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Dua Saleh is just getting started

Dua Saleh

Dua Saleh Akama Paul

Dua Saleh is a rapper who sings and Dua Saleh is a singer who raps—or maybe they’re a poet who sings and raps. They’re a gender-nonconforming Sudanese refugee and a proud child of the Rondo neighborhood who’s lived in four states, a 24-year-old Augsburg grad who double-majored in gender and sexuality studies and sociology and authored an essay placing Kendrick Lamar in the tradition of Afropessimism, the subject of profiles for major hip-hop websites like Complex and a grant-funded artist still creating within the network of Twin Cities nonprofits.

And, settled into a booth at the Seward Cafe one weekday morning, Saleh—a conjurer of mystery and mood onstage with an elaborate visual style—is a plainspoken, often earnest conversationalist, especially when pondering their new role as a recording artist. An artist with fans. Fans who are impatient to hear more.

“I’m like a jokester. I’m a goofy person. I wasn’t thinking about the impact of my music,” Saleh says. “But it’s hard to find an artist that you really connect with. Not to be braggadocious or whatever,” they continue, in a tone no one could mistake as such, “but I feel like sometimes people connect with my art partly because of identity—they don’t always see artists that are similar in identity to them. I’m kind of similar. I do like hearing artists who I share an identity with, because I don’t really hear anything that’s literally me, where you’re talking about content that I’m experiencing, that I’m living through. So I understand the desire to have more to latch on to.”

Saleh placed fourth in City Pages’ 2018 Picked to Click poll last October on the strength of just a handful of tracks. But they’d established their bona fides as a performer before recording any music at all. An astonishing 2016 reading of their poem “Pins and Needles” at Button Poetry Live in St. Paul has clocked more than 130,000 YouTube views to date; the intensity of Saleh’s delivery whisks you through lines like “People who blink more than twice when explaining their identity to their loved ones often lead lonely lives” before a pause leaves just long enough to examine their nuance.

Saleh leapfrogged past the promise of those early recordings this January when they dropped Nūr, a remarkable five-track EP executive produced by Psymun, the St. Paul producer whose connections with mainstream hip-hop (through his work with the likes of Future and the Weeknd) have made him a conduit to broader national exposure for Twin Cities performers. To listen to Nūr is to hear the pleasures of forging an identity in real time—an identity coherent and consistent enough to reveal a personality but fluid enough that each new phrase suggests further rediscovery.

Like Nūr itself, Saleh’s life has been a process of perpetual self-discovery. They were five when their family first came to the U.S.—to North Dakota, specifically. “We left because of racial turmoil—we were fleeing the militarization of Sudan and the genocide that was happening to my people in Darfur,” they say. “But when we arrived in the U.S. it was the malicious interaction from everyday people that was surprising. One of the first interactions with a white person we had, leaving the airport, was someone yelling, ‘Go back to Africa.’ It was just the most textbook racism.”

Saleh’s mother kept the family in North Dakota for no longer than she had to. Then it was on to Maine, to Newark, New Jersey, and, about a dozen moves later, to St. Paul. But those first few months of total immersion in North Dakotan whiteness left their mark. “The shock of being surrounded by people who didn’t look like me made me hyper-hyperaware of race,” Saleh says.

At this point, music was only in the background of Saleh’s life. “I was super-sheltered growing up, and we didn’t really have access to much,” they recall. “I didn’t buy CDs. My family listened to [Arab] pop star Nancy Ajram, old-school Sudanese music. I don’t even know half the names of the artists but I remember the songs because my mom always blasted them.”

Then the educational program Breakthrough Twin Cities provided Saleh with a laptop. “The laptop totally changed my whole interaction with music,” they say. “I went through different eras where I was trying to prove myself with music, like trying to find myself. Music was my safe haven.”

And, as bright young misfits will do, Saleh went about setting themselves apart from their peers. “My first two years of high school I only listened to ’40s jazz. I can’t even remember half the artists now. I was this bougie nerd, I was like”—they slip into a comically affected voice—“‘Yeah, I read Foucault.’” Then, as though addressing their pretentious teen self, Saleh adds, “Relax, it’s not that deep.”

A subsequent dive into ’90s hip-hop led to a more targeted search for meaning in music. “I went through a year or two of finding as many queer artists as I could, and I think that saved my life,” Saleh says. “Artists like Mykki Blanco, artists who had a different texture to their production or different flow, like Kilo Kish or Le1f.”

Throughout Nūr, Saleh is just as committed to idiosyncratically textured production and flow. On the lascivious “Sugar Mama,” their voice bobs with teasing double-dutch insouciance over a self-fashioned tick-tock beat. “Albany” is a series of declarations with coyly tacked-on qualifiers: “I just learned that weather can kill... allegedly,” with a woozy coda where wordless vocals and electronics engage in parallel play as distant birds tweet idly. Psymun’s tracks thicken the sound with reinforced steel cables till it’s dense but not murky, moody not ominous, its sonic grain akin to Saleh’s cottony coddling of words, a stylish exercise in false modesty that shrugs “oh, this old phrase” while strewing as glitzy a string of syllables as “I’ll spit on silk to find the silver in the slivers in your couch.”

Saleh describes their creative relationship with Psymun fancifully: “It’s like we’re ice skating partners—we’re just trying to get the best routine out to the people so that they’re satisfied.” More concretely, they elaborate, “I do the melodies and he does the production, but there’s interplay. We know our roles, but we’re willing to adjust. He’ll say, ‘What about this way?’ and then I’ll be like, ‘Hmm, what if we automate this? What if we transpose this?”

Recently, Saleh has been recording tracks they describe as “more mainstream—not necessarily pop, but not necessarily lo-fi—heavier sounds” with new collaborators such as the Florida rapper Chester Watson, the London-based producer Kito, and there’s also a full-length music project in the works with Psymun. But don’t start compulsively refreshing Bandcamp just yet. The plan is to release a few songs, as well as a video for “Sugar Mama,” to tide us over. As the recipient of the last round of Cedar Commissions, Saleh’s also preparing Strings and Heart Beats, a project touted as “an immersive Afrodiasporic experience,” and they’ve been phone-banking and playing benefits for Sudan as well, as their country convulses with its latest round of political unrest. There’s so much still for Dua to do.

Dua Saleh
Where: Eat Street Fest
When: 6:30 p.m. Sun. Sept.15
Tickets: Free; more info here