— Shae Universe —

On Port Harcourt, growing up in Watford, collaborating with Ms Banks, Westside Boogie, Etta Bond and more, alignment, self-belief, performing at Twickenham and shining in her own lane.

(All photos submitted by Shae Universe)

It’s approaching 11pm on December 23rd when Shae Universe and I finally get hold of each other after almost two weeks of trying. “We made it”, she says chuckling as our call begins, only a few days after the latest, sobering wave of COVID-19 restrictions had been announced. A precociously talented singer, rapper and songwriter with an extraordinary vocal range, Shae has blossomed under the surface over the past three years, working in her own spaces and drawing admiring glances from some of music’s most reputable names in Chance The Rapper, Jorja Smith and Kojey Radical amongst others. From speaking on the phone for just over an hour though, you’d never think it. “I’ve always been really humble”, she notes, “and I don’t think that’ll ever change.”

Born in Port Harcourt — the largest city in Rivers State in Nigeria — Shae and her family moved to the UK in 1999, when she just four years old. Initially moving around different areas in North West London, Shae finally settled in Watford, where she is still based today. “I don’t remember a lot about my life in Nigeria because I was quite young”, she says softly, “but I guess there are specific things engrained in my memory. I remember my dad used to ride a motorbike … in Nigeria we call them okada … and even though I was super young, I’d ride on the back with him sometimes. Obviously very safely and securely, although it probably wasn’t the safest thing to do to be honest. When you’re that young though, you’re not really scared of anything. I had no fear, so it just felt exhilarating.”

“I remember my dad used to ride a motorbike … in Nigeria we call them okada … and even though I was super young, I’d ride on the back with him sometimes.”

“Watford was very, very racist when we first moved here though”, she continues, “…it really was quite bad. There wasn’t a lot of diversity culturally, it was a predominantly white area when we first moved here so I think for us, it was a bit of a culture shock. My parents wanted us to move somewhere a bit more peaceful and less busy, somewhere not at the heart of London but yeah, I don’t think we expected it. On a social level, I just remember it all being quite awkward. The vibe between me and my neighbours for example, like that was never warm or friendly. We had a couple of run-ins as well … mainly just people being not particularly nice to us or making remarks in the street. It’s come a long way though, because now it’s a lot different and I feel a lot better about being here.”

Thankfully, the racism Shae encountered on the streets of Watford didn’t extend to the classroom in Harrow, where she spent her school years. “I can’t lie, Harrow was a lot more culturally diverse so I never really experienced it in the same way at school. I was such a good child looking back, you know? I was a total goody two shoes and I was always really scared of disappointing my parents but to be honest, I think that was partly down to being the oldest of four siblings and also being my parents’ first born. They were very traditional growing up in terms of their beliefs and stuff and they didn’t really know anything else. There was quite a lot of pressure on me to do well academically and I guess I lived up to that. It did my head in but somehow I managed to see it through and did pretty well. I was very focused, never gave anyone any trouble, didn’t get into fights or anything like that … I just tried to do my best.”

Music too was a big part of Shae’s childhood. “I feel like my first ever memory of music would probably be some form of African worship or African praise”, she says, energised by the switch in conversation. “In my household generally though, there was a lot of Anita Baker, Whitney Houston, Barry White … gospel as well, that’s always been huge in my family. My mum is actually a gospel singer and before the pandemic hit, she’d travel to different countries and sing at different churches. As I got older, I started to find my own artists, outside of what was being played indoors. I discovered Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu pretty early on … I guess it all stemmed from Neo Soul at first and then I slowly branched out into RnB and the big 2000s pop stars. I was very in-tune with pop culture generally back then, actually.”

She discovered her own flair for music — and her voice (!) — at secondary school, where her love of literature signposted a route in to first writing bars and later, writing songs. “I loved poetry, slam poetry and all that kind of stuff”, she recalls, “…and then the poetry kinda morphed into rapping. I had a weird phase, when grime was a big thing, of going to the back of the playground and just clashing everyone. Everyone had tags as well … mine was Baby Murkage. I was actually hard you know. I’m telling you the mandem didn’t wanna bar me at the back of the playground because if you got washed out by a girl it was a big thing. After that, I started to sing a bit more. My mum, bless her, would force me to sing in the church choir, so it started as a chore but I ended up thinking it was quite nice. It helped shape my musical ear too, especially in terms of harmonies and pitch and stuff like that.”

