Belgian Rap star Shay never does anything by halves. She’s not the sort who would balk, for example, at the prospect of a difficult video shoot or album-cover session. When it came to the artwork for her second album, Antidote, which came out last May, she didn’t hesitate for a second when she was asked to “spend hours in freezing-cold water.”
Shay’s closest confidante is Camille, her makeup artist, who helps her perfect her trash-doll image in all its myriad details, from body cream, face paint and wigs right down to the neon-green claws, zebra-stripe nails and thousands of silver sequins that are glued onto her hands. Getting Shay ready takes hours, mobilizing a whole team that caters to her every need. Some hand her ready-peeled fruit or a pre-lit cigarette, others squeeze her an orange or carefully adjust the belt on her white-lace Burberry dress. Such is the princess-like lifestyle of a rap star who has conquered both her native land and neighbouring France.
Everyone involved with Shay has had to learn to deal with the hardcore enthusiasm of her fans. “They’re crazy, but I adore them,” she says affectionately. “In France, all the other artists have super-polite fans, but half of mine harass me! When I mention Edem [her stylist] or Camille on Instagram, they bombard them with messages: ‘What’s Shay working on at the moment? Give us a look!’ ‘Next time you see her, tell her I love her, give her my number please.’ It’s weird, for sure… I think that’s what you call passionate love!”
Few music stars start out with the insolent luck that set Shay on her path. At just 19, before she’d even decided to go into music, she found herself performing in front of 17,000 people at Paris’s Bercy Arena with the mega-famous Duc de Boulogne, alias Booba, the godfather of French rap. “At that point in time, music was a hobby for me,” recalls Shay. “I was young, I wrote a little bit, I recorded songs on a tape player. One day my brother [a composer who produces rap tracks under the alias Le Motif] decided to film me, and wrote a song specially for it. The result was never officially released, but it did the rounds in private, and Booba saw it. To be honest I was ridiculous – I was wearing a super-tight top and a G-Shock watch over my T-shirt… Anyway, Booba saw the video and called me in person. I took the opportunity to play him Cruella, another piece I’d written. He agreed to add his voice to it in Brussels, and it became one of the tracks on his mixtape Autopsie 4. That’s how it all started.”
Booba’s legendarily loyal fans expect a lot from his concerts, so when the king of rap invi ted a 19-year-old girl to join him on stage, how did she deal with the pressure? “At the time I really wasn’t terribly aware of what Booba represented. But the scales soon fell from my eyes, and my reaction was, looking back, totally crazy! Even though I’d never been on stage, I refused to rehearse, I never managed to wake up on time…” Luckily for the young ingénue, Booba is used to grooming the talent he spots and to launching the careers of those he finds promising – such as rappers Maes, Niska and Damso, the lat ter also from Belgium – before falling out with them! So it was that Shay brought out her first album Jolie Garce on Booba’s label 92i in 2016, following it up three years later with 2019’s Antidote, this time released by Capitol. “I was signed by 92i, but in the end I decided to leave. Booba and I had different artistic visions,” she says prudently.
Hearing lines like “The pretty little vixen will catch them all up” (from the track Catch Up on Jolie Garce) or declarations such as “I’d like there to be more female rap stars, but none of them are any good. I don’t like any of those who’ve tried,” you’d be forgiven for finding the girl with telescopic eyelashes rather presumptuous. But actually it’s quite the reverse, says Shay. “I’m extremely reserved in real life – I find it hard to open up. On Antidote, I tried to translate into music the emotions I find so difficult to express. I found freedom, I was happy, and that’s what inspired the album’s title.”
“They’re crazy, but I adore them,” says Shay affectionately of her fans. “In France, all the other artists have super-polite fans, but half of mine harass me! ... I think that’s what you call passionate love!”
When she was eight, Shay would put on little concerts for her grandfather, the Congolese rumba singer Tabu Ley Rochereau, “in order to impress him” (she’s also the cousin of the politically engaged rapper Youssoupha). Armed with the same confidence today, she doesn’t hesitate to contact renowned composers who share her artistic vision, such as the Belgian rapper Damso, an acclaimed wordsmith, who wrote the song Pleurer for her. “I’ve known him for eight years. When we met, I was already rapping, but he wasn’t yet. He’s always wanted to write for me… One day, we were talking in the studio, when all of a suddden he interrupted me: ‘Why don’t you put all of that in a track?’ Since the words wouldn’t come, he agreed to do it for me. It was a very generous gift.” A huge success, the song includes lines like: “27 years old, questions-doubts/ I forget myself for people who think only of themselves/ I slowly rot for lack of avowals.”
Between photo shoots, attending the front rows at London Fashion Week, campaigns for Burberry (which also feature Carla Bruni, among others) and dinners with her friend and favourite stylist Riccardo Tisci, Shay has no time to waste, composing every day. “I don’t allow myself any down time. I’m already working on my next project, at home in Brussels. In my studio, I’ve installed red lamps. The minute I go in there, I’m completely immersed in my own world. It’s more than just a place where I feel good, it’s vital for me.”
Shay, Antidote (Capitol), out now.