Women in Music 2019

Shenseea on Breaking Barriers and Being Labeled 'The Fastest-Rising Dancehall Artist'

bb17 2019
Keysus
Shenseea

Born Chinsea Lee in Kingston, Jamaica, Shenseea grew up singing in her church’s choir, performing Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” at age 8. “That was my first audience,” she recalls, "but I didn't stay to hear the feedback because I was so shy.”

Her introversion didn’t keep her from pursuing her passion; she thought she would eventually become a soul singer. But that changed in high school once she heard the explicit lyrics of Spice, Lady Saw and eventual collaborator Vybz Kartel on the bus. 

While singing along, she discovered that her distinct, commanding vocal tone matched perfectly with the genre’s ruggedness. She immediately knew that dancehall would be where she thrived, and even though her mom wanted her to be a flight attendant, she prayed that she would be an international star. Eager to enter the industry, Shenseea became a promoter for Jamaica’s Romeich Entertainment in 2015 while still a high school student.

At the same time, she started posting freestyles and covers of Young M.A’s “OOOUUU” and Tink’s “Treat Me Like Somebody” on social media; once the company’s CEO, Romeich Major, saw them, he signed her as his first female artist in 2016. “He told me, ‘I think you could be the next big artist,’” she says. “My response: ‘Mmm, me too enuh!’ That same year, I just... buss!” -- Jamaican patois for “big break.”

Shenseea’s entry into Jamaica’s music scene was “Loodi,” her 2016 collaboration with legendary dancehall star Kartel that immediately put her on the radar of his fans. She kept the collaborations coming, working with Bunji Garlin (“Big Bad Soca” remix), Nailah Blackman (“Badishh” and “We Ready”) and Christina Aguilera (Liberation’s “Right Moves),” the latter of which was arranged over email two years before the track was ever released. “At the time, we were like, ‘Nah this looks like fraud,” Shenseea says. “I literally wrote [my verse] without even hearing the song, we just took a leap of faith. I'm a big fan of Christina, especially her songs on Burlesque -- I just can't reach her notes!”

It wasn’t until the end of 2018 though that Shenseea truly had her breakout moment, thanks to her self-described new national anthem for Jamaican ladies, “ShenYeng Anthem,” which has raked in 6.1 million U.S. streams since its release, according to Nielsen Music. “Some people didn’t see the potential, but it gave me my own lane,” Shenseea says of the track, which receives deafening screams when she performs it live. “I'm not just a pretty face, I'm an entertainer. You get me?”

That confidence translates to social media; she posts on Instagram for her 1.7 million followers everything from makeup-free selfies to videos of practical jokes she plays on her team to photos cuddling with her 3-year-old son Rajeiro (“I want to better my life so I can better his,” she says). She also uses the app to exchange advice with her fans, the ShenYengs.

“I DM with a lot of fans who say, ‘You're my role model’ or ‘I really needed this.’ It makes me feel good,” she says. Shenseea even spins negative comments into opportunities for improvement, relying on her fans to push her to get better. “I was never a good performer, and they used to beat me so bad about it,” she recalls with a laugh. “They would say, ‘Why is she not looking at the audience? Why is she not talking?’ You need to tell me what else I need to do!"

Over the past two years, Shenseea had crossed paths with Rvssian, Jamaican producer and CEO of Head Concussion Records, a number of times; they collaborated on 2018’s “Hard Drive” and King Kosa’s 2017 “Best Na Na” single, both of which also featured fellow dancehall star Konshens. At top of 2019, Rvssian, who has a joint venture with Interscope Records, introduced her to Interscope Geffen A&M executive vp Joie Manda -- forging her best partnership yet.

Before meeting Shenseea, Manda, who grew up listening to Caribbean music in his native Brooklyn, says he wasn’t yet familiar with her, “which is kind of crazy, because she had this big following that wasn’t on my radar.” But once Rvssian showed Manda Shenseea’s music, he was blown away. “She told her story to our team, and everyone [joked about] getting a Shenseea tattoo that day.” Manda signed Shenseea to Interscope within weeks, and she became the label’s first dancehall act among a roster that also includes Billie Eilish, DaBaby and Blackpink.

“She stands out because her writing is super in-depth into the culture and into what the girls are thinking on the daily,” says Interscope A&R Blackwood. “I’ll play [her music] for random people who have no idea who she is, and then you’ll instantly see movement in their body. It’s just something she brings out of people.”

Manda stresses how streaming has played an important role in prompting labels to have a more global perspective, which is says is largely positive, “as long as nobody fucks with the integrity of [the artists] they’re signing.” While Interscope’s Nir Seroussi (former president of Sony Latin U.S.) is helping the label expand into Latin music, Manda says they are also looking to Nigeria and elsewhere for new signees. 

In May, Shenseea made her major-label debut with “Blessed,” which features Tyga and hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Reggae Digital Song Sales chart. The buzzing tune keeps her dancehall roots intact with its heavy patois inflections and thumping bassline, but also adds a dose of Latin trap-inspired synths to capture a wider audience. “She’s having her ‘Pon de Replay’ moment, where she’s bringing dancehall to America” says Blackwood, referencing Rihanna’s 2005 debut single. “Reggae has always been a thing, but once she catches steam, we’re really about to make the world dance.”

All eyes are now on her, as she officially represents Jamaica in a mainstream light. Yet this is the path she’s always wanted — ever since praying to be an international star as a little girl. “My mom wanted me to become a flight attendant,” she says while laughing. “But I'm still taking planes like a flight attendant, so it worked out perfectly!”

Shenseea isn’t celebrating just yet. “I haven't really gotten the time to look back at my growth, unless I'm watching my own performances,” she continues. “Everyone has labeled me as the fastest-rising artist, so I have to keep up with the momentum of getting everything done on time. I don't want any opportunity to pass me just because I want to chill for a while. I still haven't reached where I want to go, which is becoming really international, to where I walk around New York City and not one person doesn't recognize me. Signing to Interscope is a big deal, but right now, I'm just getting to know different people who will help me [get there].” 

Until then, Shenseea plans to release more singles -- some of which dip into pop, country and Afrobeats -- ahead of her debut album, which is due in the fall. “Once she blends her own elements to where people on a wider market can understand it, she'll be set,” says Rvssian. “Caribbean music -- especially Jamaican music -- is the most influential genre. She's a good representation of what Jamaica is. She's a barrier breaker.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the July 20 issue of Billboard.

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