Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
Makeup by Jheanell Nesbeth
Styling by Rashade St. Patrick
You don’t need us to tell you that 2017 will be remembered as a year in which women stood up and demanded their respect. This was certainly true in dancehall, as Ishawna called for “Equal Rights,” Spice cemented her icon status, and the most important new artist on the scene was a fresh-faced 21 year old with braces and the lyrics and attitude to go toe to toe with the genre’s top male acts.
Right from the year’s start, all eyes were on Shenseea thanks to a breakout performance on “Loodi,” her late-2016 collaboration with dancehall’s incarcerated World Boss, Vybz Kartel. However, she quickly proved that “Loodi” (the third track she ever recorded) was no fluke, delivering quality performances on solo tracks like “Nothing Dem Nuh Have Ova Me” and collabs like “Bridgets and Desert (Pon Foot)” with Tommy Lee and “Rolling” with Sean Paul.
Like hip-hop’s 2017 breakout success story Cardi B, Shenseea’s engaging, relatable personality proved to be her greatest asset. She cultivated a strong following on social media and commanded attention at every appearance, whether in the stylized videos for “Loodi” and “Rolling,” interviews, or tour dates across Europe with Sean Paul. And skeptics of her abilities were certainly silenced when the young artist held her own alongside more experienced artists like Dexta Daps in freestyle ciphers filmed for British radio personalities Tim Westwood and Toddla T.
As 2017 gets set to conclude, there’s no doubt that Shenseea is dancehall’s brightest new star. Which is why we’ve named her our 2017 Rookie of the Year.
We recently caught up with the artist in Kingston at the Waltham Park headquarters of Romeich Wear, the clothing company owned by her manager, Romeich Major. After a photo shoot there and in the hills of St. Andrew, we spoke with Shenseea about braces, loodi, search-engine optimization, and how she balances the requirements of a burgeoning music career with that of a young mother. Cho!
LargeUp: First off, who is Shenseea?
Shenseea: Well, I am a woman of great pulchritude. I can say that first.
LU: Describe pulchritude, as you see it…
Shenseea: It’s a woman of beauty. I am 21 years old. My real name is Chinsea Lee. I am a mother of one, and I am the first lady of Romeich Entertainment.
“I am a woman of great pulchritude.”
LU: Shenseea is your birth name but spelled differently, right?
Shenseea: Well, basically, because there’s too much ‘Chin’ in dancehall already, we decided not to use ‘Chin.’ I wanted something that is not common. We were fooling around with my name and we typed in Chinsea with a ‘c-h’ and a lot of persons came up so we said, ‘No, that’s definitely not going to be it.’ Then we did Shenseea, with an s-h, and no one came up. We said that’s the perfect name, because I searched Google, and I haven’t seen anyone come up with that name. So why not use Shenseea? Yes, it’s hard to catch, but I tell everybody that in due time they will know my name quite easily. It will roll off their tongue.
LU: How long were you developing your skills as a deejay for you to be able to come out last year, and within a year’s time build this following and catalog?
Shenseea: I just started deejaying officially last year. I was doing a lot of a capella in high school and I used to sing along [to] Vybz Kartel, Spice, Lady Saw and Ce’cile. It was really then I figured out I could actually deejay, but I didn’t really take it seriously, as singing is actually my first love in music.
LU: You sang in school?
Shenseea: Yeah, I did. I was really shy at the time but I did sing a lot in school and in my church. I used to sing a lot in church.
LU: Having just started in music, how did you develop the confidence to be able to go into a booth and record a song where you have to hold your own next to Vybz Kartel, or perform on stage with someone like Sean Paul?
Shenseea: It was not until I got my son that I said, ‘I don’t want to work for anybody anymore.’ [Being] a mother [has] really pushed me harder to go for my dreams. I decided that I have to make my son great. So whatever it’s going to take for me to do what’s right and get that paper, that’s definitely what I’m gonna do. And that’s what what I did. My focus was entirely not on myself anymore, or my self-confidence. It was merely for my son so I had no problem doing whatever.
LU: But confidence is easier spoken about than achieved, right?
Shenseea: Yes, which is true, because I know a lot of [people who] are not confident. I try to help them with [their] self-esteem. To bring it up, and just tell them that whatever it is in life, it doesn’t matter. It’s just for a time. It shall pass and we grow as time goes by. I’m speaking from experience. I was really, really shy. In the starting, I had to use my dancers because I was like, ‘I cannot be on stage by myself. So mi need people ‘round me to keep that focus off the crowd. So many times I was there performing, looking at my dancers the whole time. But eventually I grew, and now it’s like I don’t even need a dancer anymore. I just dance myself, and I know I can’t dance but it’s just for having fun while I’m on stage. So I think about that now. Just having fun doing my work.
