Seinabo Sey made me weep at CES.
It’s not hard to find a show here in Vegas. So many artists headline lavish weekly residencies, and hotel superclubs fill up every night with thousands of birthdays and bachelorettes. It’s one massive, vodka-soaked party. CES, of course, ratchets that spirit up to 11, with major companies like Google and Yahoo calling hitmakers like Fetty Wap and John Legend in to make them seem cooler for a few minutes. There needn’t ever be a discernible connection between the artist and the brand itself. The bigger the name, the bigger the party.
Seinabo Sey isn’t exactly a Vegas-friendly artist. In fact, you may not know her name at all; she’s still very much emerging. Having released her debut album Pretend late last year to solid critical acclaim, she’s now enjoying a moment in her native Sweden as a new talent with enormous potential. "When Stockholm’s answer to Emeli Sandé is good, as on 'Hard Time,' or the title track, she is up there with the money-makers," wrote the Guardian. For the moment, she’s still waiting to break through to American ears.
A kind of IRL music discovery
I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see her this week. Vevo, the music video platform known mainly for its YouTube presence, was hosting a private event atop the SLS Hotel in a penthouse suite designed (tastefully, to my surprise) by Lenny Kravitz. It was sparsely attended; though it's a mainstay for pop obsessives and teens, Vevo evidently doesn’t have enough name recognition to pack a room at CES. Still, as a product of Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment, Vevo hosting a concert at CES makes much more sense than say, Lenovo.
And hey, color me optimistic. While I knew so little about Seinabo before the show, I’d listened to a bit of Pretend beforehand. That voice...
This show would, in my mind, be a kind of IRL music discovery.
Seinabo arrived at the party by 8 or so, followed by a small entourage. She wore a billowy black blouse with a Mandarin collar, gold earrings, and a generous smile that hid her jet lag. Yet again, she didn’t strike me as just any Vegas performer. Rather, she had the air of someone you’d like to call an old friend, someone you’d meet for coffee on a Thursday night. I was charmed.
We sat down to chat before her set, and the conversation ranged from her album to her Gambian heritage to her wanting to finally buy a good pair of speakers. (CES will do that to you.) I asked her if the industry, with all its shifting priorities concerning streaming and technology, could ever change how she makes her music.
"I mean, as long as I try to find people who are kind and cool and nice and reasonable, I'll sing," she told me. "Because that's what's important. I want to sing to people. I really, really honestly love what I do, so I'm like, I don't think about it." She told me about a recent conversation she'd had about pop music in the digital age. "Apparently [we only have] 30 seconds to get someone's attention nowadays when they click on a song. That means that maybe I'll start putting the chorus in the beginning of the song so everybody gets to the best part first, and continues to listen."
Eventually it was time for her performance. After a brief introduction, Seinabo took the stage for an unplugged set of a few of her songs. And by the time she’d finished singing "Younger," I’d been swept away. Her voice washed over us like a wave, flooding the entire room with every powerful, sorrowful note, all before finally leaving tears in my eyes. By the show’s end, I found myself whispering, "Magnificent."
I turned around, and I saw people bantering merrily in the parlor. "How dare they?" I thought, still wiping my eyes. "Don’t they know what they’re missing?" I’d gone from curious concertgoer to fanboy in the space of about 20 minutes. And I could not understand how people could just ignore this talent right in front of us.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved at CES, let alone at a CES party. Moved enough to forget, just for a moment, that it even was a CES party. That the chattering guests behind us had committed some grievous wrong in not giving Seinabo their utmost attention. That this was all for the sake of the brand. Watching Seinabo Sey felt a little bit like peering into the future. Now, like anyone else here peddling a dream about how bright the future will be with touchscreen refrigerators, I’m no soothsayer. Maybe it’s too wild a dream to hope she might be our next Adele, destined for a spot on all our Spotify playlists. But if there’s a vision of what might come out there waiting to be seen, I think I saw her here. Isn’t that exactly what CES is about?