You know the music that you don’t understand but you think might understand you? The lyrics that hit your brain in a Rorschach-test splatter? If not, listen to emerging artist Dua Saleh, and you will. Dua (who uses they/them pronouns) is a poet, actor, and artist who never thought they could sing. But through practice and a capella performances, they’ve gained the confidence to create and share captivating music. What defies verbal explanation might just get stuck in your head.
Last May, Dua released their debut single (“First Take”), and it quickly made waves around the Twin Cities and the internet world. Produced by Mike Frey, the humid song took shape when Dua recorded it in a single take, surprising Frey with the sharp bars they’d already prepared. Since then, they’ve written more music with Frey and started working with thestand4rd producer Psymun.
Dua has been traveling for much of their life, having been born in Sudan before moving to Eritrea, North Dakota, and St. Paul at young ages. They spoke Arabic as a first language, but they’ve been immersed in English so long it’s been a struggle to maintain. Their name foreshadows their faith; Dua comes from the Arabic word for “invocation” or “prayer,” while their surname, Saleh, was a prophet mentioned in the Qur’an. They still live in St. Paul, but they call Minneapolis “the most artistic place I could envision.”
Sitting alongside Mike Frey, Dua talks about the business side of music, clearly thinking about career growth and social capital. They’re not worried about connecting with audiences once they have them; “I’m very confident in my performing abilities, and I do this weird thing where I look into people’s souls,” Dua says. “But I never ask them, ‘Follow me on…’” Without innate social media skills, they say, “It’s scary to think about establishing a fanbase outside Minneapolis.”
The good news is they’ve already made a impact as a poet, sharing work at Button Poetry and various other events. They performed their poem “Pins and Needles” last winter at Camp Bar; since then, the video has racked up nearly 50,000 views. In the poem, they talk about blackness and queerness — the color of their blood, and “letting my friends call me ‘girl’” — and the poetry sizzles, just like the lyrics on “First Take.” From the throng of supportive comments on “Pins and Needles,” it looks like people around the globe are already willing to lend Dua their time.
Color drenches Dua’s music. At first, the songs sound like soft shades of orchids and watercolor landscapes — in “First Take,” they mention purple and pink. The soft-purple, marbled-periwinkle cover matches the words. But behind those initial impressions, the beat breathes out sultry rainforest vibes; Dua’s voice mingles with poinsettia reds and droplet-flecked greens. An unreleased, faster-paced song urging audiences to “dance with me” is just as vibrant.
Stronger and harsher beneath the surface seems like a theme with Dua. Just as “First Take” isn’t as soft as it might initially seem, neither are they. They are kind, quiet, and extremely considerate as a default, but when they disagree or take offense, they don’t waste effort glossing it over.
So keep an eye on Dua as they play bigger and bigger gigs, including the Klituation for its one-year anniversary tonight. Look forward to more of their work, sharp as the mind it came from. In their music as in real life, expect them to stay authentic.