“Set Her Free” is one of the latest releases from north London rapper Shay D’s upcoming debut album “A Figure of Speech” out on February 12th. If you are looking for light hearted, immediately forgettable, hollow sounding lyrics, you may want to stop reading here as Shay D has too many things that need saying. This particular track tackles the issues surrounding domestic abuse faced by many women on a daily basis. Powerful, hard hitting, and well written lyrics marry themselves perfectly to Oliver Whitehouse’s equally well thought out video to really drive the point home.
The lyrics throughout the track create a mixed sense of apprehension, angst, fear and helplessness punctuated with moments of defiance, strength and intelligent – if not scathing – social commentary on the normalization of the objectification of women in popular culture: “How can a boy be remorseful when there’s toys under the tree like Grand Theft Auto, violence to women as if normal, so disillusioned by the images in porno”. Domestic violence is a very sensitive issue to tackle at the best of time, let alone through a song, yet somehow Shay D manages to capture the desperation and hopelessness of victims, whilst also highlighting the inner strength that these women have. The opening verse is particularly poignant in this track as it recreates brilliantly the building of a nauseating atmosphere “Head feels weak, belly’s hurting again, car dead quiet till they drop off a friend, tension filling up her heart with dread, won’t dare move an inch, won’t turn her head”.
Ultimately, this track is a powerful account of the effects abusive relationships have on both a psychological level through the lyrics, and the physical highlighted in the video. I have found writing about this extremely challenging. What started off as a straight forward review very quickly turned into more than that. I’m finding that as someone who has been lucky to grow up in a comfortable, stable environment, I’m horribly under qualified to do this subject justice. At times it has made me feel uncomfortable, it has challenged me, and made me feel ill equipped and rather uninformed to discuss an unfortunately very real truth for thousands of women. Most importantly the track has, to a degree, helped me understand the effects these issues have, and made me want to find out more and see what can be done to help prevent this from continuing.
Before I go on too long on a self-important, essay style monologue – a real danger at this point – it’s probably just best if I let Shay D talk about her track. She was kind enough to answer some questions with refreshingly frank, honest and considered responses. Just before I do though, should you or someone you know be experiencing domestic abuse and need help, or perhaps you want to find out what you could possibly do to help, please start by visiting Sisters Uncut: https://sistersuncut.wordpress.com/
Hi Shay D! Thanks for agreeing to speak to me and answer some questions! First off, let’s introduce you to those who may not yet know: obviously you are a rapper, but you also work with poetry and the spoken word and work as a presenter on Itch FM. On top of this, you run rap and lyric writing workshops as well as rap and poetry workshops for young people…where do you find the time to do all of this AND record an album?!
I ask myself the same question every day lol. Its 3am and I am writing this interview for you, so I guess it’s for the love and time management. I am lucky enough to be able to work for myself and be an artist and try and make a living from Hip Hop so I can’t complain. I wasn’t the desk job type of human so I am responsible for my time now. I don’t get enough sleep though for sure! I did fly out to Cyprus for 10 days in summer to finish writing the album, and I did.
It seems very obvious to me that you are not just a rapper, but a true hip-hop disciple. The importance of community spirit is apparent in your tracks, as is the importance of speaking out for people who may not be able to, and also, the element of the passing of knowledge on to others. Do you feel that this passing of knowledge (one of the founding five pillars of hip-hop) is one that seems to have been forgotten by now? If so, why do you think that is?
I think a lot of people who truly love hip hop love to learn, debate, discuss and have an open dialogue. Rappers speak, they voice opinions so that is sharing knowledge. It’s like a natural part of Hip Hop. I don’t think it’s been forgotten about but I feel we are distracted as a generation now and learning becomes the harder and longer process. With shorter attention spans and a disposable lifestyle that the media encourages us to have, knowledge can seem a bit I guess, boring. But it’s not and when young people are exposed to it and given the outlet it thrives. I am always learning, everyone is. No one knows it all!
If you could work with any artists – alive or dead – who would you like to work with in terms of A) musical style B) substance of lyrics?
Musical style would be someone like Erykah Badu, Mos Def or Jhene Aiko. I just love that easy listening mellow vibe, and lyrics wise wow, Cyhi The Prince, Dead Prez, Lauryn Hill! So many to pick man.
Now moving on to your latest release, let me say how big a fan of Set Her Free I am. It’s a powerful, hard hitting track that obviously deals with the issues surrounding domestic, physical and psychological abuse. What was the inspiration behind this?
