Shenseea is midway through a European tour, staying in a budget hotel at the side of a dual carriageway in London. Despite her surroundings, she exudes A-list energy. In the lift, the Jamaica-born 23-year-old checks her face in the mirror and shares her goal: to become an international star. How big are we talking? “Rihanna levels,” she shoots back, from behind large, studded shades. “And I’m on my way.”
It is a reasonable goal for a woman who grew up watching a fellow island girl dominate pop music across the globe. And it is tantalisingly close. Last year, Shenseea signed to Interscope, a major US label. Within months, she had a global hit with Blessed, a tune that hit a sweet spot somewhere between dancehall, Latin trap and bass-heavy club pop: it has had 36m YouTube views.
Chinsea Lee had just finished school when she found what she calls “Facebook fame” for a bedroom-recorded cover of Emotion, the Barry and Robin Gibb song later recorded by Destiny’s Child. Once she built her Instagram following to 10,000, she stopped posting “sexy bikini shots”, deleted them all and started sharing her covers. She released her first single, the raspy dancehall anthem Jiggle Jiggle, in early 2016, as Shenseea. Two singles in and still working nights as a bottle girl, she was asked by Vybz Kartel – then behind bars – to feature on Loodi, a track that had been doing the rounds without much traction. She liked the song, but – showing massive chutzpah for a then-unknown 19-year-old – wanted to put her “own twist” on it, she says. “So I modified some of the lines and put in my own touch.”
Unprompted, she also shot a video that she uploaded as Shenseea ft Vybz Kartel, hitting 1m views in less than a week. “I was still there doing my promo work,” she laughs. “People were starting to point me out, like: ‘That’s the girl that sang the song!’”
Four years later, Shenseea is known as Jamaica’s Princess of Dancehall. She has 2.1 million Instagram followers and a slew of hits across the Caribbean. She calls her fans her “Shenyengs”. “I’m as big as I can get in Jamaica,” she says. “But everything that I had to do before, to get to where I am today, I’ll do it all over. I love to feel the hunger.”
Jamaican stars before her serve as proof that hunger alone is not enough to go global – obstacles have ranged from visa issues to a wariness of patois and colourism. But Shenseea is making savvy moves: she has a creative partnership with Interscope labelmate Rvssian, a young Jamaican producer lauded for his Spanish-language reggaeton songs and his modern take on dancehall. Together, they instinctively understand the new genre-hopping, globally focused streaming generation. “We keep the Jamaican roots but we’re trying to branch out,” she says. It’s working: their most recent single, IDKW, has had more than 4m YouTube views since its release in mid January.
Shenseea also knows how to stay on lips beyond the music. In the video for Blessed, she snuggles up to a hot blond woman in bed. It is a bold move for an artist working in a notoriously homophobic genre: it sparked a massive debate in Jamaica, with a leading LGBTQ ambassador calling the move “raw, radical, and disruptive”.
Did she intend to become a gay icon? “Of course!” Wasn’t it pandering to the male gaze? “That too,” she says, with a cheeky smile. “They always wanna see something extra from females. We have to be doing the most! Killing ourselves! Doing some stunt!” More than that: as with her eye on cross-genre pollination, Shenseea knew she was making a timely statement. Buju Banton had just apologised for his old homophobic lyrics, reflecting a change in attitudes in the country. Plus, she had the safety blanket of a US record deal: “LGBT is very big in America.”
But dancehall’s recent modernisation has failed to encompass colourism. Last year, Spice (a close friend of Shenseea’s) said how much harder it had been for her to break the global market as a dark-skinned performer. Shenseea is lighter-skinned, of Korean and African-Jamaican descent, but she says it has been hard for her, too. “Because of my light skin, people say that I didn’t have to work hard enough for it.”
Her work ethic is, evidently, beyond reproach: she is now recording a full album with Rvssian. She has already had shoutouts from A-listers 21 Savage, Cardi B, Drake and her idol Rihanna, who lip-synced to Blessed from the back seat of a cab on Instagram live. “I grew up listening to Rihanna 24/7,” she screams. “And now she’s listening to me.”
You sense that next time Shenseea is in London, she will be staying at the Ritz. But she will still be flying the flag for her country. “It’s still dancehall, it’s just evolving,” she smiles. “Because nothing is ever gonna stay the same for ever.”