For Amaal, finding out her EP Black Dove was nominated for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year at the Junos was a vindication of following her passion. “It’s a lot of emotions, actually,” says the Toronto-based singer. “When it happened, the first thought was that I’m so excited for my family, my mum, and my dad. I can’t wait to share this news with them.” Amaal’s reasons for wanting to share the news with her parents took on an extra significance—because her father thought she was already nominated. A film crew from the Junos had already visited Amaal to film a documentary on her before she was nominated. Her father was so excited he assumed the nomination was already official and in the bag. Amaal was too afraid to tell him anything different at the risk of disappointing him. Thankfully, it all worked out. “I feel like he manifested it for me,” she says.
Black Dove was Amaal’s debut EP on Public Records, but she has been releasing music for a number of years now. Early independent tracks like “Mufasa” revealed her intense love and affinity for her homeland of Somalia. However, Black Dove revealed an intensely personal side to her songwriting. The coolly melodic “Later,” for instance, is accompanied by a narrative masterpiece of a video, based on Amaal’s experience of visiting an incarcerated loved one.
“When I was creating this project I made a vow to myself that I would be honest and vulnerable and talk about the things I was most ashamed of,” Amaal says. “If you told me when I was on that bus [going to the prison] that I would be sharing that story, doing a video on that very bus, sitting in the same spot, I would have said, ‘You have lost your mind, I don’t know who you’re talking about.’ But I did it.” Overcoming the shame and claiming the pride and community fostered by the long trips was a key personal process for Amaal and the vulnerability exhibited on that song is a thematic strength that runs inherently through Black Dove.
“It was my most real and authentic body of work,” Amaal says of her Juno-nominated EP. “Prior to getting into [Black Dove] a lot of stuff and the content I would sing about were things that were dear to my heart and my background coming from Somalia and issues that were coming from my country. So it was definitely in the world of conscious music and woke issues. That was the way to use my voice to sort of talk about these issues, but I never really shared what I was going through in my womanhood, in my relationships, and just insecurities that I felt and just the growth that I’ve been able to do within my life. Black Dove, to me, is my moment of fully coming into myself and bringing forth all the vulnerable things that I’ve always kind of shied away from.”
“I remember I got like, 100,000 views within the first week because it was something they’d never seen. ‘A Somali girl doing music in English and she’s singing about heartbreak? A relationship. Woah. This is insane.’”
Amaal’s approach has clearly resonated with fans. The visually arresting Iceland-shot clip for “Not What I Thought” tops over a million views on YouTube and features Amaal employing musical influences particular to her heritage. “That song has a lot of Somali folk and Middle Eastern influences, especially with that vocal run I do a bit before the chorus,” says Amaal. “It’s definitely a nod towards my region. Even in the tone I’m singing in. If you listen to a lot of Somali music, a lot of the women sit in that place. Because the run that I do is not a traditional R&B, Western sort of sound, it’s definitely coming from that world.”
The YouTube comments on the video clearly show music fans particularly from the Somali diaspora have noticed these vocal intricacies. Amaal thinks the particular reasons why the song has done so well on social media is linked to the fact that while there are an abundance of musical artists with Somali heritage who are performers and poets, many of them use their native language and do not perform in English. “It was like I was speaking to every single Somali girl who was in her house that had all these big dreams and ambitions, but there was obviously fear and judgment and things that we face in our community and our households,” says Amaal. “I posted it on Facebook to my friends and they passed it onto their friends and it completely spread. I remember I got like, 100,000 views within the first week because it was something they’d never seen. ‘A Somali girl doing music in English and she’s singing about heartbreak? A relationship. Woah. This is insane.’ So it kinda spread because of that.”
While Black Dove is very much a 21st century soul project featuring Amaal’s distinctively airy and ethereal vocals, it also sonically harkens back to the ’90s. Tracks like “Coming and Going” echo the skittery drum patterns associated with producers like Timbaland and indeed Amaal is enamoured with R&B from that decade. “I think it was the 10th or 11th grade, I borrowed my friend’s iPod for a school period and I was supposed to give it back to her and I didn’t and I went home with it.” She did eventually give back the iPod the next day, but not before she had immersed herself in Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Brandy, Monica, and Destiny’s Child.
“I think, for me and the stories I want to tell and the things that I want to share, it’s with that backdrop that feels the most comfortable for me,” says Amaal. “Something just takes over and the melodies just start falling out of me.”
It’s an area that Amaal is set to mine further as she readies her full-length project. Entitled Milly—her nickname—Amaal is excited about what it represents for her personally and creatively.
“It’s a very confident body of work for me,” she says. “I just feel like I’ve never been in the place that I’m at right now. I’ve never been in such a place where I’m so happy with who I’ve become. I no longer have those thoughts of shame that I used to associate with a lot of things. Milly to me is a celebration to me of the woman that I’ve become and the person that I’m hopefully continuing to grow and be.” But before we hear the upcoming music from Milly, Amaal will celebrate Black Dove‘s nomination at the Junos and fittingly it will have a family connection. “I’m actually going with my dad. I feel like we’ve done so much work with Black Dove. My dad’s been the most incredible support system for me,” says Amaal. “Straight up, to be honest with you, I can’t wait to just be there, breaking bread and eating with him and my teammates and just really taking in the moment and hopefully meeting all these other incredible artists that I’ve looked up to for so long.”