Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: George Voronov
Styling: Laura McKenna
Garments courtesy of Abode General Store, COS, Zara
Jack Daniel’s and District share an authentic love for music culture and as Ireland’s palette continues to expand and intertwine we’ve joined forces to document the major developments as they happen. Ahead of the release of his debut mixtape SELLÓTAPE, Dylan Murphy spoke to SELLO. The rising artist headed to the supernatural settings of the Dublin mountains to explain why he’s on a mission to take the scene global.
In Stormzy’s video for ‘Mel Made Me Do It’, Big Mike gathers the black trailblazers of UK culture for what is intended to be a historic moment. On the patio of a mansion, rappers Dave and Little Simz stand alongside Trevor Nelson, Clint, and Julie Adenuga to name a few. It’s hard to imagine twenty years ago when drill was just a workman’s tool and Skepta had to resort to pirate radio, that this showcase could have been possible. It’s a snapshot of where the culture is and a nod to the people that made it possible. Rap music culture in neighbouring Ireland isn’t there yet but it’s going through a golden era of its own and the future black Irish moguls of tomorrow are busy laying down the foundations for the next generation. Amongst the glut of talent, there’s another six foot something Michael whose stage name begins with S gunning to be a king pin on this side of the Irish sea.
“Music? Yeah, I always took it seriously, but I never recorded music. I I was just an enthusiast. So I always watched the scene very closely” says Michael Afam AKA SELLO. If there’s one thing you need to know about the rapper from Clondalkin, it’s that, first and foremost, he’s obsessed with music and the surrounding culture. Despite this, he explains that a career in music wasn’t always inevitable. Sure, he used to freestyle in the playground with his friends, but to him, that’s what five aside is to professional football. It was only when he studied the Irish scene and measured his casual rhymes against official releases that he stepped into the ring. “At the time I was freestyling. I used to freestyle on yard a lot and I felt like these rappers didn’t really have anything on me.”
Shortly after he signed his proverbial contract to the game, he was booed off stage. It’s the kind of experience that can end a career before it really starts. However, guided by a bigger purpose, the Lagos-born, Dublin-raised artist persevered. SELLO wants to see the local scene win global recognition without compromising what makes it unique and without this larger mission, the slip-up could’ve have been terminal.
In his debut tape, there’s a line on the track ‘Molly Malone’ that says “She’s a sweet one like Molly, that’s Molly Malone not Molly-Mae”. It pretty much distills his mission statement into the digestible language of popular culture. Sure, he’s inspired by rising titans in the UK, but he wants rap in Ireland to blow up on its own terms. That means championing his own culture on the world stage even if it would be easier to pander with more familiar UK-isms. With all this in mind, his fan to flag-bearer pipeline makes a lot of sense.
Speaking from the backseat of a Toyota Corolla, SELLO explains that longevity is his priority before listing Jay Z, Stormzy, and Chip as people that inspire his long-term thinking. “They aren’t my favourite artists to listen to every day but when it comes to figureheads and making something out of nothing… All of those rappers built something for the culture”.
We’re on the way to The Hellfire Club in the Dublin Mountains and as a devoutly religious man, the rumoured cult-like debauchery of the archaic Freemason site makes the Clondalkin rapper feel a little uneasy. The only rituals he partakes in are going to church on Sundays and praying with his team after some push ups before a show. It’s this faith that has kept him grounded in the busiest period of his life.
Following the release of ‘Dublin‘, his hurley-wielding ode to his hometown, SELLO went from anonymity to poster boy in an instance. Given drill music’s propensity to produce short-lived viral moments, a popular track exploding out of nowhere isn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, in the Tik Tok era, one and done tracks are par for the course. However, ‘Dublin’ stands out in an oversaturated genre as an oxymoron. Its enduring qualities feel fresh and classic all at once. It’s the statement piece in his plan to hatch a worldwide takeover, one he hopes will spur an internationally-recognisable style for the local scene.
“We need to make something new, if we are to grow as a scene we have to come together make something that we that we could call ours” he says. “This is why I made tracks like ‘Dublin‘ – to jumpstart something”.
