Canada’s Somali R&B Singer Amaal on Embracing Songs About Sexuality and Intimacy
By Ben Rayner
Amaal Nuux’s is, admittedly, kind of an ideal “Toronto” story: a former refugee of Somali-Muslim extraction defies the deeply embedded socio-cultural codes against women making music in her home country by flirting with mainstream R&B success at the international level, from her adopted home base in a far more pluralistic and permissive Canadian city.
Nuux, who goes professionally these days simply by Amaal, decided a couple of years ago that she didn’t want her narrative — intriguing and inspiring though it is — to define her art, however, not just because it was doing a “disservice” to her music but also because, in its own way, it would only serve to perpetuate a certain hard-done-by stereotype of Somalia.
Somalia is populated by human beings with lovers and families and the same everyday hopes, dreams and concerns as all the other human beings on the planet, after all, even if they happen to live in a country that’s been battered by colonialism and bloody internal strife and natural disaster for decades. So, really, the best way for Nuux to honour her lineage while simultaneously working to change common perceptions of Somalia, she realized, was to simply put herself out there in song as a human being and a woman rather than “this refugee immigrant girl.”
“Definitely hearing ‘Muslim Somali woman doing R&B music’ is extremely, extremely rare. It was quite a shock to a lot of people,” says Nuux, 29, calling overseas from London whilst “still on a bit of a high” from a gig at the Lexington club in support of her new EP, Black Dove, the night before. “This EP and this body of work definitely is my claim of independence in who I am and my thoughts and, you know, having my expression be less restricted because when I did come in, I was still very much in a place of fear because it is such a taboo doing music.
“I was essentially censoring myself and, as an artist, that’s the worst thing you can do to yourself. So I felt like I was truly dishonouring the music I was creating, but I was scared because there was no blueprint for me to follow or formula.
“But there have been a few Somali girls since and we’re just breaking the rules and kind of creating our own set of boundaries. We are not going to allow society or culture to restrict us on what we can and can’t do. And I’m not in that place anymore. That’s what Black Dove is. Black Dove is stepping out of that space that I put myself in and that society put me in, so I’m free now.”
Nuux, born in Mogadishu as the middle kid amidst seven sisters and three brothers, emigrated with her family to North America — to Alabama before Toronto — during the Somali civil war of the early 1990s and discovered her singing voice busting out Céline Dion’s version of “The Power of Love” in Grade 3 choir. It wasn’t until her teenage years, when she had access to her friends’ CDs and iPads, that she was really exposed to pop music simply because music wasn’t really a presence in her conservative household.
By 16, she was emboldened enough to start considering the possibility of singing as a career and, by 20, started releasing music online and garnering impressive YouTube views in the hundreds of thousands for anthemic early tunes like “Mufasa,” “With You” and “Words Revealed.” She even briefly landed a deal with Drake’s right-hand-man producer Noah “40” Shebib’s label, although that fizzled out discouragingly before it could really bear fruit.
Much soul-searching ensued and the young Amaal realized she didn’t want to be stuck in the “immigrant refugee girl” box and that she’d been holding back on talking about what she really wanted to talk about in her music, things like “relationships and sexuality and intimacy,” because it had been culturally ingrained in her not to talk about those things. She had to do some “deprogramming,” she says, and once that happened the creative doors were flung wide open toward the slinky, thoughtful 21st-century R&B minimalism of Black Dove, a open-hearted six-track collection of late-night tunes about love, lust and the lengths we’ll go for the people we love and lust over — the lovely “Later” and its poignant accompanying video were inspired by the connection she found with other women sharing her long bus rides to visit a boyfriend serving eight months in prison — released July 12 through the Universal Music-affiliated imprint Public Records.
Things have finally started clicking again. And connecting with people; an early Black Dove single, “Not What I Thought,” currently stands at 1.1 million views on YouTube. A homecoming Toronto show is currently in the works, she says, and will ideally happen sometime in August after a big coming-out gig in New York on July 26.
Of “Later,” she says, “that song is the one that, I promise you, in a million years I never thought I would share in that moment when I was experiencing it. I felt a lot of shame because there is a lot of stigma associated with inmates, and not only them but the people who visit them — anybody who’s associated. But I found a sisterhood and in the end the shame was gone.” And that’s the kind of strength emanating from within the grooves of Black Dove.
“I always want to challenge myself and not be complacent and I was complacent for awhile,” says Nuux. “I just want to be very vulnerable and open with my music.
“Once I did that work, my music got better. I’m not saying my music wasn’t good before — I love it and I’m very proud of it — but it was becoming the same redundant message because I was so restricted. And once I was able to dissolve that layer of restriction, that block I had, so much came out. So I feel like I’m very capable of doing another (recording) already because it’s coming so easily now and it’s therapy … It was beautiful yesterday talking to the girls at the show who’d stayed behind … they might not have the courage at the moment to voice what they want but they’re excited that there’s someone there who they can see themselves in.”
Nuux, who counts Nina Simone, Adele and Lauryn Hill — and, of course, fellow Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan — as influences and inspirations, is a big believer in the need to live to create, and in the ability of art as a force of social change. So the former international-development studies major at the University of Toronto will continue to do her share of living, and plans to keep returning to places like Somalia and Uganda, where she has been volunteering in refugee camps on and off since she was 17, to keep the creative fires burning.
“I always say when I went to Somalia I left as a somewhat spoiled, unaware person,” she says. “I think I was a very young girl, still developing my perspective on life and, you know, I was still very sheltered,” but soon really, the girl who left, she no longer existed. I couldn’t connect to my friends, I couldn’t connect to the surroundings that I was in, I completely changed what I was taking in school.
“So I really had a shift in my thinking of the world and where I see myself and what I want to do. They’ve gone through so much turmoil and so much war and famine … I understood my privilege right away that the only difference between them and I was I was just able to leave. That’s it. Other than that, that would have been my future. But I was able to get out with my family and the rest of us within the diaspora are very lucky for that, so we almost have a sense of duty to share these stories.”
Source: the Star