Black History 365: Dua Saleh

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Before becoming a musician, Dua Saleh was more likely to be known for their activist work (protesting against the school-to-prison pipeline) or their spoken-word poetry (which has garnered hundreds of thousands of views via the hugely popular performance poetry platform Button Poetry). But after only beginning to record their seductive, mercurial music about two years ago, the 25-year-old Sudan-born nonbinary artist has already been called a “genius” by Moses Sumney and received critical acclaim for their 2019 debut Nūr EP.

But the best praise that Saleh has received so far hasn’t been public. Speaking from their apartment in Minnesota, they break their chill demeanor to geek out about the time when three of their all-time music heroes — Yasiin Bey, SZA, and Tierra Whack — complimented Saleh in person during the Twin Cities hip-hop festival Soundset last year. “I think all of that happened in one day,” they say incredulously over FaceTime, as if they still couldn’t believe it.

The influence of these three musicians can certainly be heard in Saleh’s genre-agnosticism and their fluid vocals, which move between deliciously tactile rapping and spellbinding singing. But their writing style is unlike that of any other artist. Throughout Nūr, they established a talent for depicting both the splendors and pitfalls of queer love by using mischievous wordplay and imagery. But now, on their upcoming ROSETTA EP (out in June via Against Giants), Saleh continues to merge the serious and playful by pushing their work into more fantastical, mystical territory.

Saleh was born in Sudan, but their family had to flee the country due to the Second Sudanese Civil War. After briefly living in an Eritrean refugee camp, their family eventually moved to various cities in the U.S. There, they began burrowing into the Qu’ran, reading Black American YA literature, and writing poetry, which sometimes concerned some of their teachers. “My family was experiencing homelessness,” they explain. “I was dealing with other things that I don’t necessarily want to name. Some teachers could sense that I was in a dark place.” Still, they succeeded in publishing their written poetry, and later, as an adult, started doing slam poetry.

Though they first came out as nonbinary as a college sophomore, Saleh emphatically says, “I always been on gay shit.” One early memory of their burgeoning queerness is when they became the Vice President of their high school Gay-Straight Alliance — which their mom wasn’t too thrilled about. “I think she found LGBT pamphlets from my GSA so she put me in Dugsi, which is an Islamic school [in Minnesota],” they say, explaining that it contributed to their Muslim identity even though they’re not “religious in the institutional sense.” Their queerness and cultural background meet on ROSETTA. The track “smut” marks Saleh’s first released song that’s partially in Arabic (their first language), but with a twist, as they switch between different gendered nouns and create their own “gender-neutral” words.

Even when discussing complex, heady concepts, Saleh’s silliness and deft humor shines through — in their music and throughout our conversation. They explain that part of ROSETTA’s intention is satire, so they created an alter-ego called Lucifer LaBelle (named after the fallen angel and the gospel singer Patti LaBelle) to inhabit. The character became a way to reclaim the “You’re going to hell”-type sentiments often lobbed at queer people by religious zealots, and it’s most explicit on the project’s ripping rock-inflected track “hellbound,” released last Friday. The accompanying music video features clips from the anime series “Crybaby Devilman,” using its elements of dark fantasy to further emphasize how powerful Saleh’s demonic persona is.

In the weeks leading up to ROSETTA, Saleh chatted with them. about their “explicitly queer” new project, their love of anime, and connecting to Sudanese listeners through Arabic.

When did you decide to start doing music?

I started doing some poetry sophomore year of college, because I was broke and trying to get money. I was living alone, and then I went through an intense depressive episode because of things that were happening in my life: family, relationships, and college. I don’t know what happened, but something [in my body] compelled me to start singing and start writing songs. I have no explanation for what it was; I just was depressed and needed [to let] something out. Then, I started trying to perform the songs at open mics just to see how people would respond, and they responded very well, so I started making songs on my phone. I think one person saw me perform a song at a poetry slam and booked me for an event. I was like, “Hm, maybe I can make some money off of this,” which is terrible to think about it in that way. [laughs]

How did you get started in the slam poetry scene in Minnesota?

I started by going to this one called Button Poetry. They had a monthly slam poetry event. It’s at a bar somewhere in deep St. Paul, and people from all over the US try to come in to perform, I think because they want the notoriety attached to it. I wasn’t thinking about that. I was like “Hm, $300?” I never won any, but that’s just because I kept accidentally and intentionally breaking the rules.

What rules were you breaking?

When I started singing some people didn’t think of that as authentic poetry. Sometimes I would do two short poems instead of one. I would just do whatever I felt, which was not beneficial at all to my bank account. I probably need to relax enough off that, even with music because I just do whatever I want to.

How does that “rule breaking” mentality carry over to music?

There’s a certain level to which I’m thinking about the songs’ intention and thinking about their implications and impact. But sometimes, I don’t know. Even with “umbrellar,” it was kind of just a joke song. Then I thought maybe people would like it because the melodies and obviously Psymun and Andrew Broder‘s production is really amazing. But the narrative is a sci-fi song about my ex and saying she’s a witch? Even the ad libs are very comical. Every time I hear the songs, I laugh a little bit inside.

I’m assuming because of the title, the EP is inspired by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, right?

I was thinking about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Marie Knight’s relationship that ended up not really manifesting. They were in a relationship, which is speculated by a lot of the people in their lives. But [the family of] Marie Knight [died in] an accident, and they could no longer be together because she was spiraling through depression and grief. All the songs were recorded before I thought about Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her impact… or even about it being sonically infused with rock and roll. But thinking about it afterwards, I was like, “How can I imagine queer love in a way that’s radical and that has profound complexity?”

Why are you drawn to anime and what does it provide for you in your life?

It provides a sense of escapism that live-action content doesn’t provide. I can find myself in certain characters, in both their strengths and flaws. In sci-fi manga [and anime], humans can morph into beings outside of the common scope of reality. The main characters often tap into a tremendous amount of untapped energy. There’s a transmutational process that goes beyond any human capabilities. It’s intriguing for a trans person like myself, especially being nonbinary.

Can you tell me about your choice to sing in Arabic on “smut” and what you’re saying on the song?

At the time when I was making that song, I was working with the Minnesota Sudanese community, who were doing a lot of organizing around the protests and riots in Sudan. I was thinking a lot about what was happening there. A lot of imagery stemmed from that [including] one word in particular: Kandaka, which means “queen” in ancient Nubian. It’s something that was used because women in Sudan are the vanguards of most of the political movements, especially this previous one. I was thinking about the implications of Kandaka, then Kundaka came out of it. Instead of Kandaka meaning queen, Kundaka would be like me imagining nonbinary or gender nonspecific royalty. I knew that it didn’t mean anything, but I guess I queered it.

I said a lot more. It’s kind of hard to translate in English. “It came from one place. It came from a dry place. It came from ground that fell.” It’s more imagery. I was thinking about Sudan, and how, in English, [the name] translates to meaning “land of the Blacks.” There’s a lot of speculation about where specifically the first few people [came from]. I was thinking about the erasure of Sudan. I was also thinking about pyramids and the enslavement of Sudanese people for the creation of Egyptian pyramids. Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt, but Egypt is credited for a lot of [symbols of] Blackness and romanticized in that sense. I’m not really using it as a dichotomy, but I was thinking about that at the time I was writing it.

It’s not the first song I’ve written in Arabic, but I wanted to break into the Sudani market. It’s super nice to see people in the audience who understand what you’re saying and who are from where you’re from. I got a taste of that [playing] at this benefit concert by Everyday People that had a fully Sudani lineup. I got to perform to a crowd full of Sudani people, and it lifted my spirits in a way that I didn’t think was possible. I was like, “Maybe I should release some music in Arabic so my Sudani listeners can feel the same thing.”

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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