ast year felt like the burning of the bush that happens annually so that the ground can get refreshed,”
said Alsarah via Zoom from her home in Brooklyn. Metaphor isn’t unlike her: As the frontwoman of Alsarah & the Nubatones, the Sudanese singer is known for her devastating lyricism and distinct sound, an amalgamation of experimental dance mixes and twists on traditional Sudanese ballads and folk songs.
It’s impossible to interview anyone in 2021 without first discussing the cataclysm that befell us last year. When I brought it up with Alsarah, she said she’d found something soothing within the catastrophe: the time to reconnect with a youthful version of herself who’d gone dormant after years of being jaded by the rat race of the music industry. “It reminded me of being a teenager,” she said. “It was really refreshing, just that tender place when you're first starting to do your art, and you're doing it just for yourself.”
Alsarah’s music has a healing quality, perhaps one that everyone who listens to her can feel, but certainly those with a connection to the dialect she sings in, the instruments she incorporates, or the folktales she reimagines. One of her most popular songs, “3roos Elneel,” literally “Bride of the Nile,” is a reimagining of a song from Aghani al Banat, a body of music traditionally sung by women at Sudanese celebrations. With the use of the oud, darbuka drums, keys, bass, and club mixes, her sound is familiar at times and psychedelic at others, but always contemplative and heartfelt.
When I first saw Alsarah perform, it was December 2019 in Brooklyn and she was singing in “Coming Out Muslim” by artists Wazina Zondon and Terna Tilley-Gyado, a moving performance that includes music, theater, and personal monologues about “being at the intersections of Islam and queerness and its relationship to family, lovers, one’s sense of self and relationship with our faith.” The show’s theme and title refer to a paradox felt by many queer Muslims living in the West: It can be just as hard to exist as Muslim in queer spaces as it is to exist as queer in Muslim spaces. It was the most open and moving thing I’d witnessed in recent memory—still is—and not just on behalf of the performers. As many in the audience watched, myself included, our emotions refused to stay within our bodies, tears darkening our jacket sleeves. And there, on stage, was Alsarah comforting us with her melodies.
That room in the back of a Brooklyn bar filled with people who “get it” was the perfect environment for Alsarah’s music. The world outside and the music industry in particular, though, have been less welcoming. Following a year of solitude and self discovery, Alsarah explained the insidious attributes of the music industry that hardened her in the first place and the creative ways she’s pushed against them time and time again in hopes of making her career align as closely as it can with who she is.
When I break into the music industry, do I want to break in as an English-singing American person who then needs to tell them that she's not American?
When we first spoke at the end of March, she was fresh off a much-welcome trip to Egypt and Kenya that she described as “somewhere between a creative and emotional sabbatical from the US.” Alsarah, who goes by first name only, was born in Khartoum. Due to the aftermath of the 1989 coup, she and her family moved to Yemen for a few years, during which a brief but fierce civil war in the country forced them to relocate again, this time to Massachusetts, where she spent the rest of her teens. In 2000, she left for college in Connecticut to study ethnomusicology, something she saw as a compromise between having to tell her parents she was going to pursue life as an artist and any other straight-edge path that would bore her to death. By the time she’d graduated, though, she was willing to endure their reaction and moved to Brooklyn to pursue music. Six years later, following a dinner conversation between Alsarah and percussionist Rami El-Aasser, the Nubatones were born—a nod to Alsarah’s Nubian descent.
Still, when Alsarah sings, she does so in Arabic, not Nubian. “I don’t think that’s an accident,” she told The FADER in 2016. The choice was made for her; due to Arabization and the consequent permeation of Arabic, Alsarah never learned Nubian. But, when it came time to decide whether to make music in Arabic or English, she had a choice.
“I was like, okay, when I break into the music industry, do I want to break in as an English-singing American person who then needs to tell them that she's not American? Do I want to make music that my aunties can't really get into?” she told me. “Or, do I want to come in as who I am, a Sudanese person who is also Brooklynite, who's going to tell you after that that she speaks English?”
Alsarah made the decision to sing in Arabic knowing full well that it was not the more commercial option, but she’s first to admit her lyricism is simply better this way. “Languages are like personalities inside your mouth,” she said, “and I'm fluent [in English], but when I sing, I become someone else. And that other person is not as fluent in English.”
Whether because of her choice to sing in Arabic, her sound, or her appearance, Alsarah noticed very quickly that she and the Nubatones were consistently shuffled into the “world music” genre, a category that seems to have no clear definition beyond “other.” Since then, the category has been a consistent and seemingly inescapable frustration. She described reluctantly being placed on world music stages at music festivals and scrolling through 19 different kinds of goth-pop-punk while uploading her music to digital distributors before being forced to check “world music” if she wanted to upload at all.
“I was just like, okay, so all these sub-genres for everything in the West, when the West is this tiny, this tiny [holds a pinch up to the screen] compared to the whole rest of the world?” she said. “[Everyone else gets] one label. Please, if that ain't colonial, I don't know what it is. It's so obviously racist.”
It was out of this frustration that, years ago, Alsarah decided to create her own genre for her music: East African Retro-Pop. And while she says the industry was not initially receptive, it’s coming around. “I'm beginning to even see Sudanese artists here and there tagging ‘retro-pop’ and ‘East Africa,’” she says. “I really love feeling like I'm part of a wave of people, a mass shifting and changing.”
Alsarah views not only her own music, but music in general, as being prone to perpetual change. “Musical journeys are like a circle; this is just where I'm at in the world right now,” she said. A testament to that transformation: Alsarah & the Nubatones’ third album, tentatively due out by the end of the year, will include her first two English tracks. “I finally feel like I can release some of these songs that I write [in English], and they can become a part of my canon instead of defining my canon,” she said.
Art is often weaponized. Whether it's weaponized for the sake of the people or against the people becomes about who's holding the weapon.
When it comes to her art, Alsarah is not a purist by any means. It’s as if being boxed into the non-genre of “world music” opened the door for creative possibilities that can only come about when one abandons genre entirely. Both of Alsarah and the Nubatones’ previous albums, Silt and Manara, were followed by near-full album remixes containing club tracks and the work of producers like Chancha Vìa Circuito, who is known for fusing electronic mixes and cumbia. Currently, Alsarah is finalizing an EP for the end of the summer using field recordings she collected while producing the soundtrack for the 2014 documentary Beats of the Antonov. She hopes to use any proceeds to funnel money towards Civic Lab, a youth-led grassroots organization in Sudan that sets up artistic incubator spaces around the country.
Though Alsarah ditched academia post-graduation, she still refers to herself as a “reluctant musicologist,” and even took a few minutes during our first call to dissect the origins of Saweetie ft. Doja Cat’s “Best Friend.” (The rise of the platonic love movement is what makes the song appropriate for this moment, of course.)
To her, music is to life as life is to music: inseparable. “No matter what country, what region, what tribe you're from, someone has passed by you at some point in the past and left a sonic trail,” she told me. That sonic trail encompasses politics, too, which naturally makes its way into Alsarah’s music. “Art is often weaponized,” she said. “Whether it's weaponized for the sake of the people or against the people becomes about who's holding the weapon.”
As a Black Muslim immigrant woman, “politics manifest themselves on my physical body all the time,” she said. Alsarah sees herself as a bridge, able to recognize and point out similar struggles within Sudan and the US, and the feelings they bring about. “I hear the same slut-shaming and victim-blaming conversations in Sudan that I hear here in the states,” she said. “Our fight is global.”
As long as she’s holding the weapon, Alsarah sees her role as refreshingly uncomplicated: “The role of art is to be a mirror—to be an honest, clear mirror. That's it.”