R&B Star Cherrie Gets Real About Swedish Pop and Politics
It’s news to no one that Sweden is one of the music industry's premier exporters of music. From bona fide stars like Robyn to newcomers like Zara Larsson, not to mention its cornucopia of producers like Bloodshy and Avant (Britney Spears, Sky Ferreira), the country is responsible for a great deal of what dominates international radio.
That said, the nation's music tends to veer towards sugary pop, which makes Swedish R&B artist Cherrie (Sherihan Hersi) all the more interesting. Originally from Lojo Finland, Cherrie, 26, and her mother moved to Stockholm when she was ten. Flash forward sixteen years, and the artist has already toured Europe and China, performed in the U.S. and won the equivalent of a Swedish Grammy for her breakout 2015 hit, "Tabanja."
Now, on the heels of her new album, 2016's self-titled Sherihan, we speak to the rising star about conquering the States, language barriers and writing songs about both love and social justice.
How did you decide to make music in Swedish rather than a broader-reaching language?
I grew up on ’90’s R&B and all of the cool women that have been doing music ever since in that genre. At first it wasn’t even an option; it wasn’t something I thought about, making music in Swedish. Because I didn’t think it was going to translate that well, I thought it was going to sound corny. When I did start writing in Swedish four years ago, I just felt like it translated more.
Every country has their own social problems and...the stuff I wanted to talk about were things that a lot of young women and a lot of young people of different ethnicities could relate to out here. I just felt like a lot of the stuff I was saying was more hard-hitting because it was in the native language. But you know, I started out writing in English, so I’m probably going to be doing that in the near future.
I think it’s also the idea of artistic integrity, that you don’t have to change what you do to please other people. If that’s your comfort zone and who you are as an artist, you shouldn’t have to compromise that.
Exactly. So whenever I do it, I just want to make sure that it’s a hundred percent right. Because if I’m insecure about it I’m not going to be able to make anyone else listen to it and appreciate it if I don’t like it a hundred percent. But I grew up on English speaking music and the first words that I wrote were in English, so I think it’s going to come naturally when it does. The Swedish thing, it kind of happened by accident, but then it felt like it was a hundred percent right. I just want the same thing for whatever I do in the future language-wise.
When you sit down to create music, what kind of themes do you find yourself drawn to?
I think it’s kind of broad because I do have songs about love and social injustice. But the main thing for me, the core of everything that I do, comes from main feelings. And I think that’s why my music translates so well to other countries even though they don’t understand [the words]. A lot of people tell me that when they listen to my music they can feel it, they can understand it. Feelings are the one true universal language that we have.
Even if I do talk about politics, it’ll be how it feels to come from the bottom in the country just because I’m black or from a certain area. I won’t talk as much about how it’s politically f---ed up, but I will talk about how it feels. Seeing young kids dying and crime rates going up, I might not talk about what’s happening, but I’ll talk about the mother’s sorrow....
I know when you listen to the music you can feel a certain sentiment. You kind of know what it’s about in a way without having to know what every single word means. And that’s important for an artist, not just expressing something through the vocabulary, but through the sound and the vibe, or the aesthetic and music videos.
There are so many different ways to communicate.
Definitely. And I think all of that comes from me not being inspired so much by other artists and stuff, but more like by life. And, you know, what I go through, what my friends go through, what people around me go through. And just being genuine about it and real about it. That’s why it translates so well.
You’re working on a show that’s coming out. I would assume that a lot of the topics that you’re covering on the show are similar to the ones you’re covering in your music. Can you talk a bit about that?
I don’t know if you read any news about Sweden, but they talk a lot about crime rates going up in urban areas like the one I’m from. We don’t have the same problems as the U.S., but for Sweden to be one of the safest countries, and me having friends and acquaintances that have lost their lives [due to] being murdered in the past two years…I’m talking about that, but also what it took for me as an artist to get out of that misery and make something of myself... and how much that kind of f---ks with me because I still have friends that die over nothing.
It’s shocking. But it’s also starting to become less and less shocking because it’s becoming normalized.
It happens everywhere, and even if it isn’t like a hood, there are people dying. Like I said earlier, this is supposed to be one of the safest countries in the world, but we still have a problem. They don’t really want to talk about it like it’s a problem. They’d rather just sweep it under the rug.
A lot of people in the U.S. have a really misconstrued idea of Sweden as some perfectly peaceful country.
And that’s the thing. One part of the country is like that, but then you have these areas that are totally not like that. And that’s what makes it even more f---ed up, because it’s like, why aren’t we getting the same treatment as everyone else? Why can’t my mom, who had a really good education back home — she left a war torn country to give us a better life — why can’t she have the same opportunities as everyone else?
The first step is acknowledging the problem so that people can start to work on it. A lot of people are going to deny it.
It is crazy, but what I can say is that there are a lot of people who are doing small parts to make it a better place for all of us. And we all just need to connect with all kinds of people from different countries. I think it would help people from America knowing these stories from out here, and people from the U.K. knowing about Africa. We all need to connect and build these bridges so we all can grow together.
Musicians these days really have to be several different types of artists morphed into one. You have the music, but then also the visual components. Did the video and photo shoots come as naturally to you as the music?
It really wasn’t natural to me. I’ve been lucky to have a manager who cares about all of that stuff and I’ve been learning as an artist. People know people, and I have good friends that are stylists. They’re very good at giving a vibe off or seeing what I can do musically. The main thing when it comes to fashion for me was to be comfortable, because before I started singing I used to dance.
...The main thing for me is to be comfortable, and just feeling like I can own whatever I’m putting out there, visually, musically, whatever. And just to have a story behind it. It’s just so genuine, and when you do stuff from the heart, it just works out.
What makes you feel successful?
The weird thing about Sweden is that we export a lot of music, production-wise, but when it comes to R&B, we really haven’t had any for like the past twenty years. I was one of the first ones to come out in a time where there was a need for it. Beyoncé and Rihanna were still the best selling artists in Sweden too, but we never had any music that had that sound. When I took the place, I feel like people took me with arms wide open because that’s what they were looking for for a very long time.
I know that there’s a lot of young women out there that need a voice and to not just talk about, “Okay, I fell in love, it was nice, it was this, it was that,” but talk about things that everyone can relate to. That makes me really, really motivated because in Sweden, it’s dark eight months of the year, and a lot of people get depressed for a long time because there’s no sun. One in four women take antidepressants...I talk about depression and stuff like that a lot, too...addiction, having lost people, or just sorrow and hopelessness.
Them understanding that feeling and me knowing that something I said helped them, that makes me feel like I’m enough. As long as I have that, I’m always going to be motivated. That’s what I see as success...And of course I’m happy that I can take care of my family now. I can buy a house. I can do stuff, and I can take care of myself. I really want to build a house for my mom in my country, Somalia, so that’s a goal I want to achieve. Other than that it’s just being able to help people. As long as I have that, I’m happy.