Shaé Universe is leading the charge for RnDrill with her debut EP Unorthodox. To honour the release, Shaé chats to Notion about LA life, the value of individualism and the importance of carving space for Black women.
I felt an inner sigh of relief when conversing with the multi-talented musician from across the pond whilst she was in LA, steadily making her mark on US soil and rightfully so. She’s easy to talk to and is genuine in each answer she gives; she doesn’t hold back nor sugarcoat anything. Whilst speaking about the eight-hour difference in Los Angeles, and adjusting to the time zone, it was exciting to see a young Black woman navigating her way in a world full of many obstacles that can hinder your spirit. Adjusting was a common theme in our conversation, but Shaé made sure it was known that adjusting doesn’t mean compromising your individualism in any circumstance.
Slowly becoming a once in a generation talent, she has cemented herself in the music industry completely on her own terms and at her own pace, allowing her music for the most part to create her narrative. Having the power, confidence and belief in your talent, enough to mould yourself into the musician you aspire to be, is admirable in a day and age where we are surrounded by carbon copy facades of what a successful female musician is meant to look and sound like. Shaé has been breaking that mould ever since she starting making waves in 2017, and she continues to do so.
The artist weaves her spirituality, faith and sensuality through her work, and her seven-track debut EP Unorthodox shines in that space. The unique R&Drill-fusion project is the first of its kind. Being known for intertwining her singing and rapping into her tracks seamlessly, it was only right that the enchanting “You Lose” opens the project, which sees Shaé switch between emotive melodies and sharp flows. I congratulated her on the milestone release and shared a reminiscent memory of how, now one of her most profound songs, “You Lose” was the first time I discovered her music. I loved the whole concept of the song, flipping the script on a break-up and it being their loss, not yours…
The project brings together an array of artists, from Kojey Radical on “Royalty”, Tay Iwar on “Shineee”, and of course ENNY on “Sit Back”. All major players in the game, the features all have similarities in the sense that they’re conscious deep thinkers when it comes to their music. I wanted to find out whether Shaé already had organic relationships with them before making the tracks. She told me: “It’s a mix of both. I already had an organic relationship with Kojey Radical because I’d worked with him before on his own project. So “700 Pennies” is the name of the song and it was on one of his albums called In Gods Body, so we already had a relationship from before.”
“With ENNY, I just reached out to her. I created the song with the producers, and we were thinking about who would go well on the song and two people popped up — it was either going to be 6LACK, the American singer, or Enny. She was just lovely, so that was an easy process. And then with Tay he actually reached out to me after I released my song “111″. He was like, “Hey, man, let’s get into studio”, and when I initially got into the studio session, I thought we were going to be creating something for him, but he took a step into my world and we ended up creating “Shine”. Everything happened really organically.”
Industry-wise, 2017 was when Shaé came into the scene, but from 2015-2016 she posted covers on Twitter. Already having a very unique sound at the time, it was interesting for us to fast-forward and reflect upon the scene now and see some musicians who have tried to replicate her sound in 2022. I asked her if it was strange for her knowing when she came into the game there was a 50/50 chance of people taking to her sound and supporting her due to her uniqueness. “Hmm, that’s a good question,” she starts. “You know what’s so mad? I feel like I’ve been asked something similar before. I do see certain things where I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, I see small influences’, but generally speaking, that doesn’t get to me. Because in the humblest way possible, respectfully, people can try to replicate things and imitate me, but I really believe that I have a unique sound. The tone of my voice sounds like me and no one else. It never makes me feel a type of way.”
I had to agree, and upon reflection, when you are an artist, you have to believe that you’re unique. Otherwise, how are you going to stand out? We spoke further about having self-belief and Shaé enlightened me on the realism of that as an artist. “That’s a tricky one, because you do have to believe that you’re unique, but we also have to be realistic. Some artists out here think they are the rarest thing on the earth, but realistically, there’s a lot of artists that sound similar, so there’s a fine line between delusion and — sorry, that’s a very strong word… — but you know, I think artists, to an extent, we do have to be a little bit delusional to get to where we’re going. We do have that belief in ourselves until everybody else believes. But some people just take it to the extreme.”
I led the conversation on to the topic of the UK music scene often being known for having ‘that one token, R&B, female singer’ that people would throw on any hook. Now women are really doing their own thing, and this is a really important thing that the scene is embracing. I asked Shaé how she feels about that? “I agree. I think it’s a very beautiful thing. I think we are making headway. I feel like there’s still a way to go, though. I don’t think the community of Black female rappers, especially singers, have the same community amongst us as the male rappers for example. I see male rappers bunched together, always supporting, whereas we don’t necessarily have that. I don’t know what it is, maybe effort from both sides.”
