COLORSXSTUDIOS TAKES NYC: KOJEY RADICAL, DUA SALEH, AND GAIDAA
The first-ever COLORSXSTUDIOS live event is sold out. At National Sawdust, the COLORSXSTUDIOS team prepares for their first foray into live performance. Outside, it’s an evening far too cold for early November in Brooklyn, but inside, the energy is warm and palpable. The performers and their teams filter in for soundcheck, everyone hugging and kissing upon arrival. Within minutes, it feels like we’re all at an eagerly-awaited family reunion. That the performers are quick to call COLORSXSTUDIOS family isn’t surprising. The Berlin-based music platform is oftentimes the first to show support for the artists they’ve excitedly cast their spotlight on. And being a part of their first live show, in New York City of all places, means something. Niara Sterling opened the night with a DJ set. For British rapper, Kojey Radical, and for Sudanese-Dutch Gaidaa, it’s also their first-ever performance in the United States. At the intimate venue, when the artists take the stage, the geometric, modern backdrop is drenched in color. It’s a taping come to life, with the performers breaking through the 4th wall. We sat down with Kojey Radical, Dua Saleh, and Gaidaa to find out what it’s like to be a part of the milestone event.
Music as communion is important to Radical, and so when he leaps onto the stage with complete and total unbridled energy, the audience reacts accordingly and unravels. They jump, they dance. The intimate space heats up quickly with the frenetic energy. It’s Radical’s first U.S. show, but in a move of absolute confidence, he drops the music for a few seconds and we realize the audience is singing along, word per word. As a foreigner, to get an audience in New York City is impressive. To then see that audience sing your lyrics, well, that defies any expectation.
Speaking with Radical, he dives into a discussion about suicide, just as eagerly as he playfully tries to recall the name of the famous, American landmark he’s thought about peeing at. His willingness to connect seems directly correlated to his personal ethos that we should all be looking out for each other, and that we should all be open and receptive to our neighbors. “Let’s just fucking talk about it,” he exclaims at some point. Later, on stage, he stands on a speaker, one hand on his hip, the other wrapped around the mic, as he explains, “Honesty is very important at shows.”
We sat down with Radical to discuss dance as an escape, why it’s crucial to discuss mental health, and how this Brooklyn performance with the COLORSXSTUDIOS family came at the exact right time for the iconic performer.
It’s your first performing in the U.S. What does it mean to you?
I think it’s a bit of a rite of passage. New York is not an easy audience. That’s the culture I come from. The U.K. is not really cut out for everyone. You got to be good, really good. It’s a very saturated market. And I think for me I always wanted to test my ability, my passion in all kinds of audiences, all crowds, and nations. We’ve managed to go almost everywhere else, so here we are. Let’s get going.
I heard you’ve got your visa for a year!
Yeah, I’m going to come back next year. I want to go see the South a little bit. I want to go down to Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta and do them spaces. The Grand Canyon. I want to see that. I want to see if I can pee in it. *laughs*
What’s it like to do this with COLORSXSTUDIOS?
COLORS is family. They’ve been super real and transparent about their support over the years. I think the greatest thing about all of this is that energy and the time aligned for both of us. They’ve grown so much as a platform as opposed to when I first got in there. And I’ve grown so much as an artist. I’ve come full circle. I’ve got to this point where I can present something new. I love them, man.
How do you think your growth shows in your new album?
For anyone who’s listened to the old ones, the growth is from track one. Live instrumentation, the rap, and the subject matter, the energy, the confidence. It starts way more boisterous than my last project in 2017. Ultimately, I wanted people to hear the confidence in the growth. You never stop growing. It’s still happening now.
Every day, every conversation, and every experience that I have helps me grow as a person. I think you can give people these snapshots, little checkpoints for them to reflect and see how you’re doing, and how you’re getting on and how they’re getting on. People forget they grow to the music too. There are records that remind me of really important times in my life because I banged them out that morning.
I was listening to the new record, and it’s very fun to listen to. You get hooked from the very beginning. But you know, you’re talking about serious issues and well, mental health. Why is it important for you to discuss that in song?
