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CRACK

Shaybo is ready to take South London’s crown

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Body and tights: Cold Blooded Kingdom
Sunglasses: Archive Dior

Words by: Photography: Michelle Helena Janssen
Styling: Valeria Champrani
Styling assistant: Melo
Make up artist: ajbeauty

It’s a new era for Shaybo. The one-time London rap hopeful has taken the long route to success, but now, it seems, the time is right. Her excitement is palpable, her voice is sharp and alert on the other end of the line – but there’s a serenity too, at odds with her persona on record. “I never put out a full body of work when I first started – but now I’m ready,” she declares fervently.

Born Shayon Brown, she was just 13 when she began releasing YouTube freestyles and building a following, before suddenly going quiet. Then, in 2013, she edged her way back into the spotlight with Guess Who’s Back – a single which announced her statement of intent over an ominous road rap beat. But then, again, silence.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Body and tights: Cold Blooded Kingdom
Sunglasses: Archive Dior

That second silence lasted seven years, a lifetime in the music industry. Her first wave of buzz, built from frequent freestyles on the then-popular street rap YouTube channel Rap City, belongs to a time when road rap was still deep underground. But that was the past – and she’s not looking back. “I was locked in the studio for about five months just crafting,” she says, of her new EP Queen of the South. “My voice is an instrument and it’s part of the song, I’m not just rapping over a beat, so no matter what I put out there, what they’re getting from my music is all of me,” she says, softly.

Shaybo views her decision to step away from her career just when it was taking off as something positive as it allowed her the space to grow. There wasn’t as much of a sustainable infrastructure in place for independent MCs in UK rap in 2013. It was hard to make a living and besides, Shaybo was only a teenager then – now she’s 23. “I needed that break to live, I was young and always getting into trouble with my anger because I couldn’t articulate myself,” she explains, candidly. “Now when I spit, I’ve got something to say because I’ve been through it.” Anger, one of the new tracks, features a poignant line – one of the EP’s many quotable bars – that isn’t just an examination of herself but of how young people in general deal with trauma: “I can’t control my anger, so I smoke this ganja”.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Hat: Elsie and Fred
Sunglasses: Dior from 00sgarms
Top: Archive Morgan De Toi from 00sgarms
Trousers: Archive Morgan De Toi from 00sgarms
Bag: Archive Fendi

Born in Nigeria, Shaybo grew up in south London, first Lewisham and later, Woolwich – areas that are home to two of the largest Nigerian communities in the UK. Due to waves of immigration from West Africa in the past couple of decades, she finds herself caught between two cultures, blurring the notion of Black Britishness with her cadence and what she describes as ‘cultural language’. The Yoruba wit and humour oozes from her on record, where she often rhymes in Pidgin before going back to road slang or vice versa. On her Link Up TV HB Freestyle, she raps: “Mummy I’m famous now/ How you tryna send me shop to go and get Lyca/ I don’t care which aunty’s in Naija/ Oya take back your fiver”. While she jokes about those moments, which are often a rite of passage for people with family ‘back home’, it also speaks to her duality as a Nigerian-British woman.

Shaybo doesn’t delve deep when asked about her past. She nods fleetingly towards the challenges she faced as a young person, coming of age in south London and affiliated with the streets – stories and themes she frequently tackles in her writing. But her new music reveals an emotional depth to Shaybo that longtime fans may not expect: “I want people to see the good and the bad. I want to show them anger, love, heartbreak and all the things girls where I’m from can relate to.” Before the Covid-19 lockdown, she even wanted to invite her fans to eat jollof rice, stew and chicken with her at an EP launch party. “I just want to do things in a much more grounded way. Before I’m a rapper and I’m this and that, I’m a person who has to live life as well.”

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Body and tights: Cold Blooded Kingdom
Sunglasses: Archive Dior

Shaybo is confident in her belief that her fanbase will buy into Queen of the South and the story she’s telling, not just because of any notions of ‘realness’ or the fact she’s a woman in a male-crowded drill scene, but because she’s a storyteller. “People have given me the title of ‘queen of drill’ but I’m not really interested in that, I’m not just drill. I guess because it’s popular at the moment…” As an MC, her ability to move with ease from poignancy to humour is one of the qualities that makes Shaybo so infectious – she is so clearly having fun. On her recent Tiffany Calver Freestyle for BBC 1Xtra’s Rap Show, Shaybo was smiling the whole way as she reeled off bar after bar, punchline after punchline, in her piercing and boisterous flow (“Anger is my issue, aside from that I’m cool,” she beams). The road rap productions may have become drill beats in the intervening years, but her presence and skill is as sharp as it ever was – or better.

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Body and tights: Cold Blooded Kingdom
Sunglasses: Archive Dior

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Shaybo, a decade on from her first breakthrough, is that her best is yet to come. The likes of Jorja Smith, Anthony Joshua and Winnie Harlow are all Shaybo fans, sharing her music on Instagram, a very real demonstration of how far UK rap has risen in stature and reach since Shaybo started out. Perhaps there’s something to be said for having patience, biding your time and knowing when to shoot your shot. “I know what I want in life now, I couldn’t go after what I wanted when education was the priority when I was young. I’m much more sure of myself now and everything’s clearer in terms of how I’m presenting myself, which is just to be me.”

© Michelle Helena Janssen
Dress: 00sgarms

Anger is out now via Black Butter

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