“I had a weird phase, when grime was a big thing, of going to the back of the playground and just clashing everyone. Everyone had tags as well … mine was Baby Murkage. I was actually hard you know. I’m telling you the mandem didn’t wanna bar me at the back of the playground because if you got washed out by a girl it was a big thing.”

As her musical tastes began to evolve, so did Shae’s ambitions. Although clearly academic and a high achiever, music and her love of performing arts had come to the fore and with university on the horizon, there was only one choice she felt destined to make. “I ended up going to a drama school university called Rose Bruford College in Sidcup”, she says. “You know how in America they call universities, colleges? That university, though it’s based in the UK, was quite unique in the sense that it offered a course that’d allow you to go out to America and study over there for a semester … and that’s the course that I chose. It was called American Theatre and it was very similar to a lot of other performance arts disciplines like singing, acting, dancing … but it focused on American works, American playwrights, American history, that type of thing. In my second year, I got to fly out to America for a semester and I chose to go to the Stephen F. Austin University in this town called Nacogdoches in Texas, which not many people have ever heard of … I mean I hadn’t either. It sounds kinda random but it was the best experience ever.”

Had she always been intrigued by America, I wondered? “Do you know what, it’s so crazy that just talking about it and saying this stuff out loud now is making sense of why everything has panned out the way it’s panned out”, she says, expressively. “If I’m being really, really honest, I first picked that course because it sounded interesting and obviously, getting that experience out in America … the place most people see as like the place to go to fulfil your entertainment dreams our whatever … was really big for me. I didn’t understand the depth of that decision at the time, though. It’s so weird because I find that the way my life works, a lot of the time it’s only after looking back and reflecting that I’m like ‘woah, hold on, all of this stuff was supposed to happen’. I never thought about how me studying out there would later intertwine with my real life reality all these years later, you know.”

“It’s so weird because I find that the way my life works, a lot of the time it’s only after looking back and reflecting that I’m like ‘woah, hold on, all of this stuff was supposed to happen’.”

Shae first garnered attention while still at university, posting clips of covers on Twitter. Faceless and pure, they alerted the watching world to the power of her voice and that alone — and it wasn’t long before the share count started to rack up. “They were really short clips, just shot from my neck down”, she recalls. “I’d just sing my favourite songs, that was it. Somehow and I’m not sure how it happened, but these covers started to go viral. I remember I covered a Stormzy track and he got wind of it and acknowledged me, which felt crazy at the time. Chance The Rapper, too. I think at that point, that’s when I realised I might actually have something. I know people say it’s bad to look for validation from an external source but for me, it felt right and I think it depends on your character, too. I’m naturally a very humble person, maybe to a fault, but as I said before, I feel like those early co-signs, especially from people way ahead of me on their own journeys, were really helpful.”

Shae also credits her university experience with helping her find her voice and shaping her early artistry, too. “I specifically remember being sat in one of my classes and we had this teacher called Steve”, she recalls. “He would always teach the boring context classes and I can’t lie, I would fall asleep sometimes and he’d have to nudge me or whatever. Eventually, he started taking the voice classes with us and that’s when I first noticed something about myself that I’d never realised before. I’m 5’11, so I’m quite a tall woman and I’ve probably been that height since I dunno … I was young, anyway … so for a very long time, I was always towering over most people. I felt quite self-conscious about it, especially because people would often move out of the way as if they were intimidated by me, so I’d always over-compensate to make people feel more comfortable. What I ended up doing, was pushing up my voice subconsciously and softening it … and I’d never even realised. Steve, my teacher, was like, ‘Why are you doing that? That’s not where the power in your voice is at all’. Just unpacking things like that, even now, is like ‘woah’. I must have made so many small adaptations like that, just to appease other people and my own insecurities, so I’ve been working hard on stripping those away. Upon leaving university, I felt ready to come to terms with my voice and who I was and what I wanted to be.”

