When it comes to new-school UK dancehall music, Alicai Harley is up there with the best.
Not only does the Jamaican-born, South London-raised artist have a knack for perfectly blending Black British culture with the energetic, bass-heavy sounds from her home island, she’s also a triple threat (she sings, writes and raps).
After spending her teenage years recording tracks and performing at open mic nights across the UK, Alicai hit the big time in 2017 with the iconic ‘Gold’. The light-hearted love song – inspired by a fun night out, and peppered with Jamaican patois and a trembling bassline – has since racked up nearly 3 million listens on Spotify alone.
Since then, Alicai has stayed serving party vibes with hits like ‘Naah Done’ and ‘Instructions (Gallong Gal)’ and effervescent visuals on Instagram, inspired by traditional dancehall aesthetics.
“It was a hard decision to release the project this year because I couldn’t physically share the record with my fans. But I just trusted God’s timing and it’s been amazing”
Collaborations with top artists like Dizzee Rascal, Estelle and Grammy-award nominee Cham have secured Alicai a spot on the UK’s biggest radio stations and event stages, including BBC Radio 1Xtra, Apple Music, Notting Hill Carnival and Wireless.
Earlier this year, she dropped her debut EP, The Red Room Intro (Yard Gyal Inna Britain). The 10-track project gives us a glimpse into Alicai’s world both as an artist and a young Black woman of British and Jamaican heritage. Her versatility and lyrical prowess is on show throughout: from the slick, Ashanti-sampling R&B jam ‘I Just Wanna Know’, to the reggae-infused cautionary tale ‘Woi’, to the big-and-boasty dancehall anthems ‘Tek it Dem’ and ‘No Gyal’, which serve as the EP’s intro and outro tracks. With an enviable features list – including Stefflon Don, Kojo Funds and Afrobeats star Moelogo – it’s clear that Alicai has made the most of her ‘Gold’(en) start in the industry, with no signs of stopping anytime soon.
I first came across Alicai at The Ends Festival in 2019. After watching her high-octane performance, I had no choice but to stan – not least because we share the same cultural background.
Keen to learn how Alicai’s dual heritage has influenced her work, I hopped on a video call with her to discuss music, faith and our love for the ‘land of wood and water’.
gal-dem: What was life like growing up in Jamaica?
Alicai Harley: I left Jamaica when I was five-years-old but I still remember some stuff. I remember moving to Kingston [Jamaica’s capital city] to live with my uncle’s girlfriend who I call my ‘second mum’. My real mum had left for the UK to work and build a better life for me and my brothers. I also remember spending time with my dad. We’d go to this jerk place to buy food and eat in his car. Sometimes he’d sit me on his lap and teach me to drive.
Jamaica flows through your sound, lyrics, and visuals. Why is it important for you to rep the island?
It’s where I come from so I have to represent. When I step in my house, it’s Jamaica. The food I eat, the way me and my family chat to each other, the games we play together. When I was growing up in the UK, ‘yardies’ were seen as loudmouths and distasteful so I never wanted to be called one. But it’s my truth and I don’t want to shy away from it. I’m proud to be a yardie and a Londoner – hence I called my EP Yard Gyal Inna Britain.
Speaking of your EP, what was it like to drop your first major project?
It wasn’t easy. I had the EP finished for so long and when the time came to release it last year, we were in lockdown. It was a hard decision to release the project this year because I couldn’t physically share the record with my fans. But I just trusted God’s timing and it’s been amazing. I’m so gassed!
You talk a lot about God’s timing and blessings in your music. Where do you get your faith from?
My mum taught me how to pray from a young age and to put God in everything I do. I’ve been close to God throughout my career but last year I started really feeling His presence in my life. I got the very clear message that I needed to get baptised and I followed through last December.
Your EP cover is a nod to Mary Hoffman’s classic book Amazing Grace. What made you choose this theme?
It’s my favourite book and has inspired my journey. It planted the seed in my head that I can be anything I want, just like the character Grace. She was told she couldn’t play Peter Pan because she was a Black girl. In the end, she got the role because she was the best. I’ve overcome similar challenges and so I wanted to pay homage to that.
Dancehall music is all about celebrating life, something we can’t do too much of right now. What’s currently bringing you joy?
Looking back at my journey. I used to be on the road all the time with my best friend and he’s found videos of me performing back in 2015. Lockdown has sucked the happiness out of things but I’m finding joy in seeing how far I’ve come.