It’s important to me because I almost died. I almost died from sadness and that is a terrible way to die. I’ve seen people die for more. It’s unfortunate to grow up in communities where you’re constantly reminded of death and how heavy these things are and how much they weigh on people.
One of the most important things about that record wasn’t even something that came from my experience but that came from someone that had been supporting me for a long time. It’s the best story in relation to “Can’t Go Back” on that record. I started speaking about my depression, my anxiety and he feels okay enough to come to me and have a conversation.
That day, that morning, he tried to kill himself. It didn’t work. He spoke to me that evening ‘cause he was going to try again that night. I talked him out of it. Two days later, his girlfriend tells him he’s about to have a baby. Meaning he would have been dead before his baby got here, if he gave in to those demons and those voices. Being able to have an awkward conversation and speak so freely about it, helped him dramatically. Like I was at the baby shower. It’s like beautiful. I have a real rapport with the people that support me, so it’s deeper than just music at the end of the day. If I’m going through something, you’re going through something too, let’s just fucking talk about it.
You’re a professionally trained dancer. Music and dance are completely linked for you. Do you find that you can express yourself better in one medium than another?
Right now, my preferred medium is music. I started dancing when I was nine, because my sister went to university for dance, then came back and opened her own dance school. It was a way for a lot of kids to put energy to good use when they could have been just running about. I always think of dance as safety, as therapy, as escape, as freedom. I’ve never seen it as a tool for anything apart from healing. Everything else was the repertoire, film and stuff, and being able to direct and write music. Being able to use all of these mediums that again bring us all back to the idea of communication.
Art transcends language, you see what I’m saying. Any tool that you can use to help bring people together in a world that’s really divided is probably really useful. Maybe that’s why people like it. I haven’t really figured out why people like my shit. But I like it, so it’s okay.
What do you hope people take away from this performance?
They don’t have a choice about what they take away. Their life is different after they see me perform. I stand by this statement. I tell everyone this. I almost give people a forewarning before I start performing. After these 45 minutes, you’ll think about life differently, you’ll enjoy things more, because you’ll care less about things that aren’t important. You’ll unlock this part of yourself that you didn’t know was there. Has always been there. Screaming, screaming to get out.
Dua Saleh crouches on the stage. They’re making themselves smaller than they already are. Their slight build is hunched over as they teeter on the edge, leaning into the audience. Their rapping is intense, ferocious even, and the crowd is hanging on to their every rhyme.
When I sit down with Dua Saleh, they admit to being sick and offer the Milk team holistic, medicinal drops they’ve bought off a grandma. They’re soft-spoken, and thoughtful. But when Dua Saleh takes the stage, they’re a force of nature. They saunter across the stage. They push their face uncomfortably close to the crowd. Their sexy languor has the audience in a trance. They begin the set in Arabic, before launching into Hip-Hop, and then transitioning into a hard rock track, their voice expanding and contorting. Their smooth vocals dissolve over the audience, and then, without warning, they break it up with scratchy, distorted vocals on a rock track.
Watching Dua Saleh is like gazing through a prism, and seeing all their music personalities shine through. We sat down with the genre-subverting artist to discuss cultural authenticity in music, and artists seeking inspiration in other arts.
What feels special to you about performing here in Brooklyn?
In middle school and high school, I went through an old school Hip-Hop, 90s, 2000s phase. I learned a lot about diction and lyricism and about cultural authenticity or social-cultural truth. I guess, in some way, finding out how to speak my truth in my music, which is what people in Brooklyn have done cause they like invented hip-hop.
You were born in Sudan, but you were raised in the Twin Cities. What was it like growing up in Minnesota?
It was very cold. Outside of that, it was very neighborly. People are kind and giving. People are always looking out for each other. At least in the neighborhood, I was raised, Rondo, which is a historically black neighborhood in St. Paul.
Artistically speaking, they’re well-practiced. They find inspiration from multiple mediums. Lots of people will come out to music shows if they are visual artists trying to find inspiration, whether they’re photographers or painters. They all support each other and find each other grants and gigs.
That must have been really helpful for you as an artist.
Yeah, but I kind of entered the art realm a bit later on in life, at least publicly with other people. Not until four years ago, did I actually start doing any of this stuff.
