Meet the MC: ShaSimone
British-Ghanaian MC ShaSimone has had a whirlwind two years, featuring on a number one album, dropping her debut EP, and becoming a regular face on GRM Daily. She speaks to Rahel Aklilu about being impulsive, the influence of East London on her sound, and working with Mercury Prize-winning rapper Dave
Simmering refers to the state of cooking just before boiling point — the hottest temperature before things erupt. It’s fitting that 26-year-old rapper Shauna Yeboah, aka ShaSimone, should reference it in her debut EP, a seven-track offering titled ‘SIMMA DOWN’. The EP’s release last month coincided with the boiling point of her career, off the back of a year that saw her feature on a number one album and perform for the first time at festivals around the world. It’s a perfectly timed testament to the power of timing, and a commitment to the steady and sustainable growth that’s brought an inevitable ascent to the top — despite a seemingly impulsive career-switch triggered by lockdown that altered the course of her life forever.
“I don’t know what’s been in the air recently, but I’ve been so impulsive!” Sha laughs. She’s spending a rare night off with her cousins and friends, and is referring to a recent decision to cut her hair off and rock a pixie cut. A former hairdresser, she’s still apprehensive towards letting others touch her hair, even though this is the longest she’s gone since working that job. Over the past two years, she’s developed a burgeoning rap career, releasing a run of singles including the playful ‘HUSHPUPPI’ and the ‘90s-reminiscent ‘Thug Affection’. The East Londoner is even more excited and determined following the drop of ‘SIMMA DOWN’. It’s a collaborative effort, bringing together her own influences of 90’s hip-hop, R&B and Afrobeats, and bringing in friends from London to Las Gidi, with features from Tottenham’s Avelino and alté crooner BOJ.
The EP’s lyrics deliver relatable subject matter from Sha’s own experience as a Black Londoner — as well as a female rapper in an increasingly populated playing field — and explores everything from the heartbreak and complication of situationships, to superslick bravado with hard-hitting wordplay. Determined to prove her longevity after initially bursting into mainstream attention following an uncredited appearance on Dave’s ‘Both Sides Of A Smile’ featuring James Blake, ShaSimone wants everybody to know that she’s here to stay, and can do it all. With bars like “Two years deep, and I’m feeling like the heavyweight”, it’s safe to say she’s coming in swinging for the title of UK rap’s freshest tip.
Growing up in Hackney as the only daughter of Ghanaian parents, and the youngest of three children, the predominantly US rap blaring out of her brothers’ bedroom exposed her to the likes of G-Unit, Jay-Z and 2Pac. Her Ghanaian parents, on the other hand, stuck to the more soulful sounds: Teddy Pendergrass and Lionel Richie, but also their wildcard... Craig David. The rich musical heritage of East London — a place that birthed grime, nurtured Afroswing and raised rap from the likes of Potter Payper — meant it was inevitable for Sha’s teenage years to be soundtracked by a melting pot of styles.
She speaks about NSG — the Hackney-based group often credited with helping take Afroswing mainstream in more recent times — and long summers in the city punctuated by block parties, blaring the dancehall-infused sounds popularised by Sneakbo and Timbo. “My friends used to throw these famous block parties,” Sha remembers. “In Hackney, every summer. They only stopped because of lockdown.”
In true millennial style, ShaSimone’s introduction into rapping would be through the now defunct BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), a popular instant-messaging app of the late ‘00s. A childhood love of poetry inspired by Tupac Shakur’s collection of poems, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, had seen her win local competitions — “One day I might release a book with all my poems. I was spitting as a kid!” This evolved into a genuine interest in rap, albeit with a lack of confidence experienced by so many in their teenage years. “Me and my friends used to send voice-notes of each other rapping over BBM,” she remembers. “They tried to convince me to take it seriously but I was a bit in my own head about it.”
“I’ve evolved so much even over the course of recording the project, going on a journey to figure out my sound and working out which producers would help me to find it”
Having grown up doing her friends’ hair and sneaking in appointments in the playground at school, a career as a hairdresser was the natural step after college. With an easy and confident aura, it’s not hard to envision the MC at home in the hustle and bustle of a hair salon, where so many find solace and security in laughter and gossip. While working as a hairdresser, she would rap here and there as a hobby, accompanying musician friends to the studio with no real intention of making music. “I stepped into the studio for the first time around 2016 or 2017, and did a freestyle over LL Cool J’s ‘Doin’ It’,” she says. “I loved the production and vibe of it, having grown up listening to it. It just seemed perfect to jump on.” The charming, self-assured tone of the US rap icon would prove to be an integral influence on Sha’s own style.
In 2020, in the midst of lockdown, with her livelihood indefinitely suspended and no sign of when things would let up, she finally decided to record her debut single, ‘Belly’. The title serves as an ode to the 1998 Hype Williams debut feature film starring DMX, Nas and Method Man. “Lockdown hit and my life changed,” she says. Despite the global shutdown, the MC’s career picked up at a pace faster than anybody could have imagined. She met her now manager and kept the momentum up after a welcome reception to ‘Belly’ with a flurry of singles, including a feature on TwoFaceChef’s ‘Again, Vol.2’, on an all-drill line-up alongside OFB’s RV, as well as holding her own on the trap-infused ‘SCHWEET’ with fellow East Londoner, Suspect OTB. She also dropped fan favourite ‘Hushpuppi’ last year, a playful nod to the Nigerian internet personality turned international criminal, who reeled in hundreds of thousands of followers showcasing his lavish life on social media.
Sha’s break came when a friend of a friend needed a woman’s voice. It turned out to be Mercury Prize-winning Streatham rapper Dave, and he wanted to work with her. The end result was the initially uncredited verse on Dave and James Blake’s ‘Both Sides Of A Smile’, taken from the former’s second studio and UK number one album, ‘We’re All Alone In This Together’. After spending three hours in the studio talking, a process Sha describes as “therapeutic”, she was trusted with recording the verse as Dave’s love interest. “He really helped me understand what he wanted from me,” she says. “So I was able to put myself in the shoes of the ex-girlfriend he had written the song for.”
This brings us to ‘SIMMA DOWN’, a seven-track statement of intent that sees Sha explore her influences and invite listeners into her multifaceted multiverse. “Everything has happened so fast that it feels surreal, after the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into it over the course of a year, for it to be out for the world to take in,” she smiles, almost in disbelief. “I’ve evolved so much even over the course of recording the project, going on a journey to figure out my sound and working out which producers would help me to find it. None of the songs I started with are on the EP!”
The only two features on the EP — one from Avelino on the gritty yet ambitious ‘Future’ and another from BOJ on the infectious ‘Ten Toes’ — were organically rooted in mutual appreciation. “I saw Avelino as soon as I got offstage from a performance, and our first encounter was so lovely that I was struck by how genuine he was. He’s a GOAT in his own right, whose skill I respect so much. When I started writing ‘Future’, I got in touch with him straight away and knew he would slide on it.” Boj, who she had met when both accompanied Dave on tour, convinced her ‘Ten Toes’ needed his vocals, which he recorded and sent over from Nigeria.
Following her appearance on Dave’s album, Sha hasn’t shied away from acting, appearing in a number of her own visually slick music videos, and taking a small feature in Amazon Prime’s original music drama series, Jungle. As she blossoms into her sound, and explores new avenues “if the opportunity is the right fit”, she’s developed an ever-increasing appetite for risk. She’s experimenting more, not just with her sound, but fashion and style, making her mark as a unique, bold and self-assured artist. Whatever the challenge, ShaSimone has proven that she’s ready to take on anything, all while sounding, looking and feeling ready.