Off the back of the success of her early Twitter covers — “Chance The Rapper responded to my cover of ‘Ultralight Beam’ with Kanye West, retweeted it and told me I was dope!” — Shae took a second to consolidate. Still faceless, she saw the potential in her voice doing the leg work but also understood she needed to strike while the iron was hot — now was the time to step out from behind the curtain. “It definitely gave me this sense of drive, this spark”, she explains. “Plus, at that time, I did have people messaging me asking where my music was. I had to have a conversation with myself about what type of artist I wanted to be. Did I want to be known as the girl who records sick covers of the songs that she likes? Or did I want to be my own artist? It was something I’d studied for and wanted my whole life you know, so I knew what I had to do.”

“Did I want to be known as the girl who records sick covers of the songs that she likes? Or did I want to be my own artist?”

Decision made, Shae released her debut single ‘Big Mistake’ featuring Ms Banks in 2016, complete with an official video. “When I think about it, that was my first ever original song and my first ever song with a feature”, she says, pausing for a moment. “I mean, it’s crazy really.” How did she go about collaborating with Ms Banks, I wondered? “She basically heard the track after she’d caught wind of me on Twitter and just wanted to jump on once I’d sent it over, it was as simple and as easy as that. I will forever rate and respect Ms Banks because she doesn’t care about clout. If she hears something that she likes or respects, she’ll let you know. At that point in time, I had zero clout compared to where she was in her journey and nobody knew who I was. She didn’t have to do that at all, but she did.”

While ‘Big Mistake’ offered a window into Shae’s world for the first time, it was the slew of follow-up singles (‘Move’, ‘No Stallin’, ‘Black Panther’) that really shone a light on her singular talent. Already buoyed by “the tribe” she’d galvanised via her Twitter covers, demand for new Shae Universe music grew quickly — and she was in no mood to let anybody down. “I didn’t really know what I was doing at first”, she explains, “and it was a steep learning curve having to get my head around the business side of things and what not, but I knew I could navigate it. I was unknown then, so I felt like I could slide through and prove my worth to people with my music. It was nerve-wracking but it was fun … I mean, I’ve performed at most venues in London now I think, I did a lot of free shows and support slots, stuff like that. I’d go into spaces being completely unknown and leave with new fans, you know. That in itself was so important.”

“I think ‘No Stallin’ was probably my biggest, kinda defining moment of that period though”, she continues. “It came out in 2018 and it was my first and only track to hit 1 million streams thus far. Through that song, I was contacted by Roc Nation EQ, which is their distribution arm, and I was flown out to New York to meet with them. It was the first time I’d flown solo as Shae Universe, as my own artist, so it really felt like a big milestone.”

After working with a trio of managers during this first phase, Shae took the decision to mange herself in 2018. Fiercely independent but also very much a subscriber to the trust-the-process school of thought, it’s a combination that’s served her well — and opened her up to some career-defining collaborations. “I have a record with Etta Bond called ‘No More Love’, I worked with Kojey Radical on ‘700 PENNIES’ and I’ve also got a feature on a track called ‘No Warning’ with an artist called Boogie”, she says definitively. “Not A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie which people often get confused with, but an artist called Westside Boogie. He’s from Compton in California and he’s signed to Shady Records, which is Eminem’s record label, and he put out an album ‘Everything’s For Sale’ in 2019 which has everyone from Snoh Aalegra, 6lack, JID and Eminem on it too. To be featured on an album like that with those artists … I mean they’re seasoned artists, do you know what I mean? Again though, I feel like everything that’s happened on my journey so far has kept me grounded. You can get 500,000 co-signs from all these stars all around the world but it doesn’t mean they’re gonna hand you your career and you can blow tomorrow. You’re still gonna have to put in the work, which is what I’ve always done, but these things do serve as a reminder … people do see you and people see what is coming.”

“You can get 500,000 co-signs from all these stars all around the world but it doesn’t mean they’re gonna hand you your career and you can blow tomorrow.”

“Boogie actually found me via my covers as well”, she continues. “It was a cover of a song called ‘Redbone’ by Childish Gambino. He just popped up like ‘yo, we should work’ and the rest is history. It culminated with me opening for Eminem at Twickenham Stadium in the summer of 2018 as well, as part of the London legs of his Revival Tour and it was epic. Honestly, that shit was epic. I mean Twickenham holds 82,000 people I think so it was the biggest crowd I’ve ever performed to in my entire life. Somehow I find performing to a really big crowd easier than performing to a more intimate one, just because it feels like one big sea of energy. 50 Cent and Royce da 5’9” were there to perform too. It was an amazing experience.”

