Selah Steps Out of the Shadows on 'Safety'

Selah Steps Out of the Shadows on 'Safety'

Story by Kenna McCafferty / Photography by Savion Spellman / Styling by Stephanie Perez / Makeup by Zola Headley / Hair by Deyonna "Sunny" Lewis

Selah is a risk-taker; the skydiving, shroom-taking, self-proclaimed "Hannah Montana" is no stranger to feeling unsafe. Growing up in the afterglow of spotlights fixed to her famous parents, Lauryn Hill and Rohan Marley, Selah spent her childhood testing the boundaries of comfort, pressing her finger against the still-hot bulb of stardom and kissing her wounds whenever burned.

But stuck between the world of celebrity and the suburbs of New Jersey, Selah has always felt tension between her inner creativity and the public eye. To someone so adventurous, vulnerability became the biggest risk, which is why Selah has learned how to step out of the shadows and into her own light.

In her single "Safety,” out today, Selah tells her own story, exploring a past romance where she didn’t feel safe communicating. The song includes rich harmonies and overlays of Selah’s soothing vocals, conjuring a sense of spiraling dissonance — the constant "tug of war" that's been central to her life. In her struggle to let people in or keep them at bay, "Safety" is a practice, and, in sharing the song, Selah invites the public to practice along with her.

Though she’s quietly released music in the past, held the occasional art exhibition or graced the runway, Selah is letting the public into her private world. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, she hopes to expand her sense of safety and inspire others to do the same. More on that, below.

How did "Safety" initially come about?

Making any song is a pretty long process for me because I am all about quality versus quantity. This song, in particular, my friend sent me the beat back in November and I really fell in love. It inspired me to sing plus harmonize almost immediately. Simultaneously, I was dating this guy, who also became my muse, so the song naturally flowed out of me.

The song did go through many iterations that my mom helped out with. There was one version where I had a dialogue over it, explaining the concept of limerence. My mom helped compose the song, adding her own flavor to it; she is part of my process. We played with the melody and the background vocals. We had about seven full versions of this song and I loved them all for different reasons. I ended up merging my top three favorite versions, so I did the demo as the intro, my mom's version as the middle and added reverse backgrounds for the outro.

How does the song recreate feelings of safety for you, while drawing from an experience that took you outside your safety?

That's the thing, because that song essentially was inspired by a particular relationship. I don't want to attach it too much to a single thing, but the song was inspired by someone who triggered me to a certain degree. I don't think I was ready for all of what I felt. And so, in this song, it's me like, “Hey, I feel these feelings. I don't know how to express them.” But the question is, “Why can't I just express these feelings to you?” And that's what I use the song to explore. I would have loved to just say how I felt at the time. I wish I didn't have to write that song.

So what gets in the way of you telling people how you feel?

With that person, it was just such a boy meets girl, girl meets boy story. But on a deeper level, it is such a sensitive topic, a sensitive reality, because I didn't know what I wanted. I didn't know if I wanted this to just be a talking thing or if I wanted it to be a forever thing. And it really came down to like, positive and negative reinforcement. As you get older and as you gain more experiences, it informs how you relate to people. We go into something we didn’t expect and then you have to think about all these big, psychological things like childhood trauma, what your family household was like, and the fact that we recreate that in relationships.

"By becoming someone who is formless and limitless, I want to look back and know that my ability to express myself also helped others do the same."

You do come from a strong household and legacy. How has that impacted your journey of self-discovery and stepping into your own?

Growing up, I would always try so hard to prove myself, proving that I'm still talented despite who my parents are. I remember being seven years old and just being like, "I'm not going to live in my parent's shadow." And then, I started modeling and I got thrust into the shadows. I learned to just accept that because there isn't any running away from it. Now I think I'm finally striking this balance, where it's definitely an elephant in the room. So it’s better to be like, “Look at this elephant. Is it pink, is it blue, is it wearing a hat?” Because it does inform who I am. That is my upbringing, just as much as anyone else’s.

There are these elements to my life that are extraordinary, but then there are elements that are ordinary and everyone can relate to. I went to the same public high school as my mom. I grew up in New Jersey, I didn't grow up in Beverly Hills. That's the conflict: my life is the tug of war. I consider myself like a Hannah Montana, the whole "best of both worlds" thing because I’m in public school, but then I'm also at the Grammys. It’s all a balance; we’re all balancing between feelings of safety or being unsafe. Whether you're doing it in front of the public eye or whether you're doing it in private, whether everyone knows or no one knows. It doesn't change the fact that that's your experience, through your eyes and in your body.

So what does safety feel like in your body?

At the end of the day, safety really is your body. The body has so much to do with it; that’s how the song starts out as well actually: "When you're touching on my body." To me, my relationship with my body goes back to my art. Both exist in the public space. Because, for example, I had Instagram since like 11. That's how people are somewhat familiar with me. I love Instagram, I love taking pictures. And then what would happen is, people would find me or they would find my YouTube.

You know, the first time I was ever in the media, I was 11 years old and doing YouTube videos. There’s one video where I was singing "Baby" by Justin Bieber. It’s actually really, really cute. Then I made this “Happy Birthday Justin Bieber” video and my shit went on MediaTakeOut. My dad calls and he's like “Selah, you’re on YouTube now. Really? You have a legacy to uphold.” I’m 11, what the fuck do I know about legacy?

So what would you like for your legacy to be, personally?

I am still developing my personal legacy every day. My legacy is definitely being written as I go and live. It's really important to me that I express myself artistically in all the mediums that I love, which includes music, film and installation art. In a way, I want to exhaust myself, not in the sense of burning myself out, but rather exploring all parts of my self-expression and bringing all of my ideas to life. By becoming someone who is formless and limitless, I want to look back and know that my ability to express myself also helped others do the same.

Can you talk more about your mom’s role in the song, as a composer. Does that feel like a comfortable level of involvement for you, or would you rather do it on your own?

I think that's the part I just have to accept. Sometimes it feels like it's not really yours if someone helped you. I used to have this pride, but we all get help from somebody. I think I just have to accept it because if I don’t I’ll always feel guilty. Now I’m in a place where I’m gathering my humility. And so, with this song, I fought against the urge to always have to do my own thing. But then the karma of that is when I'm trying to be me for me, and I go out into the world and they're like, "So your mom?" So I think now, I had to take a step back and let it humble me.

Back to you, what is next for Selah?

My next song is coming out in May. I’m actually rapping on that one. So this one is more vulnerable, it’s like a split personality thing. I use the singing for my vulnerability and emotionality, and I use rapping as my bravado. That’s my confidence, I'm in my bag. So the next one is fun and a little satirical. It's playing on these narratives that we talked about. "Safety" is more the vulnerability, the feeling of it. The next one probably is painting the picture of what all this looks like.