A MEETING WITH SHAY - CRASH Magazine
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A MEETING WITH SHAY

By Alice Butterlin

Sometimes the self-assured and determined “pretty bitch”, other times the sensitive and misunderstood woman, Shay dances from one persona to the next on her latest album Antidote, the supercharged remedy the rap world has been waiting for. Introduced to the music world by Booba in 2011, the Belgian artist took the time she needed to evolve and forge her own creative universe before releasing her first tracks. Her album Jolie Garce went gold in 2017, just before the rapper was embroiled in a scandal that forced her to step back from the spotlight. This year, she is coming back stronger than ever, determined to place sincerity and authenticity at the center of her music, while peeling back the mask that has protected her inner world until now. Here, she opens up about her career, her dreams and her new image.

I’d like to go back to your beginnings. How did you start making music?

In my family there are many musicians, including my grandfather who was a great African musician (editor’s note: Tabu Ley Rochereau), so I have always made music since I was very small. My brother invested in a small home studio with us, so we started recording things together. One day, one of the songs we had recorded ended up in Booba’s inbox. He liked the piece and tried to get in touch with me. After that he invited me to appear on one of his projects: Autopsy Vol. 4. That’s how I was able to become better known and start producing music at a professional level.

What is the song Booba discovered?

It’s a song called “Cruella”. It was really the first song I ever recorded and it wasn’t even finished. So Booba put a verse on it and he put it on his album (editor’s note: released in 2011).

In hindsight, do you think you were ready at the time for Booba to bring you into the spotlight?

No, I don’t think I was ready because I was still too young. I’ve always made music, but it was a passion. I couldn’t imagine doing music as my job. I wasn’t ready to get recognized on the street and that sort of thing. That’s also why I took some time off between the song we produced with Booba and the first song I released on my own. There was at least a two-year hiatus.

During those years you went to London, right?

Yes, but I went through several phases before that. At first, I just locked myself up in the studio making music, and then at one point I got so bored because I hadn’t released a song and it was becoming a problem. So I left to work in London. I stayed there for a year and I struggled a lot. Towards the end of that period, I realized that music was a job and that I was lucky to be part of the music scene in France. So I invested all the money I had earned into my studio until I had a finished album. At that moment Booba came back and then we were able to work together.

Why did you choose London?

I just needed to leave. I grew up in Brussels, Belgium and things got complicated for me at one point. I was running with the wrong crowd and met some bad folks. I needed to leave to be my own person. I didn’t know many places and I didn’t have a lot of money. London is right next door, I speak English, it’s thirty euros by bus, so it was just easy for me. I wanted to go on an adventure, to find myself in a way.

Is that where you found yourself artistically?

You could say that. I think London allowed me to open up even more. That’s where I discovered deep house, grime and other styles of music that I had never heard before.

Were you already attracted to a specific rap scene in Brussels?

No, there wasn’t really a stage when I wanted to get into music. The artists were there and they were already making music, but it was like no one really cared to exist outside their own neighborhood or city. They weren’t looking to get on TV or radio. Rap was just music to help you make friends, like a hobby. That’s what it was like for my crew, anyway. It’s only in the last two or three years that Belgian artists have started to go to France and to boost their reputations.  

It’s true that Belgian artists are becoming more popular in France, even headlining festivals. Why do you think it took so long?

I think it’s in the mentality. Whenever I talked to artists, they were always happy with whatever they had. It’s like we don’t see music the same way people do in France, where it’s a real job. If you’re a rapper in Belgium, it’s enough if your neighborhood knows who you are. Brussels is a small town and we all know each other. That’s why I think it came as a shock when a nobody like me ended up on stage with Booba in Bercy. People figured if I could do it, then it might be possible for them, too. Today, the Belgian music scene is fully established and recognized in France. But we’ve always had a lot of great talent.

Do you remember your legendary show at Bercy?

Yes, I remember that. (laughs) It was the first time I ever took the stage. I was a little crazy and didn’t even rehearse… Well yes, I rehearsed but only when they forced me to. I really wasn’t prepared. When I was backstage and Booba went on stage, everyone started screaming. That’s when I realized it was a big deal. I thought, “Am I really going to go up there?!” Then when they called me, I went on stage but I really regretted going out there as a tourist!

Was that really the very first time you ever went on stage?