I was a child that went through a very aggressive divorce from my parents. I saw a lot of fighting and arguments within my family unit and this stayed with me for a long time, I personally have a very short temper myself. I don’t want to get into it but it’s a story I feel a lot of people can relate to even in relationships. Sometimes you can be with someone and you feel you have the strongest bond of love but they may be short tempered and outburst, and some women end up justifying it and it becomes the norm, until you really get out of a situation you won’t realise it’s happening. A lot of females I know have gone through emotional traumas too. It just feels like a story we need to speak about and especially in Hip Hop where women are ALWAYS the basis of fun for the man, or the object of a man’s video, party, sexual pleasure, strippers, throwing alchohol on them, embarrassing them, cursing them, these are ok in Hip Hop but no one wants to talk about the women who suffer from these “normalities”? It needs to be an open dialogue.
Something that I found unusual with your videos – and particularly with Set Her Free – is that whilst the lyrics can clearly stand alone by themselves and still convey the message clearly, the video really brought a whole extra dimension to the lyrics. I know that Oliver Whitehouse directed the video, how did you two end up working together? How did you find the process of making this particular video? How much input did you have with this?
I met Oliver Whitehouse when Sektion Red did a documentary called Artemis on female rappers. It’s such a great docu-film and covers issues and background. We didn’t really speak after that and my partner Kingpin, who is also a rapper said to me at home one night, that he found a really great film director and had reached out to him and played me a video. When I saw his name I was like “ahh thats the same director who did Artemis”. We reached out and have been working with him since. Oliver has a very good eye for shots and is such a skilled editor. I had ideas for my videos and I am quite particular and luckily he was open to taking my ideas in but running with it his way to make it happen and it works out for the best. With Set Her Free I wanted to tell the story without the cliche watching a man and woman fighting and getting beaten up, I wanted no violence. I just wanted the fear, the tension, the discomfort and Oliver’s idea to do it from a perspective was so great it gave it an intimacy. So the camera was strapped to my head as I had the actor Mark really go in, yell at me and push me about, it was all really eerie, all of us on set were very serious. I wanted to rap and as I told the story I wanted the bruises and cuts to appear gradually as it would do if someone was in a long abusive relationship. Luckily the universe was in sync and I met Keziah [Waudby] who had started doing Special FX, I told her what the song was about and she totally was up for it. We filmed that in a hour, with Keziah making my face look more and more hurt with make up. It was really deep as every time I looked in the mirror it felt real. Also I am someone who is very giggly in front of a camera but that day I was just in the zone. I rapped everything 5/6 times and it felt like a chant. I wanted the chorus to be empowering, a chant for women to use as a tool.
Throughout the video, as you mentioned, your make-up progressively changes until you are battered and bruised all over at the end. This really brings to life the physical aspects of abuse whilst the lyrics drill home the psychological damage done from the first to last bars. One particular moment in the video caught my eye, and that is a moment (@1:40) where a group of women are protesting and one passes the microphone to another whilst we can hear you repeat “Drop the knowledge on them”, at which point the woman lifts the mic up to speak and you go in to the next verse. As an artists and a presenter with a platform to reach people, do you feel you have a duty to broach difficult subjects and make otherwise uncomfortable conversations happen?
Good question. The answer is yes. I feel when you are in a position of influence, or to be heard or have any sort of following you have a responsibility and what you choose to do with that is your nature. I have always been someone who stands up for the weaker person, helps a victim, defends someone being bullied, says something uncomfortable other people feel anxious to say, its just in my nature so as an artist I can only embody that. If I have a few minutes of everyone’s time and they are going to hear me, what am i going to choose to say, what am I about. I will need to make the most of that time. This is something i encourage the young people in my workshops to be mindful about. I mean, I’m not perfect, and always evolving but I want to try and do something progressive with my art.
In a world where lots of lyrics, music videos, and even computer games still enforce a submissive female stereotype, what is the best way for the average person to help fight against this?
I personally don’t want to watch or share or be part of something that is derogatory, but especially that enforces a problem we already have. I won’t let my little sister listen or watch certain videos in my presence. I will share and push movements to my students or my peers that I feel challenge them or inspire them. I don’t want women to feel like they have to resort to selling their bodies through magazine covers for a man’s pleasure, or submit to a man in a position of power for them to get ahead. Even in hip hop, female rappers are intimidated and pressured by male producers via sexual favours. In my opinion, the more we speak about something, and having open conversations we are calling out the problems not encouraging it to be okay, it’s not okay.
Once again, thank you to Shay D for taking the time to talk to us! “A Figure of Speech” is out on Feb 12th. Pre-orders are available now on itunes and www.shayd.bandcamp.com. If you fancy coming along to her album launch party, it will be on 17th of March at Birthdays in Dalston, and features some wicked guest appearances including Maverick & Malachi, Kingpin and many more! For more info about this visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1224839817532553/