In Conversation: Sinkane on Positivity in the Age of Trump

Even with the new regime in power, the musical polymath is still feeling good.
In Conversation
In Conversation: Sinkane on Positivity in the Age of Trump

Even with the new regime in power, the musical polymath is still feeling good.

Words: Natasha Aftandilians

photo by Adam Tetzloff

February 22, 2017

photo by Adam Tetzloff

It’s two days after the inauguration of President Donald Trump and something is rotten in the state of Denmark, so to speak—3 Doors Down has somehow managed to re-enter the collective consciousness, Nazis are being punched left and right, and major cities across the planet are swollen with women and men in suggestive pink “pussy” hats, taking to the streets in protest. The surreality of America’s new reality has much of the country in a daze of frustration and fear, but Ahmed Gallab, the man behind Sinkane, has more pressing matters to attend to.

“I’ve been dealing with some serious identity theft,” he says, apologizing for his lateness to our phone interview. “I get these ‘No Caller ID’ calls and I just kind of avoid them.” Despite that vague threat to his cybersecurity, the London-born son of Sudanese professors radiates hope over the phone, just as he does in his songs. Just look to his most recent single “U’Huh,” from his  new album Life & Livin’ It, and you’ll be taken aback by the enthusiasm he’s spreading: “To my sisters who ache / My brothers losin’ strength / We don’t need be saved / We’ll make our own way.”

In his ten years performing as Sinkane, Gallab has mastered the fusion of psychedelic rock and Afropop, with influences as far ranging as ParliamentFunkadelic, Sun Ra, Radiohead, and Spiritualized. Whether he’s leading musicians like David Byrne and Damon Albarn as the frontman of William Onyeabor cover act The Atomic Bomb! Band or playing as a touring member of  bands like of Montreal, Caribou, and Yeasayer, Gallab has been working ceaselessly since he played in his first rock band as an eleven-year-old in the super-Mormon city of Provo, Utah.

So, how does the son of two African immigrants living in today’s America find hope and peace of mind in these fractious times? Just ask the man himself and you’ll discover the optimistic spirit that has buoyed him along even in the darkest of days.

Do you come from a musical family at all?

Yeah. My grandfather was a musician, my mother is a singer, my dad played the drums, and his mom was a poet, so it was always there in the periphery. It wasn’t really that obvious, though. My grandfather was a really, really well-respected Muslim in Sudan; he has a mosque named after him. So he wasn’t necessarily a secular musician, but he would have these giant religious gatherings in our house where he would recite stories about the Prophet Muhammad, and I remember seeing them and they were just like these crazy, almost psychedelic [or] tantric experiences that I would have when I would watch his music. So that has been a huge influence for me as a musician.

When you’re writing music for a new record, do you have to get into a certain space emotionally or mentally to feel ready to work?

I only think about music. I only think about writing songs and playing live, recording; it’s almost like to a fault, ’cause I can’t enjoy records like I did when I was a kid [laughs]. I’m a total nerd [about music] so I’m always recording ideas on my phone and having ideas come out of nowhere. I wake up in the middle of the night and record something before I go to sleep, you know. It never stops, and the more I do it, the more that routine has become engrained in my work ethic. When I’m working on a song, I’m in; I can’t think about anything else. But once it’s done, I just wanna learn it, I wanna play it, I wanna challenge myself to be a better musician.

You’ve lived in Sudan and London, and then you came to live in Ohio and Utah, and now you live in Brooklyn. How would you say your time in each of those places has shaped your sound?

I think that what I really gained out of moving around is understanding how lots of young people experience the world. I felt like I was a fly on the wall everywhere I went. And what it did is it allowed me to experience the world with an open mind and be an observer and a student and understand that beyond the direct influences that you have—be it religion or however your community is [formed]—people are all the same. People experience things in a very similar way; when they’re sad or happy or nostalgic, they all feel it the same way. And when they attach themselves to something that makes them feel comfortable, [whether] it’s religion or baseball or music, that sense of comfort feels the same way, and I feel like that’s heavily influenced my music. I try to create a safe place for many people to coexist and understand that life is a universal experience and that the differences that we have are pretty menial in comparison to how similar we all are.

Of all the places you’ve lived, was there one that you felt more accepted in, or was there ever a place where you felt like more of an outsider?

I think I felt like an outsider everywhere until I moved to New York. Living in Utah, I was just very obvious. I was the only black kid in my entire school, and I was one of three non-Mormon kids in my school. And it’s funny, because when you’re a young kid in Utah and you live within that [world], you don’t really know the differences; it’s just there. People didn’t really care that I was black, they just cared that I wasn’t Mormon. I remember telling my parents that my friend’s parents said that they wouldn’t let them hang out with anyone on Sunday who wasn’t Mormon. What’s the deal with that? What is that saying about them?

“In order for people to feel good they have to accept reality.”

Then I moved to Ohio, and people in Ohio thought I was weird because I was a black kid who listened to punk music and skateboarded. They didn’t understand why I talked the way that I did or why I didn’t really like rap music—you know, stuff like that. Kids are really mean, and you grow up and have to experience those things. It sets a lot of trauma into your life. But it made me a stronger person and made me feel good about myself and more confident. It wasn’t until I moved to New York eight years ago that I felt like I could live within a society that accepted me, where everyone was different and they embraced everyone who was different.

It feels like since the election, the world has become a darker and less optimistic place, and it feels a lot less safe for a lot of people. People naturally turn to music to take a break from all that stress. Is it your responsibility as a musician to entertain people and provide a distraction, or do you think it’s more important to use your voice and not shy away from all the bad things that are happening?

I think the artist’s role in this whole thing is not to create a distraction at all. In order for people to feel good they have to accept reality. You have to understand what’s going on. So, for instance, in one of my songs, “U’Huh,” I talk about the current state of politics a little bit, but it’s really important for me to show people that in order for us to move forward and to be productive, you have to accept what’s going on and to understand that it’s always been like this. There’s always, always, always something going on. And I think what’s important for me and with my music is to be real, but also to have hope and to inspire. As Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, then there is no progress,” and I think that’s very true.

If you could give a message to kids out there, or even to yourself when you were a kid who felt like an outsider, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that they are not alone and that they should just be themselves, and fuck everything else. The most important thing I needed to hear someone say was “You’re not alone.” The thing is, everyone growing up is dealing with the same shit, and they’re purging out their insecurities in different ways. And, like, some people are gonna be bullies, some people are gonna turn into loners, and some people are going to do really bad things, but at the end of the day, the bottom line is they all need to hear that. Just say that: “You are not alone.” FL