Entertainment

Somali-Canadian singer Amaal Nuux spreads her wings on new album Black Dove

Somali-Canadian R&B songstress Amaal Nuux finds a balance between her traditional upbringing, social conscience and young womanhood in her new EP Black Dove

R&B artist was not allowed to listen to this type of music while growing up

Somali-Canadian R&B artist Amaal grew up in a traditional Muslim household where listening to certain music, let alone making it, was taboo. Infusing her sound with the lyricism of her homeland, she released her EP Black Dove on July 12. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Growing up, Amaal Nuux was not allowed to listen to the type of music she releases now. Her traditional Muslim family considered it taboo. 

The 29-year-old R&B singer, who just goes by the name Amaal, is now on the same record label as The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes. So big things are expected of her.

Somali-born Amaal, who lives in Toronto, was an independent artist until recently. At a concert in London earlier this month, she recognized some of the fans in the crowd because she had talked to them on social media. 

"I had a moment up there; I kind of had tears in my eyes, it was really emotional," says Amaal. "I got to stay behind and I asked the owner of the club to give us an extra hour and I had a chance to talk with everybody."

But her soft touch with her fans belies the tough work ethic of a daughter of immigrants, an ethic she says she still applies to everything she does.

"I had it built into [me] that I needed to do whatever it was to excel in whatever way possible." 

Finding her own voice

Beginning her career, Amaal knew she had to be committed to her craft if she was to pursue music against her parents' wishes. Her family fled Somalia in the wake of civil war in the early 1990s, when Amaal was a baby, settling in North America. They lost much of the life they had before.

"My dad was a pilot and my mom was a teacher, and they had these amazing careers back home. And everything collapsed just like that." 

On top of this, Amaal's family briefly moved to Calgary when she was 15. One of only seven black girls in a school of 1,500, the typically outgoing Amaal felt isolated. But during that time she discovered what would give her strength and confidence for years to come: music.

"Because I was raised in a conservative Muslim household, music wasn't something that was in my upbringing at all," says Amaal. But when a friend lent her some CDs, Amaal immediately felt a connection. 

Amaal talks to CBC reporter Deana Sumanac-Johnson in a CBC Radio studio on July 18. (Nigel Hunt/CBC)

She says her absence of musical background was a blessing in disguise, helping her develop an authentic sound not hindered by contemporary trends.

"When I did start to discover music, there was actually no pressure from the outside world of what I should listen to and what I did, it was really my own discovery and my own taste that I was able to create."

She gravitated to R&B greats past and present, from Sam Cooke to Alicia Keys. "There's so much pain you can hear behind it," she says of the genre.

But as she started to write her own songs and eye a full-time career as a musician, her family needed some convincing. 

"It was quite a shock, and I remember my mom was very apprehensive. But in a very protective way," says Amaal, adding that her mom is now her "biggest cheerleader."

'Music for people who were like me'

Conflicted between pursuing a music career and obeying her parents' wishes for a more stable job (her seven sisters were all in nursing or medical-science fields), early in her career, Amaal resolved to use her voice to represent the struggles of her people.

A trip back to Somalia at the end of high school just strengthened that resolve; she calls it "the most transformative experience" of her life.

"I wanted to make music for people who were like me — came into this country as a refugee and an immigrant. I wanted to give us a voice," she says. 

Her socially conscious message found an audience: the 2012 track Mufasa has more than 800,000 views on YouTube, an impressive number for an independent artist.

But after a while, she felt the need to tell more intimate stories about love and loss, the territory R&B singers like Alicia Keys and Lauryn Hill mined with such great success.

"I'm a woman and I'm going through relationship issues and there's so much going on and I wanted so badly to share," says Amaal.

The majority of songs on her major label debut, Black Dove, explore these themes, and it looks like her fans are on board.  Her music video for Not What I Thought has over one million hits on YouTube, and the newly released video for Later, in which Amaal visits a lover in prison, has garnered more than 200,000 views in just two weeks.

Losing a role model

Despite branching out with her style, she still looks up to role models with African roots. Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh, who was killed in a terrorist attack on July 12, was a mentor.

'Don't give up on your passion': Hodan Nalayeh remembered as media trailblazer

Amaal says the 43-year-old journalist went back to her birthplace "to change the perspective of Somalia and show the beauty of it, and take back the narrative control that other people have had."

With one important role model gone, Amaal looks up to other musicians with African roots. She credits Universal Music label-mate The Weeknd, born in Toronto to Ethiopian immigrants, as a trailblazer, and notes that K'naan, also Somali-Canadian, reached out to her early in her career with words of support. 

She says there are "so many amazing young women in the diaspora, and young men, who are doing these incredible things. I think it's really important for us to wave that flag high."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura Robinson currently interns for CBC's Entertainment unit.

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