I had always wondered why there’s always been a little bit of a divide between male rappers in the UK supporting female artists because it’s the same industry. Shaé spoke further and weighed in on her perspective. “We’re all in the same industry, however, I think when it comes to the UK specifically, we don’t have the same history. If you look at the history of the UK industry, R&B singers, Black, female R&B singers… there’s never really been more than one woman dominating that sound. It’s regressive, not progressive, you know? You’re more likely to get more than one Black woman dominating certain spaces in the US than you are in the UK. That’s why you can have Summer Walker, Ari Lennox, multiple people in one genre at one time all thriving.”
We touched upon her time in the LA, the reasons she was there and the creativity and opportunities she felt she had gained in such a short space of time only having been there for little over a month in comparison to the UK. “Not to down talk the UK, because I have my supporters there, that’s where I’ve actually built from the ground up. However, I’m not going to go global from staying in the UK. Unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen. Maybe it would, but it would take me years longer. I’ve been out here coming up to two months, and the things I’ve done here drastically outweigh the things I’ve been trying so hard to do in the UK. I’ve just been met with blocks, so I’m already seeing the difference. I feel like getting myself out, due to the size alone, if I was to blow in LA I’m better off already than blowing in the UK because of the size. I think artists need to start thinking about building their fan bases in America, all you need to do is conquer fan bases and you will pretty much have America in the palm of your hands.”
Shaé went on to explain that in order to be successful and have longevity in the game, it’s about being able to work smarter. She told me so many artists are overworked and a way to overcome that is having a strategy and a concrete plan. Not to say that’s cutting corners, but observing your surroundings, seeing what works for other people and absorbing the knowledge around you then using that to your advantage in your own achievements. We discussed the comparisons between New York and LA when it comes to the entertainment business and what city was more advantageous for one to thrive. I had this notion in my head that LA was more superficial and New York was more gritty, real and raw, perhaps due to my travelling to New York so many times. Shaé changed my pre-conceived expectations of Hollywood: “I’ve been to both places; I feel like LA has the ability to change your life simply because that’s where all the stars are,” she says. “It’s the place random opportunities come just like that. New York is the heart of music too, and you’re right, it’s rawer. It’s not as superficial and there aren’t as many ‘stars’ there. People treat celebrities like they’re so far removed. Now it’s changed a little bit because of social media. I don’t know how I feel about it. Before there was this distance… but in LA, you’re literally ‘this close’. You drive past the houses, and it makes it real, like, wow, I can actually have this. You see Black people doing it, too, you see Black billionaires and that’s important. Representation is there. That’s what’s different to New York, I would say.”
I feel like the music industry definitely picks and chooses who they like, it’s very up and down. That can give a lot of musician’s anxiety. Shaé agrees: “I didn’t know that it was such a struggle as a music artist, our mental health isn’t the most stable places realistically, right? As a creative, I guess I can’t speak for everyone but I know the way my mind works is different to how other’s work in general. I tend to feel things a lot deeper. It’s a double edged sword, because my abilities to feel also informs my ability to sing and create my music.”
It can be overwhelming, musicians can be dehumanised a lot of the time and people forget they need that support system the same way anyone else would. We spoke further about her EP, as I had noticed a particular theme… a certain sound throughout that meshed with her vocals harmoniously. I asked if there was a particular instrument that she preferred using. “I consciously haven’t ever said to myself, ‘Oh, I like this instrument over that instrument’, but I feel like my voice has naturally gravitated to more guitar and bass built beats, as opposed to keys, which is interesting. It’s very interesting, because I would have thought my type of voice would have been better suited to keys. I’ve always just gone down the avenue of guitar led things. That’s interesting, I wonder what that means?”
Speaking on her relationship with fellow musician and friend Knucks and her feature on his project “Decisions”, she told me how that came to fruition, her vocals tied the song together. It needed that female voice. “I’m actually very good friends with Knucks and I have known him for years and we’ve worked on a couple things. This is the first feature where my name is actually on it, but I’ve been on a few Knucks songs in the background, for example I’m on “Vows”. So there’s little things where if you go back and listen, you’ll hear little samples of my voice and stuff, it was an experience, he’s cool, chill.”
Shaé is definitely in a similar category to Knucks, in the sense she’s stayed in her own lane and has never felt the need to go commercial. I asked how important individualism is to her as an artist and whether it comes out in her music? “Individualism is probably up there with one of the most important things to me, because number one, the music industry is so oversaturated, everyone and their auntie is doing music… It’s a beautiful thing on one end, because yes, music is a form of expression, but then on the flip side, a lot of people are forcing it. People are seeing other people make music and they think they can jump on it too when it’s much deeper. The importance of being memorable holds more weight… There’s people that have been out here grinding for years to try and make it in this music thing, given up everything down to their last penny. Individualism first and foremost is one of the most important things because that sets the artists apart, you can’t be replicated, that’s where longevity comes in, people remember you.”
Shae told me, although she values her uniqueness, there were times where she has felt pressure to fit in at some points, she wanted to clarify that her journey hasn’t been a breeze where she’s been able to waltz into any space and be automatically be accepted. In fact, it has taken time and although there have been pressures around her she hasn’t caved in. “My pressure was more so from observing, a big part of how I’ve even gotten myself to this place right now has been observing the game. It’s not every day be out in the mix sometimes sit back and observe what’s happening around you, observe what’s happening to other people. I observe the tastemakers, the gatekeepers and look at what kind of things they push forward.”
She continues: “That’s more so what led me to feel pressure on myself, the state of the industry. That was wrong of me because the UK music scene is just one scene, but when you’re in it, you feel like that’s all there is. I’ve literally stepped out and gone to LA and seen there’s so much more and there’s a much bigger audience that’s waiting to accept my sound. So my first mistake was being small minded and thinking the UK music scene was the be all and end all. There’s a whole other world that could love me. I started to buy into that whole thing of there being a formula in order for this to work for me, but everyone’s formula is different.”
“I’ve literally sat in boardrooms with label heads and industry professionals and they’ve said to me, you sound amazing, your talent is world class, but we’re going to see how marketable you are…”
I asked Shae if she could explain what the word marketable means to her. “A lot of the time the people that are sitting across telling you you’re not marketable are middle aged white men. So how can you know how to market me properly? It’s very warped, because you will leave that meeting thinking, ‘Damn, I’m not marketable, what do I need to do to become marketable?’ When really you need to find yourself someone that knows how to market you to your audience. The reason why a lot of Black women end up wondering where their place in this industry is because we never find that that person that knows how to market us in the way we need.”
“I don’t mean change us. One thing I also have found is when you do find someone that knows how to market you it’s one thing or another, they already have a preconception in their mind of what type of Black female artist you’re supposed to be. Bad b, woke, spiritual… generally, we don’t have the space to just be us. There are Black women that are nerds for example, into anime, indie music. That’s why I love Willow Smith, because she’s doing something that you don’t really see.”
Stating that she was now passed that phase of chasing acceptance from the industry and finding peace with herself that she alone is enough, she expressed the next step for progression in the music scene was seeing Black women in spaces we deserve to be in. “We carry a lot of this shit on our backs, we’re setting trends, whether it’s fashion-related or whether it’s music-related, just give us our flowers. We can all exist together in this space and us coming in doesn’t kick anybody else out, just hold the space for us to thrive.” It was only right that we moved on to the topic of TikTok, as Shaé had previously gone viral through a mini-interview whilst in LA. The other side to TikTok and social media is this culture churning out a lot of ‘one timers’ which the industry seems to be drawn to. I’ve always wondered why talent is overlooked for the sake of a trend that doesn’t usually last long. This can lead to the word musician and singer getting warped over time, because it can be attached to anyone.
Shaé told me transparently: “There’s a lot of gimmicks happening now and it’s a weird space to be in. You can’t just be a music artist, you have to be an entrepreneur, strategize, keep up with the times and stay relevant. TikTok is probably one of the best but one of the most stressful tools that has been created because not everyone is made for TikTok, not every artist wants to let everyone into their personal space. Some artists just want to make their music and get on with their life, but TikTok has made it this thing where now you have to have no shame, be willing to do whatever and be on whatever and that doesn’t work for everyone… However, what I will say is that it’s all about adapting and some of the best artists that have longevity have been able to adapt. Being able to keep up with the times and adjust, sometimes that works for certain artists.”
I asked Shaé what changed along the journey of her EP, to what she had originally imagined it to be? “Well firstly, the creation of “You Lose”, which I could have never anticipated. Before I did that song, what was RnDrill? I didn’t know. I had never heard of that before in my life. It wasn’t a thing… Then we created it and I was like wow okay this works, then the reception I received from people, they really loved me in this space. Then I started creating more, but I didn’t have it in my mind that I was going to make a project out of the tracks, it was like I’m releasing singles. There’s no pressure on it. People are enjoying this sound; I’m enjoying making it. It was just timing, it aligned. My supporters have waited a long time for a project, I needed to give them something soon and I looked at the catalogue and I looked at the music I was putting out, the space I was in and started to see other people coming out with RnDrill. I’m an RnB artist at heart, but I was just led here, it flowed organically and naturally which led to the creation of the EP. Not pre-mediated, it just felt right and I’m a big feeler, I like to go off of things that feel good.”
