We can drop genre-defying now since everyone is at this point
— ness nite (@nessnite) January 7, 2019
“Yes!” Saleh exclaimed upon reading it, and I got the feeling they hear “genre-defying” often. As a music writer, I’m hardly surprised. I can’t figure out Saleh’s lovely new EP Nūr, and I’d guess it has mystified many others, to my (and our?) delight. But I agree with Ness, in that it’s no stroke of genius to lean on this “unsolvable” shrug of a categorization. So here’s what I do know.
Saleh lives in Minneapolis, having moved from Sudan, Eritrea, North Dakota, and St. Paul, in that order. They identify as non-binary and use they/them pronouns. They’ve made talented friends in the poetry, music and theater worlds of the Twin Cities — including R.A.D, Kamilla Love, and booboo, who will open for Saleh at the 7th St Entry on Jan. 22.
Where some would staple phrases with commas, Dua Saleh rolls through their sentences with “and”s or repetition. That fluidity doubles in their music, a grainy, distorted tide that often pools deep in your belly. If the songs are swells, Saleh is the wind pushing them toward the sand and rocks. Saleh is collaborative (see: Psymun and SinGrinch’s production; Mike Frey’s “Kickflip” mix; Velvet Negroni’s feature on “Survival”), but they aren’t afraid to go rogue and record an entire song on their phone.
After releasing Nūr, Saleh took the time to stop by The Current and talk about their career, DIY music, Sudanese unrest, and more.
Cecilia Johnson: First of all, thank you for coming. I’ve been following your music for — it’s been a long time now. We first talked maybe a year and a half ago?
Dua Saleh: Thank you for having me. It has been a long time.
You’ve been working on music, and you did a show with 26 BATS! last month, which was really cool. And now you’ve got the Nūr EP out and a release show on Jan. 22. I’m really excited to talk about all that stuff. But first, I wanted to talk about the fact that the EP came out on Against Giants, which I hadn’t heard of before doing some research on Nūr. What’s your role in Against Giants?
Against Giants is an independent record label, and they work with people from different parts of the United States. Internationally, as well, but primarily they work in Minnesota and California. I’m signed to the label.
How formal is it? I’ve never been signed to a label, so I wondered if you had to whip out a contract for this.
Yeah, there’s a lot of contracts and logistical things. It’s very serious. [laughs] I mean, it’s not too bad. You can form friendships and camaraderie within it, so it’s not like it’s always serious all the time. But it’s also very serious.
Well, last time we talked, we were wondering, “How do you form a social media following and a career and all that stuff?” Do you find that being signed to a label helps you with that?
It definitely does. [The label] contributes to the spread of knowledge about the EP. They’re really good at advertising, getting the word out. And then people pick it up, and more people are excited about the project.
And then the music takes it from there.
Yeah. It’s been surprising, at least for me, how quickly buzz has grown.
I read the City Pages Picked to Click interview where Michael Madden interviewed you about buzz. It seemed intimidating to be the focus of such a buzz. Now that the EP is out, are you enjoying the attention? Where are you now with that?
It’s been blogs that I used to read, and websites that I used to click on. I thought I was going to be a music critic at some point, so I was super into reading. It’s a lot of work, I’m not trying to minimize it. But I’ve written entire essays on one song. I read Pigeons and Planes and Hypebeast — I was into i-D early.
Like you were looking for it.
Yeah, I was searching for artists; I was searching for music; I was searching for content — you know?
I’ve lived that. Not with those publications, necessarily, but just being so…hungry. To be part of a thing, to read, to learn more about whatever you’re interested in.
And to find new artists at all times. And all of those publications I named have recognized me in some way. It feels good, but I’m also scared. I’ve appreciated all the support. All the people who have reached out to me from Berlin. From Brazil. People are messaging me, and I’m like, “Thank you so much.”
Hmm, if you could go on tour basically anywhere, where would you go?
