Salem Ilese on Her Viral Song 'Mad at Disney' and How She's Using Her Platform for Good

The 22-year-old singer-songwriter has been writing songs since she was just 9 years old — and now her songs have millions of streams

Salem Ilese promo shots credit Lindsay Ellary
Salem Ilese. Photo: Lindsay Ellary

Most people may know her for her hit single "Mad at Disney" which blew up on TikTok last year — but Salem Ilese has written hundreds of songs.

In fact, the up-and-coming pop star, 22, has been writing songs since she was just 9 years old. Salem attended Berklee College of Music in Boston for two years before moving to Los Angeles in 2019 to jumpstart her songwriting career.

"My family was really supportive the whole time, and I moved out with a bunch of my friends from [Berklee], and we were all diving in headfirst together, which very much helped the adjustment period," Salem tells PEOPLE. "When I got here, my biggest concern, honestly, was keeping myself busy enough."

But the rising star quickly found a way to keep herself busy — by attending songwriting sessions with other artists and producers seven days a week. During these sessions, which usually consist of two to four people, Salem talks with the producers and other writers simply about what is going on in each of their lives. Once the group decides on a concept for a song, they run with it, begin writing and see what happens.

"We usually start with a title or concept, something like that, and then we'll just start," she says. "I like to start from scratch on the track with a piano or a guitar or a synth or something and just build it around what we want to say lyrically."

The process moves fast. "It usually takes about four or five hours if we're lucky to get the song done, and then I'll record a demo," Salem explains. "And I really like to walk out of a session with a completed demo of all the parts and the vocals, even if it's scratch vocals, so that I can kind of listen to it the next few days while I'm driving."

During the first year Salem lived in LA, she was writing every single day — so if you add it up, that amounts to over 300 songs in just one year.

"The first year was definitely chaotic, but I met a lot of really cool people, so I'm very grateful," she says. "It's really fun. I'm very blessed that that's my day job."

Salem Ilese promo shots credit Lindsay Ellary
Salem Ilese. Lindsay Ellary

As for how she compiles her lyrics ideas, she writes them down the way anyone else gets their ideas down: in the Notes app. "I have a list of concepts on my phone on the Notes app, and it's the same notes app that I've had for years," she says. "So it's extensive, and I've just been adding to it since I was like 14."

The self-proclaimed word-nerd says she finds inspiration for lyrics in pop culture, anywhere from a TV show she's watching (currently Sex and the City) to specific brands that fit the zeitgeist to comments on social media posts. "I feel like one of the reasons that we make music and put out art into the world is to give a commentary on what's happening right now," she says.

The concept behind her hit single "Mad at Disney" is one that has been on her mind for most of her life. Salem recalls a song she wrote at a songwriting camp when she was 9 years old in which she set out to rewrite a fairytale to show that happy endings don't always happen in the real world.

"Mad at Disney" came together when Salem was at a session with her boyfriend, songwriter-producer Bendik Møller, and their friend Jason Hahs, both of whom attended Berklee with her. It all started when the three were discussing their disappointment with the recent live-action Disney movies — and then Salem realized she was mad at Disney for a few other reasons, namely that it promotes the sexist trope of a damsel in distress needing to be saved by a prince and that all love stories end with a happily ever after.

"We launched into a conversation of the lack of representation in all the princess movies and just the whole princess, damsel-in-distress trope that had been fed to us as young kids," Salem explains. "I remember the first time I saw a Disney movie, I think I was 3 or 4 years old, and I totally fell for it at first. I was like, 'I want to grow up and be a princess and have someone rescue me from a tower.' And then, something clicked when I was 9. I was like, 'This is wrong — I don't need someone to rescue me.'"

At first, Salem didn't even plan to release the song. She pitched the song to other musicians, asking if someone else wanted to sing it, but after receiving lots of positive feedback from producers, she decided to release it herself.

"I'm so glad that I released it, because it definitely changed my life," she says. "And I always think about that. It's kind of funny that it was the one I expected the least to do well, and then it just completely blew my expectations out of the water."

The song, which has been used in more than 2.5 million videos on TikTok, skyrocketed Salem to fame as her music went viral. Her TikTok account @salemilese now has 3.8 million followers and 53 million likes.

"'Mad at Disney' definitely impacted every aspect of my career," Salem tells PEOPLE. "I feel like before that song, I was still just trying to put out as much music as possible and praying that anyone would hear it. I remember just being so happy even getting a thousand streams on something, and that feeling honestly hasn't really gone away."

"But it did give me the incredible opportunity to have a platform on social media, specifically TikTok," she continues. "I've been blessed with this amazing community of people that listens to my music, and I can have conversations with them and they give me feedback. It just feels like a little family of people online."

Salem has taken advantage of her platform to share songs and start initiatives that promote causes she is passionate about, such as gun control and reproductive rights. Her recent single "Moment of Silence" was inspired by the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May as well as the Supreme Court's June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

"How's my body being banned before a gun in someone's hand?" she sings. "I'll never understand how someone's 'pro-life' all the way but they remain pro-NRA."

Salem has also used her music to raise money to support these causes — in just 24 hours, she and Russian protest punk-rock group Pussy Riot raised $169,000 for the Center for Reproductive Rights.

After Salem leaked a bit of her song "Crypto Boy" on TikTok, it went viral on Twitter. Though the song is a critique of people — specifically men — who obsess over cryptocurrency and NFTs, the crypto-community actually loved it. Salem woke up with nearly a hundred direct messages telling her that she should release the song as an NFT.

Though Salem admits the idea felt hypocritical at first, she realized that it could be an opportunity to use the NFT for good. She and her team decided to release the song as an NFT and donate all the proceeds to the Center for Reproductive Rights. She wanted to collaborate with another female artist who was already in the space and immediately thought of Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova.

"I had just read about her UkraineDAO, where she raised about $7 million for Ukraine, which was absolutely incredible," Salem explains. "She was the first person that I'd really seen harness cryptocurrency for the power of good and use it for social change, so I decided to reach out to her and see if she'd possibly be down to the artwork for it. And she'd actually already heard the song, which was so cool."

Within two days, Tolokonnikova had created artwork for the NFT. When the pair released it, the money started flowing in. "I just think she's one of the coolest people and is such an important presence in activism today," Salem said of Tolokonnikova.

The pop singer and punk-rock band have also collaborated on writing music. On Friday, Salem and Pussy Riot released their new song "PRINCESS CHARMING," which is the first track on Pussy Riot's debut mixtape, MATRIARCHY NOW.

"I really want to work more with Pussy Riot, for sure," Salem says. "I'm super excited for that song to come out."

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Recently, Salem has had many exciting opportunities come her way. She collaborated with K-pop band TOMORROW X TOGETHER (TXT) and Norwegian DJ Alan Walker on the song "PS5" and performed on TXT's world tour in LA last month.

"That was one of the craziest experiences that I've ever had," Salem says. "I'm such a big fan of them, and I had never met them in person. I'd only talked with Yeonjun and Taehyun over Instagram Live, so it was really cool to get to actually talk to them and hug all of them and perform together for the first time."

As for what her future holds, Salem says she would love to work on more K-pop songs as well as alternative rock, which is her favorite genre of music to listen to. She also has more collabs coming out in the near future, including a few songs with Demi Lovato, whom Salem says "has the best voice I've ever heard in person."

To young songwriters who are trying to break their way into the music industry, Salem says to just put your music out there as much as possible. "I know it's really daunting at first, because obviously the internet is not always the nicest place, but I will say that as long as you love what you're making, that's all that matters," she says. "And the only way to get it out into the world is to share it, and you never know what will happen."

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