Photograph By Raf Stahelin Styled By Julie Ragolia
Selah Marley has got a voice on her.
I came to this realization before even speaking with the budding singer and model last week, while getting an earful of her first musical effort, “Breathe,” premiering here on W. Full, throaty, and soaring, the 19-year-old sings confidently on the track, declaring she’s moved past an old relationship that no longer serves her. In conversation, she’s just as assured, moving quickly across the topics of her creative process, self-edification, career ambition, and yes, conquering her fears of performing. Her surprisingly deep speaking voice sounds a lot like that of her mother, the incomparable Lauryn Hill, but Marley’s opinions are all her own—and she’s ready to express them.
After all, as the star of the Ivy Park and Rag & Bone campaigns explained to me, she's not going to find her artistic voice in her modeling career, however impressive it is (she showed up on the scene a little over a year ago and immediately walked for Yeezy and Chanel Metiers d’Art). Music is where Marley is turning to really express herself. Teaming up with producer Kyle Provencio Reingold (KPR) and Brooklyn-based rapper IDKHIM (Chuma Osse), she’s doing just that. The former NYU student met her collaborators when all three spoke on a school panel; they found themselves producing what would become "Breathe" in a dorm room not long thereafter.
That she’s the latest addition to the family musical dynasty—Selah’s grandfather is Bob Marley, her father is Rohan—seems like fate, and all the more intimidating because of it. Marley, who has been writing and singing music since she was seven, hid her talents from her legendary family for years, working to overcome the pressure of emerging from such a large shadow. But now she's ready to step out on her own.
Congrats on “Breathe”! How did this all come together?
Thank you! That song is so old at this point. We really finished it last November, but it’s just now coming into manifestation. My friend from NYU asked me to speak on this panel, and both Chuma and Kyle were on the panel. It was the first time we met, which is really dope, because our first impression is hearing really cool thoughts from one another and being able to connect on different topics. My friend had dropped his first single and the panel was talking about what it mean to be an artist. I remember distinctly that one part of the conversation focused on the idea of being an artist who does everything for themselves, versus an artist who has songs written for them. And we were just discussing, “An artist who has work written for them, does that take away from their art? Does that take away from their skill or their talent as an artist?” There was definitely a dichotomy because it goes both ways.
It seems as if you like having creative control and owning the narrative…
Yeah, that’s very true. I like owning my own narrative. It depends, I either give it all up or I don’t have any control. It’s really hard to go halfway. Like, with modeling for example, I kind of give up all creative control and that’s just that. But when it comes to my own personal art, I’m very O.C.D. I see something a very certain way. Nine times out of 10 you’re not in my head, so unless I really explain to you exactly how I want it done and you’re able to manifest that, there is no way you’re going to be able to see my vision. So unless we’re coming on to [a song] in some type of collaboration-slash-compromise, I can be very selfish with it. I just want to see what I see.
And Chuma and Kyle saw the vision?
Yeah. Essentially what happened was we connected one night and we were just jamming, and then Kyle started showing me some of his beats because he knew I liked music. And I just fell in love with so many. I don’t know who started the melody first—it may have been Chuma or me—but basically we started up a melody that everyone was liking and vibing with, and then everyone started expanding on it. Chuma and I had known from the jump that this was going to be a collaborative song, so it took its own path. We kind of gave each other our own creative control because Kyle obviously produced the song; Chuma had written his verse and I had written mine. But it was great because Kyle also helped in the writing process and with bringing up different melody variations.
This came about very organic then, very spur of the moment. But when did you realize you had something that you had to release?
See, when it comes to me, I’m normally not the one to realize that, because I create a lot and never do anything with it. I just created that [song] in that moment and was like, "OK, cool.” It was something in the back of my mind where I was like, 'That was really good…' But Kyle hit me up and said we needed to continue working on it, so I came back another day and we continued to write and finalize that process. The base of the song was essentially finished, when Kyle said, “Yo, let’s get a studio!” I really respected Kyle’s drive. He really worked to get the studio session, a PR agent, all of these things. So it was really Kyle who saw the potential for it.
What does the song mean for you?
Essentially, that song for me is me standing up for myself—or more standing up to myself. Because it’s clear I’m talking about some guy, some love interest that I’m not dealing with anymore, that I’m over it. We’ve been going back and forth all this time, I was chasing you, and now I’m done. After so much heartache, you’ve decided to come back into my life, and it’s basically saying, “Listen, boy…” It’s me going from a very hypersensitive emotional state to indifference. I think every girl needs something like that because oftentimes we can so easily get caught up over guys and dumb situations.
But I think that the song is very powerful because it’s like, “Listen, I’m good. I’m on to better things. I’m chasing my ambitions now. I’m looking towards a better lifetime. I can see now my life is not just about being someone’s girlfriend. It’s more than that.”
The song also kind of reads like a mantra—telling someone to breathe is telling someone to calm and center yourself.