Ideally, it would be in Africa. It’d be tight to go to South Africa; Ghana; Lagos. But outside of that, Europe would be tight.
Have people caught on to your music in Africa, as far as you know?
It’s primarily just been East Africa. Kenya, Sudan — which is where I’m from. I’ve never gotten a message from somebody from West Africa, Central Africa, or South Africa.
Corbin sang background on “Warm Pants.” Did you listen to [his group] thestand4rd when they were active?
I’m gonna be honest: I didn’t. But I definitely listened to Psymun, which is really random. And I didn’t know Psymun was from Minneapolis. I definitely thought he was from the UK, because I heard about him from King Krule’s repost. Like, “Oh my god, I love this artist! This UK artist!” [laughs] The whole time, he’s here.
How did you actually get in touch?
He reached out to me! I was like, “Why are you reaching out to me? You’re in the UK. What, you’re in Minneapolis?!” I was so shocked and overwhelmed. I didn’t even know how to react. Like, “I’ve read so many blogs about your music and listened to you for a while.” He was so nice about it, like, “Aw, that’s so sweet. Thank you. But like, I still want to make music.”
He posted a bunch of nice stuff on Twitter when your EP came out, including a tweet about how you recorded “Sugar Mama” on your phone. What? How did you do that?
I just thought it would be funny to use my phone. I had a laptop, but I was like, what if I made it on my phone? There’s a GarageBand app, so I didn’t even have to pay for it. I heard the metronome on the app, and I was like, “Damn.” It sounded like a banger.
I feel you, because I was wondering, why they didn’t re-record the song later? Like, maybe that would be a demo with a studio version to come. And then I was like, that’s not necessary. You know, I did notice the metronome all over Nūr, not just on “Sugar Mama.” How come you gravitate toward the metronome?
I wasn’t always in lessons, but I used to have a friend who had a piano at his place. He would let me play the piano, and the metronome was always there. And hearing it on GarageBand again, I was like, this is nostalgic. Again, having it on the phone made it more personal. That sound lulls you into a trance.
And you kept it in the music. It’s not just a click track where you can listen to it yourself. It’s right there for people to be lulled along with you.
I like the grungey, distorted sound. I feel like that was my attraction to GarageBand. And the fact that it was so cheap — it was kind of a dig at consumer culture. All these producers always want the technology, and I’m not trying to dog that, because I definitely would love more technology to play with. But also, you can do a lot with minimal resources.
Next up, this is kind of a fan service question for myself, but who are the “vultures out at night” in “Kickflip”?
Vultures. I guess it could mean darkness in some ways. Not darkness as in beauty and bounty and all the things darkness can be. So maybe I shouldn’t say “darkness,” but things that lure you into a place of subconscious unrest.
I like thinking about this, because it’s really clear that even if you didn’t already write poetry, the person singing these songs is a poet. I think there’s a lot of room for there to be two or more meanings at once, so my vultures are probably different from your vultures.
They are. For me, vultures are things that pick and prey. What do the vultures mean to you?
Well, I just read this book about millennials and the making of human capital, and so I’m thinking a lot about the machinations of society which do pick and prey at you. It’s such a little picking at a time that you hardly notice until you’re like, “I’m exhausted, and I have been exhausted for months.” That’s one thing that I would pin on that phrase as a listener.
Another interpretation thing I wanted to know is, I hear a lot of desire in the EP. Whether it’s in “Sugar Mama” or in “Warm Pants.” As we’re in the first couple weeks of this new year, what do you want out of 2019?
I want two things. One, I’m gonna be honest: money. Bank, bags. Not one bag: bags. Multiple bags. But also, humor. I want to laugh a lot.
What do you find funny?
A lot of things. I feel like I’m a clown. [laughs] I’m gonna be honest: I wrote “Kickflip” because I just kind of wanted to make a Migos song.
Mmhmm, I think it’s hypnotic in the same way as a Migos song.
Yeah. Migos still need to work on some of their [clears throat] you know? But still.
