With the changing landscape of music, the prominence of voices from the disenfranchised has become a lot more audible, with none more so than London based Isatta Sheriff, an MC, rapper and songwriter who began in an era where pirate and unlicensed radio stations were the only place those like her could be heard. With time and growth, Isatta has developed from a firebrand to an eloquent voice, of not only the city of London, but also of a generation.
With work ranging from features for Flying Lotus, Oddisee, Rashad Ringo Smith, Arrested Development to Wretch 32, Saul Williams and Terri Walker, she consistently showcases a blend of lyricism, consciousness and sound production. Radio play (including Chuck D on PEPR radio), streaming and live performances have all served as platforms that she is prominent in.
Alongside all of this, she a new album, a new moniker (she was formally known as TOR) and a new sound, so please, as Hov would say – allow her to reintroduce herself…..
Tell us about your latest album ISATTA SHERRIF?
The album is self-titled to signify a new stage in my musical career. A lot was happening in the midst of writing this album, my Mum was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, my cousin Kabba Kamara was murdered as a result of deprivation and crime in the inner city and four months later the same thing happened to one of my favorite students Myron Yard. I taught him at a music college in London.
The young people I teach inspire me. Myron was a music student and he was supposed to be on the remix of “Kin”. Him and his classmates were the inspiration behind that song and I am referring to him in specific lines in a couple of verses. One time he humbly asked if I would ever consider doing a track with one of my students. That was his cheeky way of asking if I would do a track with him. What’s mad is I’d already planned for him to be on the remix of “Kin”; I’m really sad that we never got the chance to record it.
I’m probably more vulnerable on the album as a result of the last year. I touch on the loss of my sister to suicide while in college, as well as the drawbacks of growing in a socially deprived part of Tower Hamlets. A line in the song “Heartbeat” says, “I know it sounds like I’m conditioned or something, like I’m protecting my heart before disaster jumps in”. I was determined for the record to be a positive and enjoyable amongst all the serious content. I think we managed to achieve that balance with the melodies, tempo’s and variations in flow.
With this album I wasn’t bothered about big singles; I just wanted a project that could be listened to from beginning to end. It’s a very London centric record but it doesn’t exclude people in other places. My aim was for people in any city in the world to connect to the songs.
People and cultures also inspire me. On a couple of tracks I talk about being able to understand other languages because of how closely together we all live, “Bilingual not by choice, but glad for it” -Burning An Illusion. The album is like a journey on the London Underground and I jump off at each stop and touch on different subjects that reflect each part of living in a city. It’s inspired by forgiveness, hope and honest conversation. I wanted to show that art and beauty can come out of struggle, as Talib Kweli says “Life is a beautiful struggle’’.
I don’t have any rap features because I have spent my career doing features. I just wanted to record an album that reflected me without being diluted. I felt that I had strong enough content to carry the album. The only feature I have is a chorus from Terri Walker on a track called “Coasting”. Terri was great to work with again. I sent her the track and three days later we met to record it. That was the first solo song I ever recorded in college. I wanted to include a remake to show my journey as an MC and also signify the way my style has evolved. I used to rap in double time as a result of being a big fan of Bone Thugs N Harmony and Da Brat back in the day.
(Baker Aaron) the collaborating producer was only meant to produce a couple of tracks but ended up doing the whole thing. He gets my voice and I get his music. It was the simplest, non-dramatic, enjoyable experience I’ve ever had creating a product. I have worked with some amazing producers throughout my career but we just clicked musically. He is an amazing musician and producer based in Istanbul. We worked between his studio there and my home studio in London.
Tell us about your videos ‘’Burning An Illusion’’ and “Redefined”.
I put out the video for “Burning An Illusion” as a taster to the lyrical content on the album. I wanted to challenge perceptions of the working class and also show how amazing it can be when cultures mix. The video is shot in East and Central London showing the contrasts. There are tower blocks in the shot and then you see the Globe Theatre along the Southbank. You see kids hanging out with nothing to do whilst tourists enjoy London and end up walking through a Black Lives Matter protest.
I was due to write the last track for the album “Redefined” when the tragedies with Kabba and Myron took place. I needed two months to regain the emotional energy to complete the final track and I also felt a bit of pressure as this was finishing the project. I was determined for it to be positive despite the circumstance. I recorded it and shot a video to celebrate black music from the UK as well as the black community with a special focus on young people and dedicated the song to Kabba and Myron.
Explain your previous outing as an artist under the moniker TOR and why it’s now changed?
My full name is Isatta Sheriff Cesay. My Mum’s name is Isatta Sheriff and Tor means namesake (the equivalent of a boy who is named after his father being called “junior”). My Mum used to say, “This is my Tor” meaning “This is my namesake”. My whole family call me Tor while at school and work everybody called me Isatta. I respond to both but as time has gone on, hardly anybody calls me by my given name. Releasing music under my first and middle name was a natural progression. It also means I get my name back as people have started calling me Isatta again which I love.
What have you learnt from your past years in music?
The key lesson I have learned is authenticity. It’s important to never forget your love for music and to work with people who are passionate about similar styles. You should also experiment sonically from time to time. I’ve learned that you should push through and keep making music even if you have things going on because there will never be a perfect time. I held back so much early on because of drama but drama doesn’t stop sometimes so you just need to keep going.
What are your aspirations for the next couple of years?
I am planning to drop more videos from this record for the next 7 months while also starting on a new record-whoop! I’d like to take this album out with a live band as that was always the goal when we started it.
How do you feel about having a female UK leader and the fact that we nearly had a female American leader too? It’s great for females to see the possibilities right?
The fact that both of them are women is not incentive enough for me to celebrate. The issues surrounding their leadership are too complex and it would be shallow of me to look at their positions solely from the point of view of womanhood. Women have always been leaders. In royal kingdoms, as activists, in wars, serving the poor and so much more but they do not have the platform offered to Clinton or May. Women of all cultures are amazingly strong even while oppressed and history is a testament to that. This current situation may inspire some young girls to believe that they can become Prime minister or President but I have trouble believing a large amount of young black girls would see the same possibility for themselves. Having a white middle class female head teacher did not put the thought in my mind that I could be a head teacher one day while in school. It’s not Teresa May and Hilary Clinton who excite me when it comes to women in leadership.
There was once a time when we were told hip-hop and Grime was a niche genre. Now it’s the pop culture of this generation. How do you feel about the takeover?
I feel the roots of these genres are not being respected and are pushed to the background. This is a historical problem with music of black origin. A 15-year-old boy in my class once asked me “How come a lot of rappers are black?” He was not being rude or funny, he was genuinely confused. He had no I idea about its origins even though he mimicked the style.
Who is your top male and female MC and why? Quote your fave verse from their work.
Lauryn Hill is my favorite female MC because she goes beyond the music. Her flow, delivery and passion represent Hip Hop to me. It’s hard to choose a favorite song or line but one of my stand out tracks is “Mystery Of Iniquity”. Another is “Lost Ones”:
“Wisdom is better than silver and gold,
I was hopeless, now I’m on hope road”
Again it’s hard to choose a male MC but I love Rakim and Talib Kweli. I love Talib’s his remake of Nina Simone’s “For Women”:
“I ain’t got time to lie, my life has been much too rough,
Still running with bare feet, I ain’t got nothin’ but my soul,
Freedom is the ultimate goal”
What makes you stand out and unique as a music act and why should people get to know your work?
I make heartfelt Hip Hop and tell the story of many lives through my own experiences. I use rap and melodies together to create a picture. My approach is not necessarily unique but I am unique as an individual and once I infuse the experiences of my journey, it creates a stand-alone piece of artistry.
Being a first generation Sierra Leonean means I get to enjoy both sides of my upbringing. I grew up in Stepney engaging with many cultures that I love and respect. Celebrating all these differences is a part of me being black and British.
What else are you passionate about other than music?
I am really passionate about working in education and guiding young people aspirationally to use their many talents. I’m passionate about God, social issues, history and standing up against injustice. I also love sport and used you to play for Arsenal Ladies and Tottenham ladies back in the day. I love all types of art whether it is dancing, photography, theatre, painting (although never ask me to paint). I try to incorporate all of these things into my music and hopefully you hear this in the album.
Name some of your past collaborations?
Wretch 32, Lowkey, Klasnekoff, Sway, Tinchy Styder, Saul Williams, Estelle, Blak Twang, Rodney P, Terri Walker, Mongrel to name a few.
What is your most enjoyable collaboration to date?
My favourite collaboration has to be a track I did a while back with Flying Lotus, Oddisee and Phonte Coleman called “The Perch”. I love the way it happened so organically. Big up to Red Bull Music Academy for bringing us together.
Who have learned from most in your career?
I have learned from so many people but Rashad Ringo Smith (Biggie, Lauryn Hill, Busta Rhymes) has definitely taught me a lot about music. He introduced me to some big names in New York and being around him always feels like a giant music lesson.
What has been your proudest achievement?
I have many proud moments and being invited to Atlanta to perform with Arrested Development is one of them. Performing at Glastonbury is also another one but the proudest achievement of all has to be setting up my own independent label “Pinch Of Salt” and releasing an album in Japan through it. Being out there to do music was an amazing experience.
Isatta Sheriff at Sofar Sounds: