Singer Amaal was used to writing about her experiences as a Somali-Canadian woman.
Her early songs as an indie artist and as a singer signed to a production deal with Noah “40” Shebib, centered around the themes of strength and resilience that closely mirrored her experiences as a refugee. “I want to own my kingdom/I want to gain my freedom,” she sings on 2012’s “Mufasa.” Born in Somalia in the midst of a civil war, Amaal’s family moved to Toronto when she was a young child. The singer says she grew up in a community of other immigrants who had “fled countries and came to this place to find a better future for ourselves.” Somali-Canadian artist K'NAAN, who is best known for the 2011 hit “Waving Flag” is from the same area, Amaal says, noting that this is the type of protest music that was popular amongst creatives in the community.
But it wasn’t until a friend listened to Amaal’s work and commented that she was notably “absent” from her own music that Amaal took a look at the type of artist she wants to be moving forward. “He just reminded me that being a Somali Muslim woman, you're already a political statement and he said, Please share more,'” Amaal recalls. “I think that's when it really hit me. Wow, I've been doing such a disservice to myself.” On the EP Black Dove, out now, Amaal seeks to rectify that.
The six-song EP, Amaal’s first project since signing with Public Records/Universal Music Canada last year, is different from the singer’s previous work in many ways. Where her older music depicted strength, the singer’s new music is all about showcasing vulnerability. Known in the past for belting out lyrics about overcoming oppression, Amaal spends much of Black Dove singing about love in her head voice over minimalist productions.
On “Let Go" she sings, “It’s OK to feel naked/I’m not here to judge you.” On “Scream,” Amaal positions sex with a lover as an act of defiance and liberation (“scream my name like a protest”). While certainly not the most racy lyrics by today’s musical standards, Amaal says she previously wouldn’t have been comfortable writing songs such as these. “A lot of this stuff I didn't want to talk about because of my upbringing. It's taboo to talk about these things,” she said. Amaal said she worked on Black Dove for about two years, following trips back home to Somalia, and to Uganda where she “fell in love” with activist work and volunteered with IDP (internally displaced people) and refugee camps. Turned off by the business side of the music industry, Amaal says she’d decided she was going to focus on helping others. But, while in Uganda, she fell in love with music again. “[Music had] a purpose [there]. It’s for celebration. For your crops to grow. For the health of the baby,” she says. “I remember being a part of the festivities and singing, and [thinking], ‘I have to try this again.’”
While Amaal’s activism work still inspires her as a musician, the political messages aren’t as overt as they were in her earlier songs. “So What,” the early fan favorite that features a soulful bassline and kiss-off hook, could be about a lover who has grown tired of being ignored or a woman who is fed up with being oppressed by society.
Where the videos for standout singles “Coming & Going” and “Not What I Thought” find the singer baring her soul in the icy waters of Iceland and lounging around a picturesque mansion in Los Angeles, it's her latest video that is her best work to date. With cinematography from Jordan Oram (Drake’s “God Plan” and “In My Feelings”), the video for the forlorn cut “Later” finds the singer traveling by bus to visit an incarcerated lover. A message at the end of the video reads: “This video is dedicated to FEAT, a bus program that brings families across the province to visit loved ones in the criminal justice system.”
A sobering look at the supportive community formed by women with incarcerated loved ones and their unwavering dedication, Amaal says the video was based on a real experience during which she traveled by bus on weekends to visit a significant other who was in jail for eight months. “My parents don’t even know that story,” she says with an uneasy laugh.
Amaal says a part of feeling comfortable releasing this personal music that differs so much from her earlier work is the success of other black women in the industry right now. “[This has] been a more beautiful and accepting time for black women doing music. From Ari Lennox to SZA and H.E.R., the doors are open,” she says. “Our voices need to be heard. It’s such a beautiful moment and I’m lucky to be a part of this roster of people that are coming out.”
Black Dove might not feature protest music in the traditional sense, but it finds Amaal breaking free of the cultural conventions she felt previously restrained her. Listen to the EP in full below.