I’m glad you said that! I said I just want to breathe, I just want to be—I want to be at peace, I want to be calm. I don’t want to think about this anymore! I’m tired of suffering, I’m tired of having to hold it in and hold my breath! They say fake it until you make it—it’s a metaphysical way of doing that. You put that in your mind, 'This is what I want, this is what I want…', and essentially after awhile you’re programming yourself. After a while you start to believe it!
So, how would describe your music?
My music is super vulnerable, raw, and intimate. I have a super deep passion for music but no one would ever know that because it’s not something I show to the public. But when I do do something music-related, it’s very deep. Sometimes it’s hard for me to express my emotions on a conscious level, to directly say my emotions. Or when I do say my emotions, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m almost detached from them a bit. It’s my way of expressing how I feel, things I’ve been holding onto. I have to realize that my higher self is guiding me, so I start writing things out that I don’t even know why I’m necessarily writing it until it’s done. For me, music is a very unconscious thing. It’s something I just feel, I just do. So, how would I describe my music? In terms of genre, I would probably put it on a R&B soulful tip. I listen to all different types of music.
Obviously you have an ear—you come from such a musical family. Can you remember your first musical memories?
I’ve always been obsessed with singing. I’ve always wanted to be a singer. My first musical memory is when I was seven. I had just gotten this diary and it was pink leather, and it had a little lock on the outside. I was so hype! I locked myself into my closet and sat down, and I started going off and I was writing all this stuff. The thing is I was very shy about my music, so I would have to lock myself into places. I never wanted people to see it. It was so private to me. I would do it late night, when no one was listening. I was very aware of the pressure of my mom, and not just my mom, but my entire family. I was very aware of that reality, so it was almost this inferiority complex. I was scared of [music] because I never thought it matched up.
Sometimes I think about, 'What if I’m not the person everyone idealizes me to be? Maybe I’m just a regular ol’ joe. What if I can’t live up to all these expectations? Maybe I’m just not who they think I am or who they want me to be.’ I know you shouldn’t think like that in the first place, but still it’s that fear. It’s, ‘What if?’ Either you work past it or you continue to feel like that.
What made you push past those fears around music?
Honestly, it’s something I still I face today, which is why working with someone like Kyle is really helpful because he pushes me to get it done. I still have trouble seeing that for myself and especially when it comes to music. I made a song last summer and that took a really long time to complete. It’s really easy to stop believing in myself. So what made me push? My own ambitions, because there is the other side of me that’s like, “No, Selah, let’s get it done.”
You’re also entering R&B when a lot of young women are dominating the genre. You have Solange, SZA, Kelela, Kehlani, and so on. Where do you see yourself in the mix?
Outside of those people, you don’t hear too much R&B. When it comes to things like that, I let my listeners decide those things, because it’s hard for me to define it for myself. But there is definitely a mix. I feel like women have been silenced for such a long time, I feel like we’re on the completely opposite end of the spectrum right now. We’re becoming more bold, aggressive, independent, not taking “no” for an answer. Women are really stepping into their power and it’s a beautiful thing.
Let’s segue a little bit into your modeling career.
I actually just got my magazines in the mail—I’ve done three covers—and that in and of itself is mind-blowing. Modeling is great. It’s nice on the aesthetics side. I can’t express myself on the modeling side, though. It’s not my own creative expression, though it’s fun because I get to play parts and it built a lot of confidence for me! Oh my gosh! At first, you’re scared to step into these outfits, but a lot of time you don’t have a choice of these things. It forces you to erase the vanity fears, because you don’t really have a choice about what you’re going to wear, so you better make it look good!... I recently cut all my hair off and honestly a year ago, I would have never done that. At this point, I can do anything! I can wear anything! I can fearlessly wear it.
And it shows! Do you feel like your mother gave you good advice when it comes to dealing with celebrity and your new career?
My mom has been a guiding light... In the sense of creativity, she always told me not to rush. She always told me to take my time. The industry is scary; there is so much pressure on these poor 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds, because once you drop one thing, it’s like, “What’s next? What’s next?” The industry is not stable. It feels like you have to keep up, because you always feel like you’ll be forgotten. It’s compulsive activity and need to do something or put something out, or live up to these standards. She always told me to chill. I don’t ever want to do anything because I feel like I need to and that’s why I feel like I’m an anomaly in the industry, because I’m not always dropping something new. There is the battle of doing and being. She actually texted me the other day about that! She said, “Selah, you are enough! You don’t have to be some guru or number-one Grammy [winner], you are enough as you are.” That meant a lot to me. With my mom there is [duality], because on one side you’re my mom, and on the other, “You’re Lauryn Hill.” Sometimes we have conversations that are Lauryn Hill to Selah and other times we have conversations that are mom to daughter, and both of those are fused. Because while we’re having a mom-to-daughter conversation, it’s also mentee to teacher. It goes both ways. It’s cool because at the end of the day I have someone who understands.