I feel I paid a lot of homage to my Somali backgroundJul 18th 2019 · 23 min read
Somali-Canadian singer Amaal is like no other. At close to a year old, she and her family, consisting of seven siblings, immigrated to Canada to flee the devastating war in Somalia. That experience, in addition to her strict upbringing, all played a defining role in the artistry she hangs her hat on today. Amaal has never shown herself to be the kind of artist whose lyrics are filled with fluff, sunflowers and daisies. Instead, each line in her music represents pivotal, significant moments in her life, whether they pertain to heartbreaking experiences with love, enlightening trips back to Somalia, or learning to embrace her true self. The Toronto native’s work has always possessed a sense of honesty, but it’s on her newly released EP Black Dove that her vulnerability becomes abundantly clear.
Raised by traditional Muslim parents, Amaal admits that she’s always had a certain type of image to portray and standards to live by. However, despite the parental pressures that she grew up with, Amaal was content—for the time being. She didn’t reveal the fullest extent of her personality to her parents for the longest time, but they did know pieces of her and Amaal was at peace with that. That is, until it started to affect her music making process.
“I felt very dishonest, to be honest,” the 29-year-old says about creating music that primarily fulfilled the impression her parents had of her. “I didn’t feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music.”
Once the former University of Toronto student was candid with herself, she became candid in her music about various aspects of her life, and that is how Black Dove was born. Amaal went from singing on afropop beats to leaning on R&B sounds much more heavily in her material. However, despite shedding the original soundscape that introduced her to the music world, Amaal plans to always have that element that traces back to her Somali roots.
“I absolutely love [afropop] and I still always want to incorporate that,” she says. “Everything I did before I would still want to incorporate.”
Prior to the release of Black Dove, Amaal would pen songs about her travels to Somalia, the period of time she lived there as a teenager, and while that theme may not be as overt in her new EP, it’s still an important piece of her heart and life. To this day, when she’s not busy in the booth preparing new tunes, she’s in Somalia aiding the community in more ways than one. And old, new and future fans of Amaal have October’s Very Own’s (OVO) Noah Shebib to thank for the arrival of the songstress on the music scene.
Full of tranquil energy, Amaal opened up about the various meanings Black Dove holds to her, navigating the music industry as a Somali-Canadian woman and staying true to herself no matter the cause.
VIBE: You’ve described Black Doveas being an EP that represents the "you" that you’d previously kept hidden. Can you explain exactly what "you" was hidden? Amaal: Yeah, that's a good question. I was raised in a very sort of strict, conservative upbringing household. There's just a lot of things that I felt like wasn't ever a possibility that I can do. I didn't imagine certain things to be possible for me. When I started doing music I really didn't express a lot of the things I was going through in my relationships, 'cause to even be in a relationship is not really looked at in a good way. I started doing music that always had this message of hope and resilience within the community of people I was raised with: immigrants, refugees. When I did that music, I felt like my mom, my parents were very proud of me. Although it was my story and what I wanted to do, I felt comfortable being in that space and that's what I kept doing. That's what I kept going at. Just one time I thought, There's so much in my life that I've been through, that I've kept hidden, almost living a double life. I felt very dishonest, to be honest, and I didn't feel like I was being true to myself. [I] felt like I was lacking presence in my own music. I was disappointed and I thought, This has to change.
I just started talking about things that I had gone through in relationships, staying in a relationship longer when I should've left and the whole concept of struggle love. Just the black community, my community... I feel like we, as women, sometimes we feel like we have to endure pain in order to show that we love someone. From the outside looking in, people didn't assume that about me, but that is kind of what I was. I grew so much from that and I wanted to share that in my music. Black Dove to me represents freedom. I love birds, I love doves, I think they're so empowering and free and I'm a black woman, so it was like black dove.
It’s interesting that you felt like you were living a double life, even though it was in a space that you were comfortable. The way you are with your family, even though it is you, it's not the full extent of who you are.Yes, absolutely. In your music it's very hard but if I was doing a 9-5 job, I could, 'cause I was mastering it, I would be able to still continue doing that. But now, I have to have those conversations. I'm actually really learning I didn't give [my parents] enough credit. They're actually really awesome people and I'm disappointed in myself that I could've opened up in more areas. But there's still some stuff that needs to be talked about.
