Another day in Austin brings a welcoming heat to Midwestern bones; in the thick of a March day during SXSW, the sun’s glistening off the pool water at the Holiday Inn Express. Dua Saleh, 23, recommends we conduct our conversation outside, but every outlet surrounding the table is decorative, fake, useless for the task. Upon returning to the lobby, the nearby hum of a housekeeping worker’s vacuum threatens to thwart our task as well; Dua gracefully weathers the inconvenience in an outdoor Carhartt shirt with bright blue shorts, their hair tied and makeup undone. In a flash, Dua’s thoughts unfurl into a whirlwind of history, curiosity and the striking intuition of someone who’s lived many lives before. They’re as tenacious an orator as they’re a writer, offering the whole of themselves in conversation if one has the range to match that energy. No matter the subject, they shove the nuances of this existence to their fringes; they never hesitate to push back against an unsavory idea, or to pause and gather their thoughts, gazing at the ceiling or into the distance as they pinpoint their perspective.
It’s Dua’s first Austin trip since the release of the Nūr EP: an Arabic word for “the light,” it’s their first breathtaking step into a relatively new recording career that’s not only bolstered the support of the Twin Cities musical community, but granted Dua a new exposure in the face of widespread digital acclaim. The Sudan-born non-binary artist has come a long way from Rondo: a St. Paul, Minnesota, neighborhood with a coveted history in Black music that’s currently fraught by the weight of gentrification. While Dua possess a longstanding intrigue in moving words and sounds, they’ve only been producing music for roughly three years, finding mentorship in the youth of their Rondo neighborhood to push them further into the medium.
“I feel like [Rondo’s] a bed of nutrients for a lot of Black people who’ve grown up there,” Dua says. “They learn a lot about themselves, about their history, about the history of the surrounding location, and that helps them to have a more well-thought-out understanding of the art that they produce in general. And I think that is something that is even more highlighted through mentorship, which is something that is key and ideal for most artists: like, you don't need somebody there, but it’s very helpful to have somebody there who’s already set a foundation for themselves. A big homie, community, somethin’. Mentorship can look like many different things… I think there’s something special about Rondo that helps people create a more holistic sense of self for themselves.”
It’s Rondo where Dua grew to acquire their perceptiveness and immense sense of accountability to family and community: They grew up in a low-income environment with a single mother and three siblings (one of whom passed away), causing Dua to learn the urgency behind hustling to intervene in situations no child should have to experience. Their early identity formation led to struggles with depression and isolation throughout grade school as they sought themselves and their purpose. Meanwhile, their internal work was met with the keen awareness one develops once they’re awakened to all the ways Black folks are subjected to surveillance and silencing; the ecosystems of Central High School learned Dua rather quickly in all the ways their people are divided from jump. Honors classes on the top floor, special needs and behavioral education on the ground. Bars on the doors, lunchroom kitchens of sugar and grease. Counselors who called the children demons, school resource officers who’d bodyslam Black girls to break up juvenile quarrels.
“It’s not just, like, ‘Oh, yeah, my family’s got my back,’ it’s like, ‘I have to have my family’s back,’” Dua says. “And, obviously, they have my back, too, cuz as family, they’d do anything for me, but I think it helped set a drive for myself in all the things that I do, and it definitely forced me to have more clarity on what I want to do, at least in the moment. I change lanes often; I tend to focus on one thing at a time and push my way through it because I know that people are depending on me.”
Dua was somewhere in the noise: honors-level potential with grown responsibilities, too depressed to keep pace with the work. With an uneasy laugh, they reminisce over a teacher finding one of their poems and sending them to the principal out of worry for the dark subject matter. (The check-in discouraged them from sharing their work for quite a while.) College seemed impossible, but you can’t knock the hustle: Dua dove into activism work in high school, went to Augsburg University for Gender Studies and Sociology, and became known for their spoken word somewhere in-between mitigating beefs with entire departments for walkouts and other efforts. An earlier work, “Pins and Needles,” went viral via notable literature outlet Button Poetry, granting Dua the leverage to book poetry gigs and earning them cult following at Augsburg and nearby Macalester College. Looking back — and forward — even the sheer thought of releasing their work, no matter how painful or goofy, feels unnecessary.
“If I didn’t have the family in the back of my mind, I would actually be very bothered by the fact that my poetry is out there,” Dua says. “Just because it’s very personal to me, and to a certain degree, I regret having gone up to those slams and giving away the rights to the stuff. I can’t take anything down at this point, you know what I mean? I have no access to it anymore. And it’s all very personal to me. Even the funny stuff, like, it’s still my life... it’s still my essence as a person. So, it kind of makes me uncomfortable a little bit to have it out there, and music is different because I have an urge to perform. Like, I like performing live, but also, like, if I didn’t have to share my music I wouldn’t.”
They’re not playin’: Their first-ever musical drop, the single “Black and Blue,” appeared and disappeared within 24 hours. (I couldn’t listen to it to prepare, and they reassured me we’ll never get that back.) Thankfully, Dua doesn’t archive all their works as artifacts: They linked up with legendary Minneapolis producer Psymun — formerly of thestand4rd, known for his work with Future, Juice WRLD and The Weeknd — and started to cook up. Nūr is Dua Saleh’s proper debut, and the first five tracks from their extensive vault with Psymun: it’s a spellbinding 20-minute ride that bends to its own impulses and bows to none of our expectations. The latter point’s made abundantly clear by early reactions to the work: overwhelmingly positive, even if the critics and listeners can’t articulate its explicit (or implicit) meanings with such precision. The ambiguity cloaks Dua in a privacy they find rather advantageous; even their perspective shifts over time, their songs blending places and people into sprawling meditations on love and survival while the meanings transform to become about other places and other people.
