Shenseea’s Pop Star Ambitions Know No Bounds

Photographs by Nick Sethi
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Missoni dress; Vivienne Westwood platform shoes; Jennifer Fisher earrings; her own bracelet.
Shenseea wears a Missoni dress; Vivienne Westwood platform shoes; Jennifer Fisher earrings; her own bracelet.

For years, the Jamaican musician Shenseea has been making hit after hit, dominating the dancehall charts in her home country with tracks like “ShenYeng Anthem” and “Trick’a Treat.” But, as the singer herself tells it, she’s always had dreams of becoming a worldwide pop star, with serious mass appeal and no ties to any particular genre. With her debut album, Alpha, the 25-year-old has achieved just that, blending her dancehall and reggae roots with rap, pop, and even a touch of country. The project, which Shenseea began working on almost four years before it released, is the ultimate example of a successful crossover, with features from American artists like 21 Savage and Migos’ Offset—along with hometown heroes like Sean Paul and Beenie Man. Below, Shenseea discusses her personal ambitions for superstardom, keeping the haters at bay, and DM’ing with Megan Thee Stallion.

You’ve been a dancehall star since 2017, when you released your first hit, “Loodi,” with Vybz Kartel. You’ve collaborated with the likes of Megan Thee Stallion and Tyga. Your first album, Alpha, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Reggae Albums chart in March. Why have you decided to make a pop push at this moment in your career?

I’ve already done a lot for dancehall. So now it’s stage two of achieving my personal goals. Everybody used to ask me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I told them, “international.” Five years is now. Where do I see myself during the next five years? Selling out arenas. By 35, I should be wrapping up music a little bit and doing some acting. That’s why I can’t allow anybody to get in the way of my vision, because I’m traveling on time. I’ll retire around 40—I want to relax!

What music did you listen to when you were growing up?

Being raised in a Christian home, I wasn’t allowed to listen to dancehall, which is considered raunchy and sexual. So I had no exposure to it until I had to take transportation by myself to get to high school. I would hear it in buses, taxis, on kids’ phones in school. That’s when I found out that I could rap. But I still wanted to be a pop star. I just could not start by doing pop: A Jamaican girl doing pop in Jamaica, they’re going to look at you like, This is not our style of music.

Are you still religious?

To this day, I still read my Bible. I’m still praying; I still fast. When I was young, every morning I would have to get up at 4 to do prayer and worship before I went to school. I grew up with my aunt and uncle, and then on my own, because my mom did live-in jobs in a different town, so I would only see her every two weeks. Now I put my son [6-year-old Rajeiro Lee] in a stable home. When I can, I just bring him around the world.

You’ve said that he’s got quite a musical ear.

He knows what sounds good. I remember when I was writing the second verse for “Hangover.” He was like, “I like that melody, Mom. Keep that one.”

You always make a point to pay homage to your dancehall and reggae predecessors in your music—you featured Sean Paul and Beenie Man on your album.

Wherever you’re going, you should never forget where you’re coming from. It was important for me to put the OGs on my album, because they have been doing it long before me. Sean Paul gave me strength when he put me in a song with him in the early, early stages of my career. I never forgot that. As for Beenie Man, he has proven that he’s definitely the king of dancehall. He has a different energy that nobody else has.

Hermès top; Cartier earrings; her own jewelry.

Other collaborators on the record include 21 Savage and Megan Thee Stallion. How did you connect with them?

The majority of the time, they DM me. I speak to artists directly, so we can vibe. I didn’t even pay for any features on my album, thanks be to god. Megan, I met her at an awards party. The day after, we exchanged numbers, and I sent her “Lick” and told her that she would sound really dope on it, and she hopped on.

“Lick” is widely regarded as pretty lewd.

People don’t understand that it’s doing exactly what I put it out to do: for you to talk, to stir up controversy. I’ve been making sexual music from the very first song I put out. I am allowed to embrace my sexuality. I want to show my booty sometimes. I want to show the little top of the girls sometimes. It’s my body. Regardless of what you say about me, I already know who I am; I already know what I’m about. I’m an artist. I’m never going to stick to the same look for the rest of my life. I don’t want nobody forgetting me.

Hair by Fitch Lunar for Leonor Greyl at Opus Beauty; makeup by Armando Garcia.

Photo assistants: Jorge Solorzano, Nick Tooman, Chris Whitaker; retouching: D-Touch; fashion assistant: Antonio Soto; hair assistant: Alison DeMoss; makeup assistant: Christina Roberson; set assistant: Kevin Carniero; tailor: Irina Tshartaryan; production assistant: Asher Gardner; special thanks: the Revery LA.

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