Image is important. It is easy to become depressed these days when you see more established artists who already have such a robust and distinctive aesthetic.
Sellah has been on the grind since he can remember. When he takes the stage in Cape Town — where he is quickly becoming a must-see act —the singer and rapper shifts effortlessly from silky R&B to snarling rap.
It may look effortless: that’s the point. But it’s the culmination of years worth of hustling to make a name for himself on the scene. He’s lived all over —L.A., Germany, Chicago, and New York. But it’s in the rough-and-tumble Bohemia of one of Africa’s southernmost cities that he’s found his groove.
A genial personality, he draws his audiences in and makes them feel like a part of his project (that’s because they are). In-person and through social media, he aims to cultivate a sense of belonging with his music, sharing his struggles and triumphs, relating them to those who listen to him. He’s serious about this aspect of his music, but it’s not all storytime and shaking hands.
The man has got some serious stage presence. When his sweet smile falls away, and he starts rocking that body and singing; that’s when it’s time to get up and dance.
He’s put out a series of snappy tracks this year. Most recently, he dropped “Stacks,” a relentless and cunning Hip-hop track with more in that vein to come.
Sellah recently took a few moments to chat about his unusual trajectory and where he’s headed from here.
Q & A
You were initially a basketball star. What led you to choose music as a career?
Deep down, I always wanted to work in the entertainment industry, but growing up in a traveling military family lowered my confidence to speak openly about my real dreams. There was a point in my life where I allowed basketball to take over my dreams temporarily. I did eat, sleep, and breathe basketball. I studied every player and worked my ass off. When I put my mind to something, I work to be my best self.
I played with the practice team at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and I played one year in Hawaii at Brigham Young University. After making it to a university basketball team, I had to ask myself if basketball was what I really wanted to keep doing my whole life. I had to accept that it was not. That’s when I decided to drop out of university and take on the entertainment industry. Basketball has shaped my ability to grind and hustle. I never stop until I get it.
Are there other artists you loved when you were growing up? Are your parents musical individuals?
My parents are big music people. My mom played a lot of gospel: Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary. My dad always had the dope records hidden because of the profanity. But I always found them! So I was like ten years old bumping Janet Jackson, Earth Wind & Fire, Lauren Hill, DMX, Run DMC, Brian McKnight … the list goes on.
Can you name a few of the artists from other disciplines that influenced you?
Actors: Will Smith, Wesley Snipes, and Jim Carrey inspired me as a child.
A lot of music these days is political. Do you have any particular messages that you’re trying to convey through your work?
The most important message I want to convey is to be yourself. That is the most crucial thing in life and me doing me, living in my truth, speaking openly, and mentoring people. These are the messages I want to convey through my work.
You move between R&B and Hip-Hop/Rap. Do you have a preference? What led you to work in two different musical styles throughout your journey?
Since high school, I have always dabbled in singing and rapping. As a kid, I taught myself to dance. So I never paid much attention to the differences in music styles. I always made what my soul was resonating with the most during that time in my life.
As I stated in previous interviews, my energy is on a hip hop wave right now, but I’m still making different genres of music at the same time. My E.P. that is dropping will be purely Hip-hop. Hip-hop in the way I see SELLAH doing it.
Does your work fit into any particular subculture of R&B and Hip-hop? Who do you see as your target audience?
I do not want to limit myself. I got love for the kids, love for people my age, love for people older than me. I have all demographics who appreciate what I am currently pushing out, so I am interested to see how diverse my fan base can become.
What do you hope your audiences get out of a performance?
A whole damn experience!
How important is image for a musician? What sort of aesthetic do you go for in terms of your presentation in media?
Image is important. It is easy to become depressed these days when you see more established artists who already have such a robust and distinctive aesthetic. Now, you notice how people compare what clothes you wear in real life to the kind of photos taken of you.
As an artist, this makes our work more challenging. Instead of just throwing on whatever, shooting whatever, or posting whatever, it takes a lot of initial thought and planning to get your visuals to point where they are timeless and unique.
As long as the inspiration and push come from [an internal] source, then I feel we should not stress too much over what we present. The image and visuals will always grow as the artist grow.
It is so easy to lose focus and get caught up in the hype. I have been off Instagram for a month [I think is healthy].
You’ re an openly gay artist. Has that impacted your work?
Everything has pros and cons. I don’t fit into a box. Most people question if I am actually “really gay” based on how I naturally conduct myself. I feel it’s not something people are used to.
I’m focused on opening up more doors for other people who are afraid to be themselves. People like me. I took a chance and came out publicly when I was 26. I did not have any heroes or real role models to look up to that I could relate to in many ways. So I decided to be my own idol, role model, and hero.
Our world has a negative way of stereotyping how one should be in all shapes and capacities, which brings false expectations from the masses and their peers. More intellectual conversations need to keep happening. I feel that some discussions about race and sexual orientation create separation and even to harm to others.
We are nearly in 2020. It is a goal of mine to be part of a movement educating and bettering one’s understanding of the idea of what a gay man is. To me, it is purely about who my heart can fall for, which is a male.
What you watch, your mannerisms, where you hang out, and how you dress should never define what or who a person is. It’s okay to agree to disagree, but it’s not cool when best friends can’t share their feelings amongst each other based on the fear of acceptance. I will keep doing me, praying I stay protected and continuing to help others break out of their comfort zones.