Photo by Grant Spanier.

Dua Saleh highlights the erasure of queer black artists with their new EP

The Minneapolis-based musician is pushing their gay, non-binary agenda to aid closeted kids in their native Sudan.

by Jake Hall
20 April 2020, 8:00am

Photo by Grant Spanier.

It’s been just a few days since Dua Saleh dropped the beautiful visual for new track ‘umbrellar’, the first to be lifted from their upcoming EP, ROSETTA. Lyrically, it’s a tender ode to a striking ex-girlfriend. “It’s basically about falling in love with a gay alien witch,” Dua laughs, explaining the song’s narrative. “Her dad is like ‘bro, she’s literally an alien,’ but I’m already lovestruck!”

Personal anecdotes like these come thick and fast throughout our hour-long video call, always punctuated with an infectious laugh. As we speak, Dua is spending lockdown in a Minneapolis apartment watching anime (Tamako Market), reading manga and delving into films like Lula Ali Ismail’s Dhalinyaro. “I guess I’m seeking out my identity,” they explain. “So I look for East African directors, as well as trans and black characters in anime.”

Although born in Sudan, Dua’s family was soon forced out by civil war. Dua then spent their childhood moving from city to city (“it made me super introverted… at one point, I probably wouldn’t have even been able to talk to you right now”) before settling in Minneapolis at 21 years old. "I left home because I was grappling with my identity and tired of being closeted..." they recall. "Just regular gay shit, I guess!" Still, Dua adapted quickly, building a network of close, largely queer and trans friends, and establishing a reputation as one of the city’s best slam poets.

Fast-forward a few years and they’re a critically-acclaimed musician, earning endorsements from the likes of Moses Sumney, Purity Ring and Psymun, who executive produced on ROSETTA. Last year’s debut EP Nūr was genre-defiant brilliance, fusing poetic lyricism, quick wit and syrupy vocals on a strong, concise set with stripped-back production. A handful of releases have come since -- the glitchy, experimental “bee” and woozy, soulful “pretty kitten” are particular highlights -- but ahead of ROSETTA’s release in June, i-D settled in for a candid video call about identity, art as catharsis and the enduring, often erased legacy of rock 'n' roll legend Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

I know you have a background in poetry and art more generally, but when did you first start really taking music seriously?
At first I was just using music as escapism, like many other trans and queer artists do. I think my transgression into the art world has been kind of strange, because I wasn’t ever trying to do anything there. I started doing poetry slams because I was broke and thought maybe I could make some money, and sometimes during competitions I would sing to see how people would respond. Then, someone randomly booked me for an event -- they asked me to sing a capella at a club! I didn’t really drop music until a few months after I started doing poetry.

“sugar mama” was an early release which you produced on your phone, right? How did you self-teach to build songs around your poetry?
I usually start off with the vocals and build around them. With “sugar mama”, I was just listening to the metronome sound on GarageBand, then I added some reverb and compressed it... I don’t even remember, but I was like “this is crazy, this is cool”. I was high as fuck! Then I started writing about one of my first encounters with queerness, and I guess people resonated with it.

Are your lyrics usually autobiographical?
Most of the time. Sometimes they’re imaginative, but sometimes those can be more out there and peculiar. Like, maybe it’s something that I like, but I’m not sure how other people would react.

How does it feel to go from making art as an experiment to being within the industry and having to consider how your work is perceived?
Now that I’ve gotten into live performances, the way I make music has shifted because I think about how people will respond to songs in a live setting. I put out a new song, “bee”, because people responded to it so well. It took a long ass time to enjoy performing, though. I’ve been writing poetry since I was four years old and I was published a few times, so I knew I was comfortable with that medium, but I first performed in front of people in my senior year of high school and I was sweating buckets! Even now I feel my legs shaking through the first song, but I also put on a performance of a person. It’s kind of like when Roman takes over Nicki Minaj… something takes over me.

ROSETTA marks your first time singing in Arabic, on “smut”. Was that something you were always aiming to do?
Even when I first started making music, I wrote some songs in Arabic. But this time was different, because of some of the words. Kandaka is a Nubian word for ‘queen’, but I kind of change it. I say kandaka, because it has political implications and is relevant to the riots that were happening in Sudan. It was one of the primary words that was trending amongst people calling for protest and resistance against the government, but I changed it to kundaka, which doesn’t mean anything -- I’m implying it as a form of queerness, like queering language in some way. Arabic speakers will think it’s wrong, but I switch pronouns and genders in lyrics.

Speaking of which, has being non-binary ever been difficult to navigate in the music industry?
I’m not going to lie, it’s not been the best. For context, basically all of my friends in Minneapolis are queer or trans, or have partners that are. Even cis and straight people here that I speak to regularly get my pronouns correct, and I’m grateful for that. But when I leave this state, I get emotionally distressed in a new way. I have breakdowns all day. I’m being misgendered non-stop. Also, I’m not used to online attention outside of my friendship group, and I constantly get misgendered in publications or added to playlists of like, new female musicians. I’m like, “bro, I’m not!”

It’s wild that even something as basic as the right pronouns can make us feel grateful! Queerness is pretty embedded in your work, too…
Yeah, that came naturally. People listen to my music like “aw, queer love!” I’m just on my regular gay shit. I’m not even thinking about politics right now, I’m just thinking about my ex!

What made you call the EP ROSETTA?
It was named after one of my favourite musicians of all-time, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. People call her the Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, but she’s literally the mother. She birthed all these bitches! Her essence was important to me growing up, but later I found out that she was queer, and came across these stories of her and Marie Knight, who she toured with and was pretty much going to be in a fully-fledged relationship with. Marie’s mother and sister tragically died in a car crash just as whatever she had with Rosetta was emerging, so she spiralled into depression and Rosetta remarried a guy that she ended up divorcing. I was imagining what it would have been like if Rosetta and Marie had been together for life.

Was naming the EP after her a way to highlight her erasure, too?
Definitely. The erasure of queer, black and trans people in the music industry is something that I see on a daily basis, from lack of credit to people co-opting certain sounds. But I was also just thinking about how dynamic Rosetta’s writing was. It’s not always about representation; sometimes she’s talking about sexual desire, lamenting or thinking about religion and her spirituality. I can’t relate to that too much, but I do respect it.

Now that you’re gaining a platform, what do you want people to take away from what you put out?
In terms of online, I’ve been really cognisant of the people that are coming onto my music. In Sudan, there’s a lot of queer, trans and non-binary people who are closeted, so I try to put out as much content that’s like, the gay and trans agenda, as possible! I feel like a lot of my fanbase is really knowledgeable in queer theory because they don’t have access to actual communities, so they dive into it intellectually. That’s why I’ll maybe put the colours of the trans or agender flag out there, for example. Ultimately, I’m still trying to come to terms with what I want to do and how I want to respond to the interest in my work. Right now, the best thing I can do is provide people with escapism.

music interviews
Dua Saleh