Dua Saleh’s ROSETTA is a powerful expression of identity
The history of music in America is also a history of appropriation. Since the early 20th century, when distinctly American musical styles first emerged to mainstream audiences, musical innovations put forth by Black artists have been shamelessly stolen and used by white artists. This century-long cycle of erasure has since created entire genealogies of music that are inherently tied to Black culture but have since been divorced from their roots. Charli XCX wouldn’t exist without a host of queer Black artists who created maximalist ballroom/house; Justin Bieber wouldn’t exist without Michael Jackson or Barry Gordy’s Motown Records; Elvis Presley wouldn’t exist without Big Mama Thornton and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
For Minneapolis-based Sudanese artist Dua Saleh, Tharpe is an especially prescient influence. Tharpe, hailed by many as the “Godmother of Rock of Rock & Roll,” was known for her rhythmic setting of gospel traditionals and heavy use of electric guitar. She’s also considered to be possibly one of the first queer, Black artists to have earned mainstream recognition. Saleh’s latest EP, named ROSETTA after Tharpe, is an attempt reclaim power for all of the LGBTQ+ Black artists whose influences have been wrongfully overshadowed by white contemporaries.
Through six songs and 17 minutes, ROSETTA displays Saleh’s raw and nigh-unmatched versatility first seen in their debut EP, 2019’s Nūr. They switch between raps and hypnotic vocals, communicating in Arabic and English, over Psymun’s equally versatile production. Drawing attention to Tharpe’s innovative work at developing rock & roll in addition to her revolutionary act of being a queer Black woman in the 1940s, Saleh mentioned they took pointers from “how dynamic Rosetta [Tharpe]’s writing was” through the creation process.
Just like Tharpe blended gospel, blues, and electric guitar, Saleh and Psymun similarly create several diverse soundscapes, drawing from influences like psychedelic rap and progressive electronica. Saleh identifies as nonbinary, unable to be categorized in a strict box of gender. Similarly, Saleh’s music resists strict categorization. Similar themes were explored in Moses Sumney’s græ from earlier this year, though Saleh’s examination of restrictive labels feels more personal, often outwardly and intimately expressing anger, exhaustion, and lust.
The opening track, “cat scratch,” features slightly more traditional hip-hop production and structure than the rest of the project, with aggressive and punchy 808s underlining Saleh’s verses. Saleh’s first bars on this project are “I’ve been bleeding out the cheek / Dripping on my seat / Wincing cause my muscles been defeated.” At first glance, it reads as an expression of weakness or defeat, yet Saleh’s seething delivery conveys fury.
But then, all of Saleh’s rage suddenly subsides: “umbrellar,” a story about an alien romance that goes south, features tender, if slightly hurried vocals. Saleh has a brilliant way of stretching certain words, emphasizing them in a lilting, sing-song way that references their experience with slam poetry. The production is markedly different from “cat scratch,” too, as Psymun employs a break-beat set against a reverberated wash of guitars and propulsive bass melody.
“smut,” the most explicitly sexual track on the EP, is also the only track where Saleh sings in Arabic. Saleh employs their bilinguality in the framework of critical theory, queering the language by “switch[ing] pronouns and genders in lyrics.” By bending language to their will, Saleh creates an epic piece of music that is “both sanctified and sacrilegious; holy and godless; angelic and demonic.” This juxtaposition is immediately carried into the next track, too: after all the sexual chaos of “smut,” “windhymn” is an almost ambient track with gentle, high-pitched vocals. Just like “umbrellar” offered a brief moment of reprieve between “cat scratch” and “smut,” “windhymn” functions as the eye in the storm between “smut” and “hellbound.” On this subwoofer-shattering cut, Saleh’s vocals are distorted and multiplied, furthering their presentation as an intentionally undefinable artist.
For all of Saleh’s wild experimentation, the project never feels overly heady. In fact, the sheer uniqueness of every song is simply a reminder that artists in the commercial margins are often simultaneously in the artistic vanguard. It’s also a reminder that as a culture, we have a responsibility to examine why artists of color—especially queer artists of color—are pushed to the side in favor of their white counterparts. Aside from being a fantastic sophomore project from one of 2020’s most exciting new artists, ROSETTA highlights the absurdity in how queer, Black voices are forced to fight for mere recognition in an art they built from the ground up.