“This [Mixtape] is the blueprint type of buzz, because we need those albums or ideas to shift and make a scene”, he says. Of course, to be the blueprint, it’s got to be authentic. Rap is irrevocably intertwined with realness and listeners can sniff out market-researched material a mile away. However, ‘Gaelic drill’ as he calls it, is resonating. With his long-time producer AyoMax sampling The Chieftains’ ‘Foggy Dew’ and Sello lightly sprinkling a couple of words in the native tongue, ‘Dublin’ was a considered nod to the island that dodged any accusations of being contrived or “begging it” as SELLO puts it. A nuance that’s especially important given the fact that “Irish music” has long been a gimmicky phrase that relegates local artists to a league below their global contemporaries. The Clondalkin rapper’s music has an indigenous quality without it being the defining quality. First and foremost, it’s good music, the aesthetic is what sets it apart.
“See some Irish folks songs, they have this ghostly feel to it.. It gives me goosebumps. Some of the samples feel like really motivational. You feel like something’s gonna happen. Like a fight is going to happen, you know? It carries spirit”, he tells me as we arrive at the foot of the mountain.
We need to make something new, if we are to grow as a scene we have to come together make something that we that we could call ours.SELLO
If you look at the YouTube comments on any of SELLO’s videos, it’s filled with comments lauding the rapper for spitting in a Dublin accent. Rap is pretty much the only genre that values this as an integral part of authenticity. However, in Ireland, this often means complicated conversations around identity are reduced to people telling kids of immigrant parents to rap in Irish accents. At its best, it’s naivety from those that don’t have a grasp of the nuances of what it means to be a third culture kid. At its worst, it’s thinly-veiled racism. Either way, SELLO isn’t thinking about it too much, he’s just doing what feels natural to him and it’s working. “That’s what makes me different from every rapper on the planet. Nobody sounds like me because of my accent and my flow”.
He’s not by any means the first artist to rap in an Irish accent or sample a classic folk song. He is however, part of a wave of imaginative acts pushing music into unchartered territories. KNEECAP are rapping over house without a lick of english and Strange Boy even reimagined one of his grime tracks with traditional Irish instruments. For all the innovation though, rap, hip hop and drill is still finding its feet in Irish mainstream culture.
“We’re at the NWA stage. We’re not even close to them [The UK]. Some of us are only getting into the festivals now. Me and Offica are only getting to play at Longitude now”, he says in between bites of the camera lens.
That’s what makes me different from every rapper on the planet. Nobody sounds like me because of my accent and my flow.SELLO
On top of that, SELLO says that there’s still room for further collaboration between more commercial artists and rappers that make street-ready rap. As the shadow of a rogue seagull dances around his feet, SELLO explains that in the UK, Tion Wayne is bridging the gap by working with acts like Anne-Marie and Ed Sheeran. He believes he can do the same. “I feel like that’s where I come in bro. Not to toot my own horn but I can fit on both sides. I can do a song with Aby [Coulibaly] and no one would ask questions. I could do something Offica and they’ll say nothing”.
He also hopes this elasticity and myriad of sounds across his tape will put an end to people boxing him in as a ‘Drill Rapper’. “That’s why I dropped ‘No love’, but people still took it in the same way because because of my demeanour because of the way I normally rap. They don’t understand artistry.”
In the grounds of The Hellfire Club, an unprovoked nose bleed halts our photographer as we move through the broken walls of the ruined home. It does little to quell SELLO’s reservations about the site’s rumoured paranormal history, but by the time we descend to the foot of the mountain, he’s decidedly calmer.
“When it comes to rap, people forget the core power it holds” he says, talking about his the emotive centrepiece of his tape ‘Story Mode’. He wrote the song during lockdown, after George Nweuko was tragically killed by Gardai in Dublin. “At the time I was pissed off. I wasn’t able to protest, but I said let me help out where I can. A lot of these kids, they don’t listen to the Tupacs, they don’t listen to the conscious rappers from back in the day. NWA spoke about things that was happening around them, that provokes people, that connects.”
I’m here to build something that’s never been done before. Of course I take it on, because there’s not a lot of kids in my position that are able to meet the rappers they listen to.SELLO
Sure, if ‘Gaelic Drill’ ever develops into a movement or sound, SELLO will be celebrated by proxy. However, it’s the little moments throughout the mission that mean the most: The future cultural giant that is inspired to start rapping; The Irish-Nigerian that hears Irish and Yoruba on the same track and feels seen; The protesting of dark moments in history and documentation of the wins.
“I’m here to build something that’s never been done before. Of course I take it on, because there’s not a lot of kids in my position that are able to meet the rappers they listen to and if they see me in those spots they can feel connected. ‘If SELLO can do it and he is doing this and he’s coming to my school, I can do it as well’.
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