In the mere eight months since 19-year-old Sekou (pronounced see-coo) stepped onto the scene, he’s been greeted with perhaps the warmest industry welcome in recent memory.
With a Rising Star nomination at this year’s BRITs, a sold-out headline show at London’s Outernet and a celebrity fanbase that includes Quincy Jones, Timbaland, Bruno Mars, Anderson Paak, Brooklyn Beckham and Dua Lipa, you could be forgiven for assuming the red carpet has been rolled out prematurely.
Prior to its official release, his first single ‘Better Man’ had the grandest of unveilings when he graced none other than the Glastonbury stage with his towering vocal capabilities.
What might first appear to be a miraculous rise to prominence is in reality a story of transcending record-label purgatory with mind-blowing results. Beneath the Leicester-born teen’s boyish countenance and meek demeanour is a self-assured individual who radiates poise and unassuming determination.
Sekou’s inaugural project Out of Mind was released last June. It’s a pop-leaning EP with well-placed and understated allusions to adult contemporary-style balladry, gospel, 80s funk and contemporary soul.
Following his recently released single ‘Time Will Tell’ and ahead of an upcoming tour across Europe with Reneé Rapp, we caught up with Sekou to discuss his journey so far.
You were signed at 16 but didn’t publicly debut until you were 18. What happened during the two-year interim?
Initially, I wasn’t doing anything. The label left me to my own devices for the first year. I’ve now learned getting discovered and actually putting out music are two completely different things. I was already posting covers on social media, but I went HAM with it after getting signed. I wasn’t trying to go viral; I just wanted to have my voice seen and heard. Eventually, people in the industry began reaching out about wanting to work with me, and it developed from there.
What was the genesis behind your breakout track, ‘Better Man’?
‘Better Man’ was one of the first songs that I ever wrote. I wanted to write a story in song form about my upbringing. Growing up was very messy, and I was always moving house. Seeing my mum work so hard as a single mother in spite of everything was inspirational. I remember coming up with the title and the chorus, but it wasn’t quite there yet. I then remember talking to myself in the studio, and something flipped. The lyrics just came out all at once — each one true and honest.
‘Better Man’ has subtle gospel embellishments. What role did the church play in your musical development?
I’m obsessed with Whitney Houston, and I remember watching footage of her in church. The feeling I got watching her sing gospel was the same as when I’d watch people in my church. I was really inspired by them, especially Larry Jackson who was the priest and musical director there. Church is where I discovered that music was what I wanted to do. It’s definitely a sound that I want to continue exploring in my music.
‘Forgiving Myself’ is the EP’s sole up-tempo track. You co-wrote it with DIXSON, who helmed Beyoncé’s Oscar-nominated ‘Be Alive’ as well as select tracks on Renaissance. What was it like working with him?
DIXSON was incredible; he also co-wrote one of the other tracks on the EP: ‘You and I’. This song was born during my second LA trip after working solely on ballads on the first trip. I wanted to explore an up-tempo sound because I love to dance and I love to move. I remember citing Michael Jackson’s ‘Leave Me Alone’ as a reference for what I had in mind. ‘Forgiving Myself’ was my first time recording something with edge and attitude.
You have a rich and bottom-heavy baritone voice with range and authority. Who inspires you vocally? Tell me about your desire to bring real singing back to commercial music.
Amy Winehouse is a big inspiration vocally. With voices like hers or Mariah, Celine or Ariana, you can deeply feel what they’re singing. It’s in the details of their riffs and runs. I want to be known as someone with a big voice and [to] show that vocals still matter. There are definitely some incredible singers in this generation, but there are so many who don’t “sing sing” anymore. With how impactful social media has become, a lot of big artists now rely on different things.
You’ve been touted as a “musical prodigy” and “contemporary pop’s saviour”. How are you dealing with the pressure and lofty expectations?
I do love a good challenge, but it’s not even like that for me. This is what I’m doing everything for. My dream is to have worldwide number one singles and [to] make music that can change people’s lives. I’ll do everything to make that a reality. The pressure just makes me want to work 20 times harder.
Before I released ‘Better Man’, there were so many people trying to control me. Of course, there are many educated and experienced people in this industry, but I think nowadays, you actually never know what’s going to work. I don’t think anybody — whether that’s the artist or even really high-powered record executives — knows anymore. We’re all just hoping for the best, basically.
I’ve learned that with the artists who are succeeding at the minute, they’re running their own ship. They may have a big team, but it’s their vision and their ideas. That’s what I’m trying to do also.
Being so young, did you have any reservations about entering the industry, especially with the history of teen stars sometimes being mishandled and taken advantage of?
You see and hear so many things and, honestly, it’s really scary. That’s for all artists, but especially terrifying for those under 20. It’s why I’ve only had a manager for a month and a half. You can’t just jump in with someone. I had to get to know a few people.
I didn’t come from a musical family, and I didn’t know anyone in the industry, but watching documentaries and seeing the likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran be very demanding of what they want for themselves and see how their brains work was inspiring. As a new artist, I can’t be as demanding as them, but it’s about baby steps.
Can we expect an album in 2024?
I’m definitely writing towards an album, but it won’t come out for another two years. Albums come and go so quickly nowadays. Artists will drop one, and minutes later everyone has already moved on. Doing an album is bigger than that for me. I want to do one when I know everyone’s going to hear it. I definitely want to do another EP. I have a few features in the pipeline, and I worked on a Queen-inspired song with Labrinth. It’s weirdly sexy, campy and theatrical. I’ll be going on tour with Reneé Rapp in February. I just want to continue building my audience. SOPE SOETAN