For all marginalized people, escapism can be a powerful tool for liberation. Dua Saleh, a 25-year-old Minneapolis-based gender nonbinary artist, understands this better than most. As a child, they and their family were displaced from their home in Sudan during the country’s second civil war in the mid-1990s, leading to a globetrotting childhood. The family briefly lived in Eritrea before relocating to the United States, spending time in Maine and New Jersey before permanently settling in Minnesota.
Though far removed from Sudan, Saleh carried their homeland’s music in their heart. “You know how white people in the US will get together and sing ‘Sweet Caroline?’ We have those songs too,” Saleh explained over the phone. “My mom was probably humming a song when she gave birth to me. I was born into [music].”
Those creative seeds took root as Saleh transitioned into middle school. A fascination with 90s rap, notably A Tribe Called Quest, eventually led to a fascination with manga and anime, which spoke to their burgeoning queer identity.
“A lot of the queer and trans kids I knew would use anime and manga as escapism,” they explained. “They would find characters that emulate a presence they want to give off to the world. I’m generally talking about kids but also specifically about myself.”
Saleh’s desire for autonomy on their terms manifested in their activism work and writing, playing with language and identity within the comforting walls of Minneapolis’s poetry scene. Poems like “Pins and Needles” smolder with intent, lashings of queer Black rage dealt in measured strikes: “Black is letting my friends call me girl because I fear being alone / And people who blink more than twice when explaining their identity to their loved ones often lead lonely lives.”
On their debut EP Nūr, released in January 2019 via Against Giants and executive produced by Minnesota mainstay Simon “Psymun” Christensen, the economy of Saleh’s writing continues revealing itself in exciting ways. A “friendly neighbor” turned hook-up eventually receives a caustic kissoff on “Sugar Mama” (“Persistent halitosis / Perplexing braggadocios / Clunky chunky clatter / Coupled with some new explosives”) while Saleh pines for another anonymous lover on “Warm Pants.” (“I grab her waist and pull her close, I had her sprawled out in the kitchen / I hold her closer then I realize that there’s always something missing.”) In Saleh’s mind, anxiety and swagger go hand-in-hand, filling Psymun’s spacious beats like water flowing into a bottle.
Throughout 2019, Saleh paid forward their newfound confidence, most notably in the video for their latest single “pretty kitten.” Made in conjunction with Zeus Jones and Spark AR, the video was shot using customized thermal Instagram filters, complementing Saleh’s airy vocals and FnZ’s booming production. Their fans were encouraged to shoot footage using the custom filters for a chance to be featured in the video, with a handful of fans taking advantage.
The video is the first of its kind, but it’s more than just a psychedelic backdrop; it’s an attempt by Saleh to reach their Gen Z rap fans directly. “Selfie videos are autonomous and can tie into a need for escapism and entertainment,” they elaborate. “A lot of my fanbase is queer and trans kids from Gen Z. It’s not solving world issues or anything, but it was a form of escapism I had sought after and was happy to hop on board with it.”
The right ears are hearing Saleh’s message. They’ve been featured on COLORS and Beats 1 Radio over the past 12 months. At present, they are arranging another EP—produced by Psymun and Sir Dylan of Mellow Yellow—for release later this year. For Dua Saleh, escapism is making the world just a little bit brighter.
Our conversation, edited for content and clarity, follows below.
You got your start in poetry. Who is your favorite poet?
The Quran comes to mind as one of my favorite poetic texts. I’m not into the institution of religion. Still, hearing recitations of the Quran growing up and breaking them down into the different religious schools I was forced into made me think of words and how I put them together.
Your first language was Arabic. How does being multi-lingual factor into your music?
I song write primarily in Arabic for myself. I feel like I’m operating from a different headspace when I’m writing or thinking in Arabic. It’s almost like I’m tapping into a different part of my brain or a different plane of reality. I feel more artistically nourished by hearing and understanding perspectives from people from different countries. A Sudani poet differs greatly from a Palestinian poet. An American songwriter is different from a French-Canadian American songwriter.
Growing up across the world, when did you first fall in love with music?
In Sudan, there are many songs where people will stop whatever they’re doing and sing and clap and get in formation. You know how white people in the US will get together and sing “Sweet Caroline?” We have that, too. My family was displaced from Sudan during the war in Darfur, but music has always been a part of my life. I can’t give you a proper answer because I don’t recall when there was music blasting in my house. My mom was probably humming a song when she gave birth to me. I was born into it.
What about rap music?
In middle school, I went through a deep 90s rap phase. I was trying to be super different. I was like, “I listen to 90s rap and 40s jazz,” because I thought I was special. I wasn’t (laughs). The duo from A Tribe Called Quest is where I probably first fell in love with rap. Hearing the way they rapped together gave me an appreciation for collaboration that I didn’t feel listening to other artists at the time. The ten different voices in my head are currently working together.
You and producer Psymun found a real sense of collaboration across your latest EP Nūr. Talk to me about how the project came together.
Psymun is next level. His production style is free-flowing. His musical output is never-ending and weaves together into this amazing tapestry. He’s the rap game Rumplestiltskin. Working on Nūr with him was phenomenal. I’m not exaggerating when I say he’s one of my favorite producers of all time.
The main thing I love about his production style is that he’s so open to what the artist wants. He’ll pay attention to what my sound is. He’s the person who convinced me to even put “Sugar Mama” on the EP. I wasn’t trying to let anyone hear my GarageBand ass beat. You know that LeBron meme where he’s going crazy to some trash SoundCloud beat? That’s how I feel about my production. I suffer from imposter syndrome when it comes to producing, in particular. I didn’t start doing it for real until four years ago. He’s good at encouraging me and asking what songs I connected to and what songs I think other people would create a connection with.
You have a history of activism. How has activism informed your music and vice versa?
Audre Lorde initially said that “The personal is political.” Here come the buzzwords. I exist in the world and carry these intersectional identities, and I can’t remove myself from the reality of their burden. I exist in a world where I was displaced as a child in Sudan and had to deal with racist, homophobic, and transphobic systems in the US. My parents used to throw out my clothes and force me to dress in clothes that present more feminine. I carry these memories with me, and I can never remove myself from them.
I was burnt out by all the organizing I was doing as a teenager and in college. I’m not engaging with organizing directly because of the burnout, but my existence still informs the approach to the world I gained from activism.