This article appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine.
Four years ago, Saint got off the train in Malmö, Sweden with nothing but beats in his head and the pack on his back. He was a few months from turning 16 at the time, but had already made the journey through Europe from his native Gambia at the mercy of strangers and Spanish drug dealers, navigating the bureaucratised chaos of seeking asylum and avoiding deportation, not to mention surviving a terrifying night on an overcrowded boat illegally crossing the Mediterranean.
It's hard to believe he's the same cool, calm cat who swings open the big red door to the Malmö studio where he works—until you spend five minutes with the guy. Saint is soft-spoken but sharp, as pensive as he is playful. "I'm an observer," he says. "I was never the talker. I'm not good at talking to people."
In March of this year, Noisey premiered Saint's debut album The New Funky Dread, a mixtape-style cornucopia of different listening experiences. Saint's grooves instantly resonated in Scandinavia, netting praise from Swedish national broadcaster SVT and radio P3 among others. It's closest to hip-hop but exists in something of a genreless vacuum, mixing elements of earthy reggae, mellow R'n'B and bodacious funk with cerebral, honest and smooth-flowing bars. Funky Dread ranges from the bopping, balls-out party anthem "Lefunkyintro" to the lo-fi, concrete schoolyard grooves of "Holly".
"My whole idea was to make the dopest mixtape to ever come out of Sweden," he says. "No genre. I just wanted to make a dope tape. Undeniable music. When I came here, everything I was hearing sounded similar. I found this sound that I wanted to tap into, which was funk. I wanted to add some groove, so even if you didn't like the raps, you would be into the music."
He was born Mohammed Sillah in the city of Serekunda, but everyone has always called him Saint. "I got the name from some dude back in Gambia when I was a kid. He started calling me Saint. This was before anything. He thought I was a devious son-of-a-gun that played it all nice on the surface. The name just stuck."
Saint left the Gambia with his cousin in 2012, using money from their uncle to smuggle themselves out of Africa via neighbouring Senegal. A perilous night on a boat packed far beyond capacity landed them in Spain, where they evaded the soul-crushing churn of seeking asylum by crashing in a Barcelona apartment.
"When we got over there, I didn't like the asylum system. The camps and the tents—it was strange. We met this dude who was living in a rented apartment in Barcelona with a couple of others—those guys were not into legal stuff. But they had two couches, so me and my cousin stayed there. We would cook for them. One of them was like a real slinger, he used to sell a lot of weed. Sometimes I would bag what he cut off of his stash, the bottoms and stuff, and I would take that, and go down to the skate park nearby—not to sell, just to chill and smoke."
Saint used his time in Barcelona to soak up all the music he could get his hands on. "I had like a small MP3-player, I remember, and back when we lived in Spain, one of the cats had a PC and I would download shit illegally to put in there. I had the whole Bob Marley discography that I was just jamming to it the whole way through. Beres Hammond was on there, and Busy Signal. But what I remember the most is the Bob Marley collection because I replayed that over and over again."
After six months, Saint and his cousin caught a northbound train, leaving Spain in November 2012. "There wasn't much of a plan. We basically just got on the train and… came here. We almost got stranded in Denmark—I think our tickets actually ended there. As these guards approached us, this guy we were sitting next to was like, 'I got you' and he paid for us. We were lucky."
Cold, broke and cut off from anything familiar, they relied on the decency of strangers for survival, spending their first Malmö night in an old hotel converted into a shelter for the homeless. "Me and my cousin just stayed up the whole night. We went downstairs the next day to eat breakfast and you saw, like—same as on the road—little kids with their mums, where you could just tell they'd been through some really hard stuff. My cousin was so nervous and scared. Instead of putting sugar in his tea, he put salt in it. He couldn't even eat, so I stole a couple of boiled eggs, just in case."
Before long, they were lodged at the Malmö asylum centre commonly known as "Rose Town". "I could easily lose my mind here," Saint remembers, thinking back on one of the things he was most afraid of during those first months of uncertainty in the centre. But then it happened.
