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Amaal's Intimate R&B Shows that Love Is Hard Work

The Somali Canadian singer went from making protest music to analyzing the blind spots in her love life on her debut EP, 'Black Dove'.

by Kristin Corry
24 July 2019, 7:30am

Photo by Sean Brown

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Amaal introduces herself to the world in hushed tones. On her debut EP Black Dove, she uses a quiet, welcoming voice to earn your trust, urging you that you'll be safe for the 20-minute ride. The softer she sings, the closer you listen, which is important for Amaal, because it's taken years for her to get comfortable telling her own story. Her parents fled Somalia's civil war when she was an infant, migrating to Canada. In the decades since, she's spent time figuring out the layers of her East African-born but Toronto-raised identities. Initially, Amaal resisted personalizing her music, leaning instead toward crafting protest anthems, like 2017's "Last Ones," until she realized her individual voice was getting lost in the noise.

Black Dove is the sound of Amaal creating for herself. She's an amalgamation of Toronto as much as she is of Somalia, citing Noah "40" Shebib's ambient productions and the pentatonic melodies of traditional Somali music as inspiration for her own material. Her debut single, "Not What I Thought" follows in the spacey production she gravitated toward, but elsewhere on the EP, like "Let Go," she slinks across the track. The concept of "struggle love" weaves the project together, reinforcing that suffering and trauma are often used as a barometer for a Black woman's ability to love. Black Dove finds the Toronto singer analyzing relationships from a bird's eye view.

On a blistering July day, the singer stopped by the VICE office with her luggage in tow, hours before her flight back to Toronto, in order to explain a little bit more about how the project came to be. Her speaking voice is as quiet and steady as Black Dove suggests, but her story is as powerful as its always been.

Your family fled Somalia's civil war in the early 90s when you were an infant. What was your understanding of what was going on there?
I was the last one to be born there. We left at the cusp of when the issues were starting, but because the war went on for so many years I remember the calls we would get: this family member passed, or your house has been broken into. That's what drives me. My mom and dad, and the sacrifices they made for us. It's only natural that I have that extra push in me.

Where did the concept Black Dove come from?
Being a Muslim woman, there's a lot of taboo for being a female in music. I did a lot of music at the beginning to please my parents and my community. I loved the music I was doing but I felt, "Okay, this is safe. I'm okay with it. The backlash isn't too much." I was afraid.

When I started working on Black Dove, I realized I was doing a disservice to myself as an artist because I wasn't being real about the day-to-day relationship problems I was going through. I felt like I wasn't present in my own music, like I was getting lost. Black Dove, to me, represents letting go of the cultural binds and shackles that kept me from breaking out. To me, doves represent freedom, peace, and tranquility. The journey I went on felt very similar to that. It felt like I was no longer caring about what other people thought about me and I was no longer ashamed about the experiences I went through, which some societies might try to shame you for. It's about freedom and empowerment.

The EP has an arc of working hard for the love you want until you realize it wasn't what you thought. "Let Go" begs a person to take a chance on you but by the time you get to "Not What I Thought," the smoke clears. How'd you decide on the narrative?
It's the different stages in a relationship. Some of it is from past relationships, but most of it is from one relationship in particular. There were so many obstacles that made it very challenging and testing for us to be vulnerable and be open.

You know the topic of "struggle love." That's what I was struggling with. I'm so down. I'm riding for you, but why does love have to be defined as going through hardships? Why do I have to show you that I love you by riding for you? That's not a healthy style of love. In my community, and in the Black community, we sometimes define love by enduring hardship.

Of course. Men glorify a "ride or die" in their music. Women in R&B acknowledge that pain, but it's rarely explicitly said how you sing on "Later:" "If I wait it out, you'll change your behavior / So I'll wait it out and you'll love me right."
The person I was [in a relationship] with went to jail and was incarcerated for 8 months. I would visit him every weekend. I remember meeting a bunch of women and we all took this one bus to get to the prison. I just remember thinking, "Wow, the things we do for love."

First, I was in a place of shame, like, "Man, I'm so embarrassed that I'm doing this." But I started to see it in a beautiful way. I respect and admire women so much. Our capacity and ability to love is limitless. I hate the concept of struggle love, but it's so ingrained in us. It's about the battle of breaking that habit.

"Coming and Going" is so relatable because of how indecisive you are on the track. What was the inspiration behind that song?
It's the feeling of "I really do like this and I love when we are together, but I need an answer. Is this going any further?" It's the transience of time. When you're together it feels so beautiful and perfect—but doesn't seem to last. It's very fleeting and temporary, but can we make this forever or should I just leave? But do I want to leave? I'm still confused. [Laughs]

"Scream" gives a slight nod to Destiny's Child "Say My Name." What's the story behind that song?
That song is about being in love with someone the world tells you not to be. Outside of society, we're not supposed to love each other, so "scream my name like a protest." We're with each other and that's okay.

How long did it take you to make Black Dove?
Probably one and a half to two years. When I was working on this EP, I started all over again. A lot of my music was about being a refugee, and, as an immigrant, I lived in an area with people who shared the same story as me. I wrote music for us, and it was very anthemic. I was in the studio one day working on another anthem type of song and the guy was like, "That's cool, but what else?"

As a Muslim woman, you're not supposed to be in a relationship. When you get to know one another it's very short, then you get married and there are certain steps you have to be taken. For me to be discussing relationships really put myself out there for criticism from other people. But thankfully, I don't care anymore and that's what Black Dove is. Even sharing the story of visiting my partner in prison... that's not something I thought I'd ever share, and now I've shot a video about it.

Do you remember the moment you stopped caring?
I don't think it was one moment. It was tiny pieces I was holding onto. When my dad was like, "Who cares. Say what you need to say." It made me think, if my mom and dad were behind me, then I shouldn't give in to these thoughts. It was extremely damaging to my soul. I had to get out of that space.

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.

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