My roommates love comedy specials, and they know the John Mulaney one on Netflix word for word. Is there a place you go where you know you’ll laugh?
I laugh a lot at things in life that happen. But that’s not the only way to expel your feelings. I do it in a lot of unhealthy ways. I watch a lot of sad anime that makes you sob.
In life, it can be nice to cry in the moment, but sometimes I just don’t have time for that. [laughs] That sounds terrible, but in a capitalist world, you don’t have time.
I think I have a 15-minute slot at 4:30. [laughs] But you write so prolifically, it seems. There’s not many people who can be like, here’s my “First Take.” Psymun’s like, “I sent the ‘Albany’ beat to Dua and then they sent it back within an hour.” How often do you have time to write?
I’ll rush it if I need to, but generally, I do have time. With “Albany,” I was on a very sad cabin retreat. It was a lot of reflection about identity, and it was very dysphoric. They had people writing down reflections about identity, and I had written a song.
I wasn’t expecting to get anything from Psymun at the time, but he sent me the beat. And I was like, “Oh, s***. I got lyrics, let me add a chorus.” I recorded literally within the hour and sent it back. On my phone.
On your phone.
And Psymun snapped. He went in on the textures and layers and everything he added toward the end. I was taken back by the sound of it.
What do you think makes Psymun such a good producer?
Curiosity. I think he’s always searching for different sounds and alternative ways to work on music. He’ll buy some vintage technology and combine it with things that are more modern.
He loves music, and I think that’s what makes his producing so magnetic. He’s always watching the waves and cycles of music and taking note of history. He’s years ahead of people and not even trying, and it’s beautiful to watch.
I like that concept of watching history as it happens. What do you think people are going to remember about 2018? What are you going to remember about your 2018?
There’s a lot to remember. There’s been a lot of international political upheaval, and obviously, we’re in 45’s era. One thing I’m going to take with me and something that’s happening right now in 2019 is the civil unrest in Sudan, and how it seems like they’re going through another revolution, actually. They’ve already had three, so it’s scary to watch.
I do have family, so it’s been nerve-wracking. Alhamdulillah, nothing has happened to anybody within my family, but they’ve been shooting kids. They shot a 12-year-old boy. There’s high inflation rates, and people are unable to get money out of ATMs. People are unable to access internet. That’s something that I’m continuing to take with me this year.
Do you have any favorite words in Arabic? Alhamdulillah is such a pretty one, and powerful.
Alhamdulillah is a word that I say often. It’s a complicated relationship. I grew up in a Muslim household, so it has a lot of positive connotations. You say it when you feel blessed or thankful for something. To remind yourself that there are other people who don’t have it.
But also, I have a complicated relationship with “alhamdulillah” because of my complex understanding of my own identity, which doesn’t fit in line with some people’s interpretation of Islam. And on top of that, it’s in Arabic, which is the language of the people who colonized my people. I would traditionally speak Rutana, which is a language of the indigenous people. But “rutana” literally translates to “gibberish” in Arabic.
What the f********?
Yeah. You’re just very aware of the continual genocide of Africans by Arab nation-states and the continual slave trade into most Middle Eastern nation-states, as well as Israel and Egypt.
Mm. So right now, do you have a day job, or do you stick to creative work?
I jump around between music, theater, and poetry. I’m gonna reveal a secret: I’m very new to theater. Most of the plays that I’ve watched have been local ones. People that have put on shows of their own, or venues around here: Mixed Blood, Pillsbury House Theatre, Minnsky. This city is in love with theater. Not just Minneapolis, but also St. Paul and suburbs and colleges.
Wrapping up, if someone is just getting to know your music, is there a song you think people should start with?
I like the way Psymun arranged Nūr. Just start from “Sugar Mama,” the first song, unless you’re in the mood for something more sullen and soft. And then I would go for “Survival,” which is with Velvet Negroni. I love the sound of that song.
This interview has been slightly edited and condensed.