It was raining and the roof was all fucked up, so I couldn't sleep on the bed. I just wrote stuff about raindrops and rapped on top of that.
"A dude that worked at Rose Town was friends with Reb [Rebstar, a fellow artist on Saint's label, Today Is Vintage]. We would talk all the time. We just talked about music, and he played me one of Reb's videos, so I asked if he could introduce me. I hit him up myself afterwards, asking when I could come to the studio – just to like, escape [from life in the centre]. Then after a while, they were like, 'We wanna sign you.' I was 17 at that time."
Saint sums up his reaction in that pivotal moment with one syllable: "Wooord."
"Saint likes to move around a lot," I'm told in an email by Francis Cartier, who is part of Saint's team at Today Is Vintage, when I ask what he might be into doing as we're setting up the interview. Having never set foot in Malmö, I suggested that Saint show us around his adopted hometown. After a chat in the studio, Saint plays us some new beats before we head into the cold for some lunch. We stroll past several decent-looking kebab joints before Saint stubs his thin Marlboro outside a place that looks like a shawarma-slinging In-N-Out Burger joint. "This is the spot."
Saint tells me his all-time hip-hop Top Five over a scrumptious mess of meat and fries. "Pac, of course. Andre 3000, because I loved The Love Below. Miss Lauryn Hill, 'cos she got bars," Saint says. "And Lil Wayne. He always talks about the most random shit. That's four. Hmm. Kanye. The music has always been good. I don't care what he does. I also like Lisa Ekdahl, her old Swedish stuff. Her voice, her soul—I lose my mind every time I hear a song, and it's funky too. She reminds me of a Swedish version of Erykah Badu."
Rather than being a clichéd bitches 'n' bling rapper, Saint comes off as a writer whose tracks offer a cathartic escape from life's turbulence. "Hip-hop is everywhere. You can't escape it. But I didn't start off with it. My pops had this old CD player that I would come and sit at every day after school. I just wanted to touch it. And he just got tired of me touching his shit, so he gave me an Admiral Tibet reggae CD and a Whitney Houston CD. My first rap was in Gambia. I was 12 or 13 and I wrote it at home one night. I remember it was raining and the roof was all fucked up, so there were raindrops coming in and I couldn't sleep on the bed. So I just wrote stuff about raindrops and rapped on top of that."
These days, Saint divides his time between music school and a slew of new collaborations. He's got plans for a second album and just started a band called The Unfunkwittables. Three times a week, Saint works with incoming refugee children through a local volunteer organisation. "They come in and I let them record a song. Sometimes I produce for them, but we just chill and talk, just to get their mind off stuff, because I know that feeling."
We decide to follow our meal with some laser tag, but an office party has booked the entire Laserdome in advance. We get some coins and hit the arcade instead. "This is the biggest hustle," Saint sighs as we play the notoriously rigged claw game. Nonetheless, he grapples his way to a roll of sour red taffy tape. I go for a cool-looking toy car but end up with some jellybeans.
"It's complicated," Saint responds, barely audibly when we get back to the studio, and I ask him why he chose to leave Gambia. "It has a lot to do with family, which is why I don't usually speak on it. We just had to leave – and when we did, we never looked back. We just kept going. So Malmö just took us in, basically."
They say saints never perform miracles at home. And yet, the satisfaction in the young Gambian/Swedish transplant's eyes seems near-miraculous, as he blasts the razor-sharp beats that've always been in his head from an ergonomic leather office chair across from me, here in the heart of what is now legally his hometown. "I've basically built a life here. It's dope. I like Sweden. My Swedish is still a bit shy."
I ask him where he stands on ABBA.
"Umm… I know one song, "Dancing Queen", the one everybody knows. I say I like ABBA sometimes so I don't offend people."
This article appeared in the November issue of VICE magazine. More from VICE: