.’
Shaé only proves her resilience further over the course of our conversation. We chat about the video for her most recent song, ‘Royalty’, which had to be filmed a second time as the first video failed to align with the energy of the song. As a self-managed artist, it’s easy to imagine why this process of re-filming left Shaé burnt out and demotivated. After a little uplifting from her parents though, she was committed to creating the video that the song deserved. She recounts,
‘It was just crazy because right now I’m making this RnB/Drill merge, and that is so far from my parents’ generation so the fact that they really like the song and are encouraging me to make a video, I was like, ‘you know what, okay, this is a sign’. And I just made it happen.’
The result was a strikingly opulent video with over 14,000 views so, it’s safe to say, the work paid off.
‘Royalty’, featuring Kojey Radical, is certainly not the first collaboration that Shaé has been a part of. Over the past three years, she has featured on tracks by Etta Bond, ADO and Westside Boogie, just to name a few. It was the collaboration with Westside Boogie though, which led to one of her most memorable gigs - opening for Eminem at Twickenham Stadium. Westside Boogie had stumbled upon Shaé’s cover of ‘Redbone’ by Childish Gambino. Impressed, he messaged her with the offer of working together and later with the offer of joining him on the London legs of Eminem’s ‘Revival’ tour. Shaé’s excitement whilst recalling how it all came about is infectious. ‘That was 82,000 people. I will never stop screaming about that because – I’m so sorry, I’m going to tell my children about that and be like, ‘you know momma? Momma performed in front of 82,000’ – nah, seriously, that was a moment for me’.
As well as continuing to perform and work in the U.K, Shaé tells me that she is keen to tap into the American market, one that she first experienced during her studies abroad. In her second year of drama school, she decided to study a semester at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas, where, she jokes, ‘Everything […] is bigger, from the food, to the houses to the bugs’. She goes on to express the surreal culture shock she experienced whilst there as well as her intention to go between America and the U.K more often in order to establish herself as an artist on both sides of the Atlantic.
As well as a wider fan base, making a name for herself across the pond would certainly bring her closer to attaining some of her dream collaborations, one of them being with the one and only, Beyoncé. ‘I’m putting it out into the world. Beyoncé. Beyoncé, I’m calling your name. I’m here with Karishma right now. We’re talking about this in an interview. When it happens, we’re going to go back to this Keylime interview to prove the manifestation.’ Although we’re laughing, with Shaé’s talent and ambition, I would not be surprised if this dream soon became a reality. I’m sure you’ll find me screaming about being witness to the power of this manifestation sometime in the coming years.
With any plans of travelling to America currently restricted by the pandemic, talk turns to the effect of the past year’s circumstances on Shaé’s creative practice. For Shaé, like many others, it has been difficult to feel inspired whilst not being able to experience the world in the way we once could. She recounts the stress of experiencing writer’s block and her subsequent realisation that ‘really and truly, the source from which it [inspiration] flows has been stubbed for a bit because I’m not able to go out, see things, live, feel the way that I usually or once did.’ Luckily though, Shaé has been able to channel her energy into tying up loose ends on other existing projects, including her first ever full body of work, which will be released this year. When asked about what we can expect from it, she provides me with an exciting piece of exclusive information.
‘You can expect headbangers, mate! You can expect vocals. On some songs on that project, I am singing my absolute socks off. You can also expect versatility. The project - oof, can I give this? You lots are getting exclusives right now, nobody in the world apart from my family knows this piece of information right here - the project is going to be called ‘Unorthodox’, and I feel like that’s kind of self-explanatory in the sense that I have never heard music like this before’.
Although it’s release date has not yet been announced, I am already certain that when this project drops, I will be playing it on repeat.