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My loves, I’m so excited to share that my EP BLACK DOVE will officially be out July 12 ???Black dove means to me freedom. Freedom of my own captivity. Freedom of the shackles society placed on me! It means no longer committing a disservice to myself and owning every part of me. It’s having the courage to show up and recognizing true strength is in being vulnerable. It’s Breaking down to rebuild and running to the other side of my fears. I feel so honoured to share these moments with you all! It’s only just the beginning! @applemusic presaves will be available next week ❤️ ? @byseanbrown Special thanks to @sidneigum for allowing me to wear this heavenly dress!! You’re beyond talented and im so thankful!
Was it difficult for you to be so honest with this EP, having gone through the experiences that have led you to be completely honest with who you are?Yeah, it was. I love how you worded that earlier. Although I was living a double life, I was comfortable in that area. It was working but I definitely had to face those things that I was pushing away. I just realized the definition of the strength that I thought I was and people perceived me to be was a front. There was a lot of ego-dropping and really being raw and vulnerable with myself. That's why for a lot of the tracks, I like the instruments to be very ambient and not that much going on. I like to build off of one or two instruments because I want to let my subconscious do the talking so that my ego's gone and I can be present. But I think that's the journey of getting there. It didn't happen overnight. There's some stories there that I never thought I would share but now I'm excited to talk about them.
Would you say that your need, or the feeling that you felt to hide yourself, came from just that specific place? From family? Mostly family, religion. Religion is number one. That played a huge role. Something I really struggled with, even talking about it in interviews, I'll be honest with you, because I do have a very deep connection with Somalia. I do a lot of activism work. I went to school for that and I want to continue doing that line of work. Unfortunately, there still is some sense of safety that I have to think about so I have to censor some things. But religion was hugely a part of it.
When you were in school, were you still doing music? I always did music. But even when I released my first body of music, the intent wasn't to be a frontrunner, to be a musician. It was out of pure expression. It was actually really innocent. Me and my cousin would write together, we'd be like "oh wow we have so many songs let's go to a studio and record." That was it, it was really to show my family and friends the clips and then it did really well. It pushed me into that setting. I actually had to take some time away from school, to go and focus on it and then I ended up getting signed to Noah Shebib. He's Drake's right hand. That was an amazing experience as well, but music was always the core.
You moved to Canada from Somalia at a young age. Do you feel as if the move didn’t have as much of an effect on you being so young? I absolutely remember nothing of it. But the experience had an effect on me because of everyone. We ended up moving to an area in Toronto where it was mostly Somali people who were running from the world. We all came with our PTSD and mental health issues. So, you did sense that things were not okay. Because I mean the first few years, the war went on for a long time. It’s debilitated the country. Almost my entire life I've known instability to be there. Thankfully it's getting better, but it's deeply within us. Even though we were away from the problem, we weren't. 'Cause my mom was getting a phone call of her dad passing away, getting killed, her brother essentially losing his mind because he saw so much. Bad news coming constantly to us, so it did still feel like it was present and it did affect us for sure. In ways maybe I don't know, in ways that I think it inspired me more to work harder in this life because I owe it to them and their sacrifice.
Do you feel very connected to your Somali heritage? Yeah, big time. We were very lucky because my dad made a big point that when were coming into the house, he'd say "Leave your English at the door" and "When you step in the house you speak Somali." People are very surprised to hear me speak. They're like "I would not have expected that." It's not amazing, it is good, but when I went to Somalia, I went woah, nevermind. I thought I was with it... yeah no. It's a poetic language. It's not like direct speaking, it's a lot of poetry. And you're like "oh my God, I don't know." I do the direct talking, my way of speaking is very different but it's very fascinating there.
When's the last time you went to Somalia? I saw on your Instagram page that you’ve been there a few times.Yeah, I was there a lot. I believe 2017, I was there three to four times, and then I was there in 2006, I believe. I was there for a year [in 2006]. It was pretty interesting. But the last few times I went to do famine relief work. There was a really bad drought that happened and a humanitarian crisis. There were like six million people that were going to go without food. A guy named Jerome [Jarre] started this initiative—two million dollars were raised and then we went there, took multiple trips, giving food, water, whatever the necessities were that they needed. So I took, three or four trips back and forth. It was phenomenal. It was the most sad, beautiful, everything experience ever. I saw a lot there that I wasn't prepared for.
Do you feel like there are other life experiences that have shaped you into the woman and artist you are today? Absolutely. That trip to Somalia—the one that I was there for a year—I say that trip. Even today what I'm doing, that's how much it domino affected my life. Because when I went there, I went a little bit spoiled, naive, ungrateful a little. I'm going to be honest. I was like "school's school, whatever," I just didn't care. And I went there and I saw how appreciative, how humble, how thirsty people were for knowledge, their education is huge. And how little they have but how content they are with what they have. I just remember thinking: "You've got to check yourself, you're kind of wack. You have all these opportunities." And these people are so inspiring and so everything. I learned there that although their world collapsed during the war, women were the backbone of that nation, they're the ones that kept it going. I admire them so much more, I really connected with my roots. I always say the girl who went there is gone. Left. I came back a completely different person. I couldn't connect with my friends, I immediately enrolled in school. I got my sh*t together. I did, I had to. Ever since then it's been my compass that's kind of guided me. It's so crucial to me.
Being described as socially conscious, not only in your music but outside of your music, why do you think being aware of our world and the issues that go on around us is so important? I forget this quote somebody said it but, I believe our ticket to this Earth is to be paid in service. That's just the way that I feel because Earth is our home and it provides so much for us and it's our job to also provide for it as well. That means all of its living mammals, whatever it is. I think coming from a country that's experienced so much turmoil, a continent that's gone through hell and back, and has been exploited—and don't even get me into that—I don't even know where it comes from but I know I was born with it. Does that make sense? It's instilled in me, so to put it into words, it's hard for me. But I just know it's necessary for not just you but for our future generation and their kids, you gotta clean your home right?
So is the growth you experienced from that trip and in general over the years, and who you've shaped yourself to be and who you're still shaping yourself to be, is that the message you want your fans to get from Black Dove? Are there any other messages you hope your fans pick up from your EP?I definitely hope that they can understand the journey that I've been on because of the style of music that I was doing for so long. But I think they will because I believe a lot of women from upbringings that I've had, there is that internal struggle that we all deal with where we want to please our parents but we also need to please ourselves. This project for me is... I'm pleasing myself. I feel there's this awakening happening, that women are starting to... essentially there's always been that message, but right now it's more powerful and we're really owning our voices. Feeling empowered in our sexuality and just who we are in our identity. If anything they could take is owning yourself and being okay with you are. You're enough. I'm writing that in my little cards to everyone, "You are enough."
The music you’re making now is a lot more R&B, and has a bit of a “vibey” energy to it, but not in the stereotypical sense. Being an artist, who would you say you idolized growing up? I'll be honest, I never idolized any artist. I think that word, I've always had a hard time with. But if there's someone I absolutely loved and adored, it was Aaliyah, because she had an Arabic name, too. I connected with her and she was of my generation. I didn't have the opportunity to hear a lot of music in my household. I didn't start singing until I was in high school, I didn't even know I really had it, anything. I started to listen to music in high school and I'd go back and be like, "Oh my god, who's this?" Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and all these greats. Nina Simone I loved because she lived in an era of oppression and the history of America was happening. She used her music to talk about that. She found a way to do it that I think a lot of people still aren't able to. I would say people from that time. Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Toni Braxton, too. Love her voice. Of course Beyoncé, she's the obvious, the guidebook, right? Aaliyah was my number one top.
How'd you discover that you could sing? I was singing Mario's "Let Me Love You," and a friend was like: "Oh, you sound good." I'm like "Really? Cool." And then I'd be singing on the bus and then somebody else said something, I was like "Okay, interesting." So I just started singing more. My sisters would say you sound pretty and I would mimic other artists. Not mimic them in that way, but practice tone and agility and the little runs.
Ari Lennox definitely matches your sound.Ah, I love her. She commented on my picture the other day, I damn near lost it. She's just so special. When I see her interviews she's just so real, very nice, and like awkward but in the most beautiful way. I love her. I'd love to work with those two. And then for producers, Pharrell would be a dream come true. There's a guy named Stint, he lives in L.A. I've worked with Noah [Shebib] before but to actually get back in and release a song together that would be dope. 'Cause we have stuff from the past. Yeah, I think that'd be a nice little full circle moment.
Getting deeper into your music, what was the process for creating this EP? How long did it take for you to complete it as well?The process for me was deprogramming myself, if that makes sense. Whatever cultural binds that were holding me back in my life, I had to first approach that before I even went into doing music. It was a lot of that type of work. And then when I went into the studio I really wanted space in my tracks, so I can express myself and let the subconscious tell the story and bring forth things that I've gone through in my life that I never would've shared. I felt like that's what I needed to do in that moment.
