Ones to watch in 2021: Nova, rapper

Following her Scottish Album of the Year win in 2020, Nova will be looking to build momentum into 2021 with new releases and – as soon as possible – live performances. Interview by Fiona Shepherd
Nova PIC: Drew BarnesNova PIC: Drew Barnes
Nova PIC: Drew Barnes

It’s probably fair to say that humanity is happy to put 2020 to bed and look to better times in 2021 – not least musicians, stripped of their ability to make a living, if not of their core creativity.

For rapper Nova, the highs and lows of our plague year came to a head on the evening of 29 October when she beat the largest number of eligible competing entries to date to win the 2020 Scottish Album of the Year Award with her debut album, Re-Up – while suffering from a bout of Covid, which meant that she had to celebrate the highlight of her nascent career from her home in Edinburgh.

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“I was a bit of a wreck and it was very surreal,” she says. “I had the ceremony on my screen but it was a big official set-up on stage and it was just me in my bedroom on the other side.”

Nova PIC: Drew BarnesNova PIC: Drew Barnes
Nova PIC: Drew Barnes

At 24, Nova – real name Shaheeda Sinckler – is the youngest recipient of the award yet and the first rap/grime artist to be honoured. She was largely unknown outside the Scottish hip-hop scene before being nominated and stands to benefit greatly from the increased profile – if only it wasn’t for this pesky pandemic.

“I’m struggling with it,” she says candidly. “The first lockdown was okay for me. I live with my family so I don’t feel too isolated, it just slowed things down a bit. But going into the second lockdown, winning the award and not being able to do gigs, it’s tough.”

Sinckler is talking via Zoom from London, where she is combining a work photo shoot with an opportunity to see her dad and siblings. She grew up on the south of the city in a creative family – dad was a graffiti writer (he’s now in fine art) and mum an MC in the London hip-hop scene of the 80s/90s, before her parents split and Sinckler moved, aged 8, with her mum to Edinburgh to live with her DJ stepdad.

“There’s always been music in my house,” she says, “apart from when I was very little because my parents and my stepdad are Muslim so sometimes they were stricter with their faith and more closed off from music with vulgar lyrics.”

Sinckler was a fan of hip-hop from her teenage years but was never particularly encouraged to participate by the crew she ran around with. It wasn’t until she moved to Glasgow to study social sciences at university that she found her tribe in the city’s visual arts scene. From there, musical opportunities began to present themselves and Sinckler wasn’t long for academia.

“I got distracted by the creative scene,” she admits. “I had a few jobs that were not great. I worked in a newsagent which was robbed at knifepoint and I quit within a few weeks. It was a pretty traumatic experience, I thought I could die in that moment. So after that I wasn’t really that interested in trying to find another job.”

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Instead, she began to write and upload electronica tracks. Within months, she was offered a paid gig by the Glasgow booking agency who continue to represent her. “I didn’t have a lot of money coming in apart from benefits so getting a paid gig was ‘yeah, we’re doing this’ even though I was a complete novice and didn’t know what I was doing.”

She uploaded her first rap track as Nova in December 2017 and again within months scored a gig at female-focused grime night Tomboy. “There was a lot of partying,” she remembers, “a lot of social things that were maybe not so healthy and not so motivating so I took myself out of that.”

Moving back to Edinburgh in 2018, she set to work on her first mixtape, Risin’ Up, recorded with her friend Theta, and spent a year working on Re-Up with a variety of different producers. Since its release in January, she has continued to work on new tracks. Status Quo is softer musically (“it’s kind of singing,” says Sinckler) but hard lyrically. “It’s basically a criticism of Britain as an entity, a satire about power imbalances in society and gender, and I fed in the issues of lockdown into the third verse.”

Sinckler also hopes to capitalise on SAY momentum with the release of the urgent, chiming 24, produced with Edinburgh-based Hamish Hartley, drill track Feathers, produced by Aberdeen-based Louis Sievwright, a new melodic EP with Glasgow producer $1000 Wallet and the forthcoming Got to Go which was entirely self-produced by Sinckler using the skills she is learning on an HND sound production course.

“Before I went to college, I thought the producer was just the person who made the beat,” she says, “but now I’m learning that a producer makes a lot of creative decisions, so I’ve been making a lot more decisions in terms of arrangement. I want to have the option to work myself.”

Having licked rapping (as Nova), DJing (as DJ Scotia) and production (as Nova Scotia the Truth), Sinckler is toying with becoming a quintuple threat, add singing and dancing lessons to her portfolio. “I’ll start simple,” she laughs, “but just to throw in a little bit of movement, I think that would be really dope.”

This drive to self-sufficiency is her riposte to the pervading fallacy that women in hip-hop “are trophies, pretty faces. The climate is becoming more open to female MCs. I listen to quite a lot and in some cases I prefer it because it’s more relatable. But there’s still definitely a culture of casting more doubt on a woman that’s rapping than a man.”

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With that in mind, Nova has been among those lobbying for better representation for female and BAME artists on Spotify’s curated Scotify playlist of new Scottish artists, citing her peers India Rose and Taahliah as two musicians worthy of inclusion. “It’s archaic to still be perpetuating things like that,” she says, “so I would like to shine a bit of light on that.”

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