Yes! And just before that, it was the first time I went to a real studio. Three weeks later I found myself in Bercy. I don’t think I really knew what was happening… (laughs)

Was that first time in the studio also a memorable experience for you?

I didn’t like it at all. Even today, I get stressed out in the studio booth. I feel like I’m all alone and right next door there’s a room where everyone’s listening to me without me knowing what they’re saying. So now I’m now I’m a real pain in the neck and I refuse to record in the booth. I just cut the track in the main room with everyone else.

Do you feel like you’re being watched in the booth?

Yes, and then I feel like people aren’t always there with me. I don’t have a problem if I’m alone with the engineer, but if other people show up, then I bring the microphone into the studio and everyone has to shut up. (laughs) Anyway, no one can talk or it ruins the recording. (laughs)

Do you need to feel an energy around you in order to create?

Yes, that’s important. I can’t create anything when I’m alone. Sharing is an important part of music. I like it when the creative process is about sharing. Except when it’s really a personal track that’s emotional for me.

Do dreams play a big role in your life? Did they motivate you before you got into music?

Dreaming took me to where I am today. I didn’t always have the easiest life. If I hadn’t been able to dream and imagine myself somewhere else, I never would have been able to move forward. I’m someone who never gives up hope. I don’t think anything is too big or too much to achieve. We can go wherever we want as long as we can imagine it. I still dream to this day; I have a lot of big ambitions. As soon as I get somewhere, I always want to go even further.

You’ve certainly fulfilled some of your dreams today. But have you faced any disappointments?

Quite a few. When I first started out and wanted to succeed in music, I thought it would be cool to be well known. But then once I started to get recognized, I realized that it didn’t fit with my personality at all. I’m agoraphobic; I’m a little afraid of people so I’m very withdrawn. Recognition just makes me even more shy. And then the people around you start to change. I’ve found it hard to deal with fame. Not to complain, of course, because it certainly opens up a lot of doors for me. But that was the first disappointment. The second is that I grew up thinking I had to make a lot of money. My main goal in life was to be rich. And then I started to make a good living and I realized that money was not happiness. It helps, but if you don’t have the people you love and a strong crew around you, you start to get very lonely, very fast. You don’t even know what to do with everything you have.

You express that feeling so well on the song “Désillusions”, which talks about the trouble you faced going from “anonymity to glory”. You also get into it on “BXL”, which is sort of tribute to the city where you grew up. Was that one harder to write than your other songs?

No song was really hard to write because I work with a whole team. I worked on both those tracks with the singer-songwriter Vladimir. It’s easy because it comes out of an exchange or conversation. Except for the rap tracks like “Oh Oui”, which are a pure ego trip. For the rest, I’ll say something that inspires Vladimir and we cut it in one take. You just have to find the right words for your feeling. Once you can do it in conversation, then you can translate it into song. For “BXL”, I felt the need to go back to the time just before I started to be successful. I wanted to tell the story of that girl in Brussels who was fed up because nothing ever changed. That song was harder to record than to write. I had too many emotions, actually. I had to reel myself in, all while diving into that emotion.

On Antidote, I feel like you’re revealing even more of yourself than before, that it’s your most personal album. It’s like stripping down after building up your armor.

That’s exactly what I wanted to do. I really like my first album Jolie Garce, but I felt like I was only scratching the surface and depriving people of a big part of myself. I’m a simple girl who’s passionate about music, very shy and I’ve also been through a lot. I thought it was a shame to limit myself to the image of the “pretty bitch” or superficial girl. I just needed to take off my mask and let my heart speak. That’s what I did on Antidote. It was very scary and hard to do, but in the end I managed to make it happen.

Do you feel that women in rap are more likely to build a hard and strong image because vulnerability can discredit them?

I think rap is really a reflection of society. As a woman in society today, if you act vulnerable, people tend to step on you and not respect you. You always have to show that you are self-confident, that you know what you are doing, that you are not afraid and that you will not let anyone shake you up. That’s how you move forward in society and that’s how we tend to present ourselves in music so that we can find our place. For me it was unconscious. Once I found my place, I relaxed and decided to make the music I really wanted to make, even if it meant less to people.

A new album means new music videos, all directed by Guillaume Doubet. It feels like your work has taken a complete 180° for the better, achieving an almost cinematic vibe. Did you take part in directing the videos?

We met a year before I released the album with Guillaume. I ended up telling him the same thing I said when we were writing the songs for the album. My image had to reflect the transformations that appear on Antidote. For each video, we brainstormed and everyone came up with their own ideas. Working with Guillaume was wonderful because he is such a great listener. He doesn’t have any ulterior motives and isn’t just looking to pad his resume. It’s a real exchange. If it had’t been for Guillaume, we would never have achieved what we did.

With the infrared camera and the scenes where you smash televisions and mirrors, your videos for “Jolie” and “Notif” reminded me of the great pop stars of the 2000s, like Britney or Lindsay Lohan, who were both harassed by paparazzi and responded to the media in their videos.

(laughs) There were a lot of inspirations; there are hidden messages, but I won’t reveal them all. But I like your analysis. At its core, “Jolie” is really just my return after a two-year break. There was a great silence during which a lot was said about me. Guillaume and I had this idea to redo my story; the video would open with me on a screen and then I would be walking around along in a room. He wanted people to see me come back in full force and feel all the energy I had when I recorded the song. One day, after all our exchanges, he explains to me that I was going to be in a room, walking around and rapping my song. I thought it was cool but when the day came, I panicked. (laughs) There was nothing to help me: no dancers, no sets other than a simple room. I’m just now realizing that sometimes I get caught up in things that just aren’t possible. (laughs) At least l had my choreographer named Nicolas Huchard, who is on all my music videos. In any case “Jolie” was really a matter of energy, a girl who comes back for revenge and tells her story. I think we did a good job, anyway. (laughs)

Do you think much about the media and how they influence your image?

The thing about the media is that we’re not doing the same job at all. They want to start a buzz with their articles and get people talking, so anything that can damage me will help them. That puts me in a tough spot as a black woman who raps. A lot of media outlets have shut me out just because they don’t like what I stand for. But on the other hand, I don’t feel like I’m anything other than an artist. I want to put out music that speaks to people, that angry girls can identify with, that helps people feel less misunderstood… I just want to make music. On the other side there is a whole game with the media and you have to play it. For example, I was just out promoting the album and what bothered me was that in all the interviews I did, they asked me to talk about other artists. But I’m not a publicist. (laughs) I have things I want to say about my album, which is complicated for my audience since I took a completely different turn. I want to communicate in the media so that people can understand what I wanted to do. But I ended up promoting a new rapper who just came out because the media like her. It’s sad actually, and it’s frustrating as an artist. You want to take a break, but the record company says you have to get out there and do some interviews. I want to communicate, but can I actually talk about what I’m doing? But other than that, I have no problem with the media. I shouldn’t generalize. Some journalists are nice, and then there are others who sensationalize everything; everyone does their own thing.

Then there is another kind of promotion on social media, which you use to communicate directly with your fans. Is it important for you to get that direct feedback on your music?

Social media is good, but it’s also very dangerous. People can be very judgmental on those platforms. On the one hand, you have your fanbase that supports you and keeps you going. But on the other hand, you have all these little clowns who just want to amuse the peanut gallery and make fun of you. It’s hard to deal with. You have to take a step back from social media. But I like having the freedom to offer the content I want. When I’m promoting, I have to play the role they want me to play, because there are themes, a certain way of talking about the album content, etc… Whereas when I’m on social media, it’s up to me to decide what I want to show people and how I want to show it.

Is there a particular song on your album that you think people haven’t talked about enough? Were you surprised by your fans’ favorite tracks?

Not surprised. People were more receptive to the songs that sounded most like Jolie Garce. But I think it’s an album that will get more successful over time. For example, “Désillusion” and “BXL” resonated with you, and those two songs are the essence of the album. But not everyone understands all my intentions right away. Some people have a specific mental image of Shay, and they need a little brainwashing to accept my evolution. Since it won’t be my last album, people will eventually come back to it and understand the songs.

Have you thought about how you’re going to present Antidote live? I saw that you did a few showcases in clubs, but what about bigger concerts?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a concert date at the moment. We’ve been talking about it for over eight months now, but I really want to do something special and I won’t make any concessions. It’s tough because I’m labelled as a rapper, so booking agents have a hard time understanding what I want to do. Rappers usually show up with just a microphone and their DJ, but that’s not at all what I want to do. I don’t want to do the same tour everyone else does. Not because I feel like I’m different, but because I want to give people a real show, an adventure, a special experience. I don’t just want to meet my audiences, I want to give them a show that they’ll still be talking about in ten years. That’s not what people expect from rappers, but I’ve always broken the rules ever since I got into the music business. With all the work we put into my music videos where you see me fight to perform, it would be a shame if I just went on stage with my microphone and then it’s over. So it’s taking some time, but I hope to announce some tour dates soon.

Do you need a big enough stage to put on the show you have in mind?

Not necessarily, but I need the concert team to understand my vision. Not people who say, “You know what, we’re going to give you ten dancers doing a little choreography”. That’s not what the show is all about. Unfortunately in France, rap isn’t always about putting on a show, so booking agents aren’t used to it. When I say show, I’m talking about Mylène Farmer getting on stage and putting on a killer show. Even if you don’t like her or her music, you’re still impressed. Stromae does it, too. Some people say I think I’m a star because I refuse to settle for an empty stage and a microphone, but it has nothing to do with that.

Have you been invited to play at festivals?

Yes. But I had a manager who didn’t want to do festivals. I was invited to all the big festivals, but he didn’t think I was ready. He wanted us to prepare the show first… So we parted ways. Now I really regret not doing the festivals. Every time I see a poster, I think, “Damn, I could have been there”. (laughs) That manager really screwed up. For me, a showcase isn’t the same thing as a stage: it’s at two in the morning when everyone’s drunk. It’s just a big party. But even at a showcase I always give it my all, just like a concert. I dance, I get into it and I never let up; it doesn’t even matter if everyone’s drunk. So just imagine what I would do at a festival!

You talk a lot about love on the album, from “Notif” to “Amour et Désastres”. How do you see love and relationships in 2019?

I think love exists; I believe in it. But people don’t know how to love anymore. Society has been ruined by the capitalist system, which makes people more individualistic. A successful man is a man who is rich, who fights, who has power. His goal is to not get married. Women are brought up to become wives. But men are brought up to succeed without a wife. It makes it so that men who are surrounded by pretty women are admired and seen as more powerful. It’s fucked up and it turns everything to shit. Relationships are complicated today. But I haven’t been in a relationship for years anyway…

Do you think the notion of a relationship will evolve in the future?

You should only get into a relationship out of desire, not need. You have to be relatively stable, in a good place in your life and feel good about yourself. Then it can work out. Problems arise when you get into a relationship because you’re like, “I need a man no matter what”. We all need to stop trying to force things and first happy on our own. That way you don’t end up getting disrespected, your relationships lasts longer and you’re more comfortable with your partner. No one wants to be someone else’s crutch.

In French rap there is a kind of introversion, a sense of national pride that keeps artists from branching out from the same old traditional models. I get the impression that in Belgium you are more open in a certain way.

Yes, that’s so true – just look at the music we make! Even our rappers are super open. We don’t have a standard or a code to follow. We didn’t have any models… If you’re an artist, it’s because you created a world for yourself and you wanted to share it with people. It’s not because you wanted to imitate someone else, because you don’t have any models anyway. Whereas in France, there are a lot of untouchable role models. And people only speak one language in France. When I was younger and I would go to France, I was always shocked to hear nothing but French music everywhere. We grew up with music in English and Dutch, African music…

You still live in Brussels, but is there anywhere else in the world where you would like to move?

I would love to go to Los Angeles. I love it there. I also love Paris and I often rent apartments here for three months. But as soon as I arrive, I have to work non-stop. I can’t stand it, so I end up running away. Other than that, Los Angeles is the best spot for me. It’s sunny, people are open-minded. People I know who live there tell me that it’s actually a very superficial city and it gets hard to handle after a while. But I went twice and absolutely loved it.

Do you think there’s a market for your music in the United States?

Yes, I think so. I’ve always thought so, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible.

Interview by Alice Butterlin.

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Photographer: Boris Camaca
Stylist: Edem Dossou @total world
Hair: Salomé Poloudenny
2nd Hair : Ludivine Hokam
Make-up: Aurore Gibrien
FX: Sarah Roman
Manucurist : Sylvie Vacca
Stylist assistant: Kevin Lanoy
Make-up assistant: Claire Laugeois

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