It was a little bit hard because one of the stories was about visiting someone that I loved that went away to jail for eight months. I visited him every single weekend and during that time, I'm telling you right now, very little people knew. Just my sisters because they know everything about me, a few girlfriends and that's it. I never thought I'd ever share this story, but going through it, it started off as a bit shameful, head down, getting on the bus, you just really don't want to say where you're going. And then by the end of it—because we would take this bus that was filled with women, who were going to see their loved ones as well—I remember falling in love with them. It was like a sisterhood that we formed, a support system. They had my back, I had theirs. In the end to feel shame would mean to be ashamed for them as well and I loved them. I just remember that whole feeling melting away and seeing them and myself in a light of admiration. I was very proud of myself. There was no shame. That's what the EP was for me. Telling those stories, telling those moments, I otherwise would've bottled up and it took a year and a half, I would say. I did start doing the EP and then I erased almost everything and I started all over again when I found this place that I was at. I was like, "No, I gotta be honest and open."
If you weren't as vocal before, do you feel like you had to be more vocal in the music industry? More assertive? How do you navigate it?Aw, man. A lot of my failures was because I wasn't assertive. A lot of my setbacks was because I never spoke up for myself and that is a lot culture as well. I was taught to allow the other person to decide. It definitely held me back in a lot of opportunities, and taking me to where I needed to go. It's interesting because you want to be able to do that without being called a bi**h, which is really sad, or a diva, which I find really heartbreaking. It's really sad. I'm now finding my voice and I'm for the first time seeing the reaction. Before I just allowed it, so that's been a really interesting landscape to navigate because I'm like,"oh I was honest with you and you're offended, why are you offended? There's no reason to be, so, now I have to soothe you again." I'm still learning and finding the best way to do it but it's really hard being a woman in this industry because it is male-dominated. But, I'll take being a bi**h now, 'cause at least I won't look back and be like, "I should've said something," 'cause that's how I felt previously in my past things, relationships that I was in.
❞ I feel I paid a lot of homage to my Somali background
Listening to Black Dove it’s very vibey and seductive. How did you make sure your sound was distinct and unique to you? For me, I feel I paid a lot of homage to my Somali background and we sing in a bit of a pentatonic scale. It's the Middle Eastern sound, it's just some of the runs. And I did it, in not what I thought, it was like a run that you wouldn't hear in the Western R&B style of music. I tried incorporating stuff like that. Picking drums that had a bit of an African feel, drum pattern to it. If the music was sounding not as unique, I would try to make sure at least the topic in which I'm singing about does. But honestly my go-to usually is very minimal. I gravitate towards that and I think that's been my unique thing because most production that I hear there's a lot happening. I know when I hear a lot happening, when they do that with some of my songs, I get a headache. Honestly, it's weird, I feel clustered. I feel like my message is being lost a little bit. Even in my graphics, some of the designs, I'm very minimalistic, very simple. I try to incorporate that into my music, I hope that's been able to set me apart.
On your song "Later" you sing, "if I hold us down you'll change your behavior." And from what could be understood from the song, it seems like a relationship that you give your all in, but the same isn't reciprocated and if it is, it's later. A lot of people can definitely relate to that feeling. Is this song from personal experience?Oh this one's all personal, 100 percent. It's the story I was just sharing with you. I actually wrote this song on my bus ride to go see him. It's such a long story, but to sum it up, we were already in a bit of a weird place during all that time. I think that would put stress on any person or any relationship. But, going there to see him, I remember thinking "I want to be there for him, I want to be loyal, down to that ride or die." And it can be damaging sometimes but in my case I really felt it was worth it. But yeah those are my questions, "I'll hold us down, I'll do all this stuff for you but will it be worth it and will you see my efforts." It was definitely being inspired by those women because we all shared a similar story. That's the story that it came from, that's so cool that you picked it up the lyrics.
Moving forward in your music, what is one constant that you want your fans to take from you as an artist? Some fans will take different things. Muslim-Somali women I think I want them to take that I'm a risk taker, I am resilient, I'm in a place where the judgment of others is no longer of importance to me and I really hope that that's something that is taken. Overall as a black woman, I hope that people can take the place that I'm in and feel comfortable with where they're at in life and feel empowered and powerful and comfortable in their skin and that they're very important and valid and that they're voice is to be heard. I think just that sense of independence, I really hope overall is what people take from this music.