“More recently, a single called ‘You Lose’ which I released earlier this year, was also important for me”, Shae continues. “That single represents the first time I really pushed myself outside my comfort zone in terms of genre and musicality. My producer sent me a beat with drill undertones and bear in mind, the first time I heard it I was like, ‘what the heck? I’m an RnB singer’. Somehow, it just worked and that track is the fastest-streaming of my career so far.” The official video, pieced together by Blanguage Online who reached out to Shae after first hearing ‘You Lose’, features clips of over 100 women — including a host of creatives, photographers, writers, models and even fellow artists Sinead Harnett and Emelie Sandé — singing along to the track during the UK’s first lockdown period in April. “When Blanguage pitched the idea of a quarantine video tapping into empowerment and togetherness, I literally just DM’d everyone I knew that day and asked if they’d be interested in being in the video”, Shae explains. “With Emelie Sandé, I was just shooing my shot because I’d performed shortly before lockdown and she just happened to be there. We followed each other on social media afterwards but obviously that didn’t mean she’d automatically want to feature in this video. It was a long shot, but I sent her a DM and she did it! It was like that with everyone I reached out to in the end. I reckon that video, maybe in years to come, will be something to remember, you know. There’s greatness in that video and I feel like a lot of those women will go onto achieve amazing things, man.”

Shae’s latest single, ‘Levels’, also pairs top tier vocals with striking visuals, this time originally conceived by her younger sister. Written and performed as a homage to the R&B greats that have inspired Shae’s career to this point, there are countless iconic moments — including nods to classic videos by Aaliyah and Missy Elliott. It also recently won Video Of The Year at the 2020 State Of R&B Awards. So, with so many strings to her bow, how would Shae herself describe the music she makes and moreover, what she stands for? “I believe that I’m here to make space for multi-faceted, multi-talented women”, she says, emphatically. “Women that have multiple sides and thrive in all of them. I feel, especially being a black woman in the UK music industry specifically, sometimes you feel like you’re boxed in … if you’re not subscribing to what this particular ideal of what a black female music artist should be, then we’re not gonna listen to you, kinda thing. I don’t feel like industry blueprints are the ceiling either. Just because X, Y or Z artist have done something a certain way, doesn’t mean that is the only way. Rules in this industry are there to be broken and that’s when you get pioneership and that’s when you get innovation and that’s when you get real inspiration and real breakthroughs. I’m just here to be myself unapologetically and hopefully, I believe, that’ll inspire all different types of people.”

“Rules in this industry are there to be broken and that’s when you get pioneership and that’s when you get innovation and that’s when you get real inspiration and real breakthroughs.”

With such steadfast belief in herself and her purpose, you’d be hard pressed to find anything with enough force to knock Shae from her path. Even in times of struggle — from being let go from her job at Harrow Council earlier this year to seeing her kindness taken advantage of time and time again in the industry — she has managed to push on and flourish. Out of the trauma of 2020, she’s started her own vocal coaching business — “I’ve already got a whole load of clients who are all really focused, which is great” — recently performed as part of the BET UK Soul Cypher alongside Sinead Harnett, Hamzaa and Jvck James and is at the midway point of writing and recording her debut full-length project, which she hopes to release next spring. “I can’t really say too much at the moment”, she notes, “but it’ll be my first proper body of work as Shae Universe, which is a huge deal for me. I’m blessed to be in a position to now have a lot of important eyes watching what I’m doing, mainly thanks to collaborating with artists who are a lot further along than me, artists with multiple bodies of work. It’s quite daunting but definitely exciting. What I will say as well is that I’ve never heard music like this before. It’s scary because when you’re coming with something new, you know that some people are gonna love it and some people aren’t gonna love it. I’ll have to wait and see I guess, but I’ve got full faith that people will vibe with this new sound that I’ve been playing with.”

“Looking forward though, I’ve learned a lot this year, especially about myself”, she continues. “I’ve learned to honour my boundaries. I spent a long time subconsciously appeasing other people and making sure those around me were comfortable, even at the expense of my own comfort. Compromise and empathy are important but balance is equally as important. As a music artist, without me being okay, feeling alright and feeling stable, there is no career, there is no music. I can’t be out here exhausting myself and putting all my energy out into the world without replenishing. Just knowing that has helped me maintain and protect my peace a lot more.”

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