“I tell everybody that in time they will know my name quite easily. It will roll off their tongue.”
LU: Let’s talk about “Loodi.” What did you expect would come out of being on a song with Vybz Kartel?
Shenseea: I didn’t think it was going to be this big at all. I was like ‘Okay, yayy! I’ve got a song with Vybz Kartel. Let’s do it.’ But for the video to [reach] 1 million [YouTube views] in one week, and it’s still 11 million and counting, I didn’t know it would be that big. Especially internationally. I have a lot of international supporters.
LU: How many songs had you recorded prior to that?
Shenseea: I had officially recorded two songs.
LU: So that was pretty lucky then to have a song that big on your third try…
Shenseea: It was… it was.
LU: For those people aren’t familiar with the game, what can you tell them about loodi and its significance in Jamaica.
Shenseea: Ludo — we call it loodi here — is a popular traditional Jamaican game. We normally have a board with “houses” as we would call it. Everybody would be in their home with their marker, and you would have two dice. You would throw the dice and whatever number comes up, we count with our marker. And [whoever] makes all four markers reach in first is the winner.
LU: Is it a game that you enjoy playing? Or did you just happen to make a song about it?
Shenseea: I enjoyed playing this game [when] I was really young. I played it quite regularly. Up until now, I prefer loodi more than domino.
LU: There was some controversy or confusion about the origins of the song. Can you tell your version of how the song came about?
Shenseea: The producer [Elvis Redwood of SoUnique Records] sent me the song and said that he would like for me to do the verses, but I must not touch the chorus. I could add whatever I want to the verses. Just add my own touch, and don’t touch the chorus. So that’s what I did. Not once did I ever come out and say I [wrote] the entire song. I guess that’s where people got confused. But then again, I said it many times on interviews that I didn’t write the song.
LU: Have you had an opportunity, whether directly or indirectly, to speak with or communicate with Vybz Kartel?
“We need more female artists. Then they will stop saying music is male dominated.”
LU: Has there been an intention to make more songs like that, with the male/female combination? You’ve released a few lately, including “Rolling” with Sean Paul.
Shenseea: Yes, I have a lot of collaborations, it’s just when they are gonna be released. I have a couple with Beenie Man [and] Chris Martin. I just did “Bridgets and Deserts” with Tommy Lee, and I have collaborations with international artists as well.
LU: How do you balance being a young mother and somebody that’s building a music career?
Shenseea: If I’m at the studio, my son is about two minutes away from me. If I have an hour break, I will try to spend a little time and come back to work. Whatever little time I have, I spend. I definitely try to do the work first, and then I spend time with him after. Because I know that once the work is done, then we will see the benefits in the long run. I have to pree it like that. But whatever free time I have, I use it to spend time with him.
LU: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced as an emerging artist?
Shenseea: Just time, really… time. That’s one thing. I don’t have a lot of time. Everything is rushed. Everything is going so fast.
LU: Dancehall has always been a male-dominated genre. Even when Lady Saw was at her peak, she wasn’t regarded in the same light as a Beenie Man or Bounty. Do you think it’s a good time for female artists?
Shenseea: Any young female artist or dancehall artist out there should just keep doing their thing. Your time is definitely your time and it makes no sense to try to rush it. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen. We do need more female artists. Maybe then they will stop saying music is a male-dominated industry. I would just encourage them to keep on doing their thing and just do it the right way.
“I do not intend to be forgotten any time soon.”
LU: As a young artist, how do you deal with the criticism from social media? You get all this instant feedback, and it’s so easy for people to be so negative when they’re not in your face.
Shenseea: I try not to answer them because most of them are fake pages and I cannot see beating up myself over anything fake, especially social media. [Secondly], as long as they’re talking, I’m happy. If they’re not talking, I’m worried. When nobody talks about you as an artist, you know that something is definitely wrong or you’re being forgotten. I do not intend to be forgotten any time soon. So as long as they’re talking, I’m good.
LU: Are you writing most of your songs? Do you freestyle on the spot, or do you come in with prepared lyrics?
Shenseea: It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I write in the studio, sometimes I write at home. But my best songs come from when I write [at] about 2am to 5am in the morning, alone.
LU: We see you’ve gotten some braces. Are those for correction, or style?
Shenseea: The braces are for correction.
LU: What was the highlight for you in 2017, and what are your plans for 2018?
Shenseea: The highlight for 2017 was getting signed by three major corporate companies, Pepsi, FLOW and Campari, for the entire Caribbean. For 2018, I’ll be showing my fans my versatility. I will be releasing my reggae EP, and you will hear me singing more. I have my merchandise line coming out as well. 2018 will be a greater and stronger year than 2017.
Special thanks to Romeich Major, Chris Schlarb, Varun Baker and Kadene Pitter.