Meet The MC: Leïti Sène
Rapper and actor Leïti Sène is flipping drill’s macho aesthetic on its head with a softer sound dubbed ‘cute drill’, combining the world-conquering sound with trap, Afrobeats and pop, and influences from his Senegalese roots and the community he’s built around himself in Barcelona. He talks to DJ Mag about what makes great art and why being true to oneself is of the utmost importance
Barcelona is a city famed for its artistic and creative spirit, an inspiration to 20th century greats Picasso, Dali and Miro. Today the Catalan capital boasts a burgeoning rap scene, of which the current dominant flavour is drill, led by rappers like Bobe, Ghetto Boy and Skinny Flex. In contrast to the aforementioned’s cold, hyper-masculine street tales, multi-talented artist Leïti Sène’s syrupy, warm, hybrid sound — ‘cute drill’, as he calls it — offers listeners something different. His new mixtape ‘JÖM’ sits at the nexus of trap, rap, drill, Afrobeats and pop, underpinned lyrically by a search for something deeper.
Leïti, known globally for his role as Malick in Netflix’s teen drama Elite, tells DJ Mag that cutting through Spanish rap’s machismo is one of his aims. “The problem is the industry is still controlled by men,” he says. “We’re too interested in ‘fucking bitches and getting money’. I’m trying to sound more feminine, you know? I’m trying to give feminine vibes because I think that’s the future. It’s our responsibility to stop trying to control everything now. We’ve got to let women lead.”
His father raised him on a nourishing diet of Black music, from funk, jazz and R&B to gangsta rap icons like 2Pac, 50 Cent and The Game. He was initially unmoved by trap, which forms the backbone of his own sound, until he discovered Young Thug. You can hear the Atlanta trap god’s influence in Leïti’s waved, woozy delivery. “He was just so different,” Leïti says. “He used his voice like an instrument and completely changed the sound. What he did gave opportunities to so many other artists. It was inspiring.” Despite the vocal comparisons, Leïti is determined to operate in his own lane; for him it’s a symbol of freedom.
“I try to sound different from everyone else. That’s my main goal,” he explains. “In art, freedom starts when you give yourself the credibility to create new sounds, instead of copying what other people are doing or trying to fit in with the industry. I think you have to search for what fits you, your voice and your lifestyle. That’s the key. Here we get a lot of sun, we go to the beach, we smoke a lot of weed. So the vibe has to be different. It has to reflect that.”
Leïti’s new genre-melting niche is ‘cute drill’. Close your eyes, let ‘JÖM’ enter your consciousness and it transports you to a hazy dreamscape of Barcelona — think Iñárritu’s Biutiful, minus the death and melancholia. July single ‘#Spanishfeet’ brilliantly captures the project’s vibe, with Leïti’s smooth vocals floating above a slow-bouncing, sun-kissed production. That bassy, slow bounce pulsates throughout the project like a heartbeat. The cosmopolitan, creative city is Leïti’s muse.
“Barcelona is not a big city, but it’s full of people from all over the world. We have people from the Philippines, from Germany, from all over Africa. There’s a lot of different cultures,” he continues. “Because it’s not a big place, there aren’t separate ghettos. Everyone is here together, in the same place. This makes you more open-minded, I think. It’s a very artistic place. It has been for hundreds of years and the energy is so crazy and special here.”
Collective spirit and community is key to everything Leïti does, producing work as part of Cutemobb — a youth-led ensemble of artists, rappers, producers, dancers and creatives. They released their first group mixtape, ‘Cutetapes’, in November last year. It’s a joyful amalgamation of songs, built off the organic chemistry of friendship.
“With us, it’s so natural,” Leïti explains. “We were all already friends, doing different things: dancing, fashion, singing. We started to understand that if we work together and put a name on it, it’s more positive for everyone. We are creating an industry for ourselves, because in Spain there isn’t much of an industry for us. If we didn’t create this community, we’d have very short careers. I think the main thing in art, and in movements of artists, is people sharing what they have in their minds with each other. This creates community, and that means more opportunities for everyone.”
Leïti is of Sengalese heritage, and ‘JÖM’ is a nod to those West African roots. In Wolof, the most spoken language in Senegal, ‘jöm’ translates into ‘honour’ or ‘dignity with oneself’. The project is a deliberate antidote to the exaggeration and macho posturing he’s identified among some of his peers. “It’s not like I’m hating on drill,” Leïti says. “But here in Barcelona, the drill that talks about people killing for this and that… it doesn’t exist. I think there are copycat people trying to fit in the industry and get more numbers. I think it kills the art. I’ve done more gangster shit than them but I never talk about it, because it’s not the way.
“I like to be more artistic and involved in the community,” he continues. “I think that’s the key to supporting these kids who are really living this life. I never try to rap about these things, because I’ve never been in those situations. You lose the respect of the people who are really in them when you do that.”
This steadfast honesty and realness is the embodiment of ‘jöm’. It’s about addressing challenging themes in a mindful way that’s true to your own experiences. “My Senegalese roots influence the way I’m talking to the world in my music. Before, I was speaking freely about drugs, sex, all of that stuff. Now I’ve experienced and seen more things. I’ve been through different shit. It made me think a lot. I want to understand the world.”
Leïti’s music hasn’t necessarily changed sonically; its paradigm shift has been more thematic. “The trap sound, mixed with bits of different stuff… that remains. I’m not giving African vibes in the sound. But now I’m more thoughtful with what I’m saying, the energy, the frequency I’m putting out to the world. I’m still talking about things like drugs, but through a different lens.
“I think the messages in African music are a lot more clear, a lot more solid. I think that’s the key of this project,” he continues. “I’m starting to give more of myself. Before, I was trying to serve every beat and sound cool. Now I’m more influential. Kids are listening to me. I’m trying to point them to better things, even though I’m still young too. ‘Dignity with oneself’ is knowing yourself, knowing what ideas and values fit with you, instead of trying to fit in.”