The Nūr sessions went like many Psymun-involved sessions do: freestyling words and melodies as the beat builds, then obsessively splicing the most pleasing elements into a functional structure that engages the listener with maximum efficiency. Before Psymun chops the noise, Dua tries to fill the audible spaces until they’re brimming with ideas to siphon into something whole. Hence, the five-song effort pushes 20 minutes because the records bolt past the time limit until little sonic universes compound upon themselves, allowing each moment to linger until it decides to fade away.
“I guess [me and Psymun] didn’t want to limit ourselves, and I guess there’s also been like a lot of oversaturation,” Dua says. “I mean, it’s done well with a lot of people, but I think everything’s just too brief. People don’t get a chance to let the songs sit. I’m not saying that in general, because I also have 1-minute songs, and I like making shorter songs because it’s pleasing to the ear when you get satisfaction right away and then you can repeat it. But I think just because we’re also both probably influenced by more vintage sounds... it’s like having a sandwich versus having a snack. Like, you could buy a lot of, I don’t know, Doritos? Doritos can fill you up, you can get a bunch of Doritos bags separately, or you could get like a… I don’t know, what’s a sandwich people like? BLT? I don’t know!”
To listen to Nūr is to witness fragments of Dua Saleh as they grow into their understanding of being, through their self and others. From the opening moments of “Sugar Mama,” there’s a beaming sexuality, charged by a darkly funny narrator who starts by eyeing their pompous lover down, recoiling from the revolting stench of that lover’s privates, and issuing a final warning to never speak ill of the narrator’s people before meeting one’s finality. This call is far from the final one: Nūr offers no simple revelations or peaceful revolutions, but charts Dua’s passage through the world on the defensive, unafraid of the smoke. In “Warm Pants,” Dua’s desires for another are met with equal warmth and horror, the embrace of a lover interrupted by reminders of voids gone unfilled and truths left unsaid. In “Survival,” complete with a breathtaking Velvet Negroni feature, Dua tells their opposition to, quite literally, “fuck right off.” In “Survival,” the vultures trail Dua until they have to get blood on their timbs. A stirring sensuality creeps underneath the romantic throughlines on Nūr, haunting the participants from the Minnesota snow to somewhere in Beverly Hills. And when things get drastic, or violent, Dua never breaks character once the stakes are high.
It’s this dedication to self that keeps Dua preoccupied as the Texan warmth engulfs the hotel lobby. Over an hour-and-fifteen-minutes, we cover the ongoing Sudanese revolution, how Philando Castile used to work at the Montessori school that Dua's siblings went to before he was murdered by police, the tenets of Afro-pessimism as applied to Kendrick Lamar — Dua is a music critic as well, they’ve been on this wave — the functions of Black wealth politics under capitalism, cancel culture in art, and learning to drive cars and shoot guns to become doomsday-ready. A Black queer non-binary artist from Rondo, St. Paul, cannot exist without walking headfirst into the smoke of the world. They watch themselves, speak for themselves, and have their days where it’s time for a nap and not time for the dialogue. The contemporary mainstream imagination continues to ignore people like Dua; it’s one of many reasons why people misgender them and wish them Hellbound via Instagram comments.
“I have to prepare myself just because I’m active in my truth and other people are dependent on me being active in my truth,” Dua says. “And it shouldn’t have to be that way — I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to perform always because someone is depending on me — but it’s just the reality of the matter. There’s not that many people who carry similar identities to me, whether that be Sudanese ancestry, my non-binary identity, or me being masculine-of-center — and me not even talking about being masculine-of-center at all — but, I don’t know. There are people who are looking to me, because they’re like, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve never seen myself on anything!’ Granted, I’m not the biggest artist or whatever — I haven’t gotten the biggest features or whatever — but people seeing that, ‘Oh, like, I could do it, too,’ you know? And people who are probably more talented than I am; who have gifts that they wanna share with the world, but are scared to, and [they’re] scared to also put out their identity out there, because then, you’re a target.”
The prospect of mainstream overexposure doesn’t plague Dua more than the need to get money for their family. The weight of the world isn’t always on their tongue, either: At the end of the day, Dua’s more focused on making the music slap rather than dousing the vibes in theory. With the privilege of an undergraduate education, Dua’s time at Augsburg continues to inform their process as an artist, stitching their legacy and their history together in a patchwork effort. Their studies of gender identity, liberation and feminism across cultures provided the context to continue pushing that work forward and tying the loose ends together with their mind as the connective tissue. From the silliest freestyle to the most painful croon outward, Dua Saleh uses what they got to get what they want. Or, perhaps in a less capitalistic manner than The Players Club adage, they’re using what they got to find what they seek.
“It doesn’t always work for other people, but it works for me,” Dua says. “And I think I’m still trying to figure out myself, slowly... I think the research that I’ve done, and my desire to learn more about myself and my ancestry and the ancestry of my people. In [some parts of] Sudan, there’s gender fluidity and other stuff, throughout different tribes. But also the same thing with American history of Black and brown trans, queer, ace, intersex, all these different types of identities. Learning more about their struggles and the things they’ve done, whether that be in music or politics or resistance — to the police force or a military state — I think all that has helped. I think everything in my life has been pushing me towards this.”