Shaé is very in tune with herself and that’s definitely something I’ve seen in her videos, for example her track with ENNY, there’s a strong female energy and an empowerment message, from the angles and even the colours they both wear. I noticed the singer likes to wear bright, rich colours that make her stand out. I asked if that was a reflection of her personality. Even her Instagram feed is pure vibrant colours and good energy. “I never used to like bright colours, I only ever used to wear black and dark colours. But I started to challenge myself to wear bright colours when I started working with stylists because I wanted to push my style, now everything I wear is a reflection of my personality and I’m understanding when growing as an artist your style represents you, so that’s been a journey within itself. Bright colours came as a conscious choice to push myself out of the box. I’m glad you picked up on that.’”
When Shaé first burst onto the scene, we had the likes of SoundCloud which was the go to for discovering new niche, cool underground artists that were unique. I think she’s had a similar stamp on the music scene in terms of the affect she’s made. I wanted to know if she still had this level of control as a developing artist, especially in her music videos. “In the back-end I do, and I’m a perfectionist, so I’ve never been the type of person to just leave someone to do what they want with my song and my vision. It’s too scary for me to let go of that much control. I’m someone that manages myself as well and I’ve got to a place where I’m very picky about what I want, the standard I want things to be delivered to because I’ve done a lot of things for myself, hands on and thorough so if you come into the team or work with me there has to be a certain standard if you’re going to collaborate with me in any way. However, I do like to give people space to bring their ideas to the table but I will always oversee if I think anything isn’t in line with me or my brand, I’ll be vocal.”
An Important part of the development of an artist is being open. I respect the fact she’s stayed an independent artist for so long and navigated the industry at her own pace. Shaés journey isn’t rushed and she follows her own flow. I wanted to know what the pros and cons of being an independent artist were first hand. “The pros are you get to move at your own pace, you don’t have anyone dictating to you when you need to release, putting pressure on you for deadlines – it’s a tricky line to tread, if you don’t have enough motivation in yourself, then it can hinder you if you don’t have enough drive to balance your time. When it comes to featuring with artists as well, it’s a lot more straight forward, as long as they’re not signed to a label you can both do it and release it whenever you want, but when you’re signed to a label there’s logistics. For example, some artists have a release time table where if they’re releasing something in a certain month, they can’t release anything else with anyone that month, it makes things more complicated.”
Shaé continued to say: “Being independent is extremely difficult because of money. I was naive in the beginning because I thought all you needed to do was have a good song, a good voice and maybe connections to get it around. Unfortunately, in this day and age, it doesn’t matter how good the song or your voice is. The business is too oversaturated and everyone cares about money, you have to invest in yourself, marketing, PR and invest in this to get your music heard. I get my money and then I re-invest it back into my music. That’s where the con is because you always return back to a point where it’s a break even because you work to get all this money and you invest it back to 0. It’s a tedious process, until you work to the point where the money you’re getting from music is so much that you’re earning what you need and then some. It’s a hard risky lane to take honestly, because some people they’ll invest all their money, all their time and they never break even – the thought of that is scary and I can understand how people become broken and deflated.”
It seemed to me like being an Independent artist was a game of chasing your own tale at times, I respected the risks artists were willing to take to make their passion a reality. Being independent definitely sets you aside from other artists because you really do believe in your own sauce that much that you don’t feel the need to sign just yet. I respect that to an extent. Shaé agreed with me. “Extent is the key word here, I’m not against signing, I’ll probably sign a couple of deals in the span of my career, whether that’s a distribution deal, publishing deal or label deals. It’s up for debate because I see the benefit in certain deals as it helps artists advance in certain periods of their career, but in my case, I want to work to the point where I have so much leverage when I have meetings with these labels that whatever I want you’re going to give me… that’s the goal and that’s the aim.”
“It’s hard, but I have faith in what I’m doing. But I’m not going to sit here and act like I’ve always had faith or known 100% what I’m doing. Just like everyone else I have moments where I feel a bit lost, where I would have loved for certain things to have happened faster than what they are right now, but I believe and that’s one thing that can’t ever be taken away, my faith in what I’m doing and that’ll pay off in a major way.”
It was nice to hear that Shaé had so much belief in her own talent, it was uplifting. This led to us speaking about one of the most pivotal moments in her career, her first-ever billboard in Crenshaw LA. I asked her to fill me in. “It was crazy, firstly Crenshaw boulevard Nipsey Hustle, he owned that whole spot he’s the King of LA, so on that level, a spiritual level it was sentimental. That being my first Billboard ever being up the same time as my first project it was a surreal moment for me.”
Nearing the end of our conversation, we circled back to her viral TikTok moment, in which she said “I want people to feel exhilarated and pleasantly surprised” in reference to her EP and music, so I asked her if she felt like she had achieved that? Shaé’s final response to my last questions was as follows. “I do. Even though “You Lose” was released in 2020, people until today are still discovering that song and will pop up and say ‘I have never heard anything like this before’. It’s spreading and it’s inspirational to them, which is what I wanted. So yes, mission accomplished.”