Was there something in particular that pushed you to do something four years ago?
In the beginning, I started doing poetry and performing at slams. Mainly to get money, because you can get money off of them. That was my first come-up. I never won because I always broke the rules of the poetry slam, so there was no point in me doing them, I guess. *laughs*
I still got gigs off of them. I went through a point of emotional turmoil at some point. That pushed me to start singing acapella and do music.
How do you think your cultural identity informs your art and your music?
My mom blasting Sudanese music when I was a kid.
That impacts me in the way I sing and perform. I’m very dramatic. People in Sudan live for the theater and the moment. Listening to the Quran when I was younger. A lot of my pentatonic skills are more Arabian, quote-on-quote. And then growing up in a historically black neighborhood, you’re always going to hear Hip-Hop. People are always blasting MF Doom or Lauryn Hill. That’s going to influence the way I make music. There’s also a lot of emo, punk, goth, alternative scene type people. That influences a lot of the rock-centered music I’ve worked on.
You sing in Arabic, and you speak Arabic. What does it mean for you to be able to sing in a foreign language?
It means I’m holding on to my culture in some ways. For me, it’s more self-indulgent than it is about other people. I’m trying to grasp on to the culture that is slowly being chipped away in my life. Singing in Arabic brings me back to what I was talking about before – truth and self and sociocultural honesty. That and I’m trying not to forget it. It’s also cool when people in the crowd are like, “Hey, I know Arabic.”
Does that happen often?
Not as often as I would like. It surprises me when it does happen. It warms my heart. One of the other shows I did here was a fundraiser for Sudan with everyday people and it was masses of Sudanese people and I think it was the best concert I’ve ever done in my entire life just cause I felt people understanding and feeling it.
What does it mean for you be part of this first-time COLORSXSTUDIOS live experience?
It feels cool! I feel like I don’t really let things settle in before I’m right about to perform, so I’m sure the emotions and all the nerves will hit me then.
On stage, Gaidaa laughs a bit, and says, “I’m so bad at this,” before breaking into song and revealing a melodic, honey voice that resonates and fills the room. Her energy is humble, bashful even, but her sonorous voice radiates a confidence that belies any self-doubt she may be alluding to. During “Sunday Blue,” we get the impression of listening to a voice older than her years, a voice that’s lived more lives than you and I. Then she sings “I Like Trouble”, and her earnest demeanor is on display with a playful, acoustic guitar intro. That kind of versatility sets the relative newcomer apart and hints at the future of the promising performer.
When I sit down with Gaidaa, her enthusiasm and willingness come across, in a lively demeanor and an easiness to laugh. We talk about what it means to find one’s home in music, and the role manifesting had in bringing her to New York for her first-ever, live performance in the United States.
Is this your first show in New York?
This is my first show in the U.S.!
You’re based in the Netherlands, and this your first show in the U.S. What does it feel like for you to be performing here for the very first time?
Pretty surreal to be honest. Last time I was in the U.S., I was like next time I’m here it’s going to be for music, I promise. I was trying to manifest it for myself. So it’s really weird to see it actually happen. New York has always been the dream, and now I’m like, “Oh damn.”
What was it like growing up in the Netherlands?
I don’t know. *sighs* A lot of white people. I grew up in an international school so I had a pretty good diverse group of people around me. I grew up in Eindhoven. Everyone thinks I grew up in Amsterdam, but I grew up down south. It’s a lot more quiet than Amsterdam. That really forced me to catch my zen, see some cows and shit. But growing up in the Netherlands was lowkey a blessing. Netherlands is pretty peaceful.
Do you think growing up there shaped you as an artist?
I know my life is different. I’m Sudanese. For sure if I had grown up there it would have been a whole other story. My dad, for example, is also a musician, but he grew up in Sudan. Whereas I felt I had like more opportunity to do other stuff.
What is it about music that allows you to express yourself in a way that’s different from other music?
I’m a freestyler, at heart. How I sing, I come up with everything. Even with my first shows, it was just me showing up with a guitar and freestyling the whole set. For me, music is the most honest and me version of me if that makes sense. I’m shit at drawing. Don’t ask me to draw. It’s the only thing that I find home in. It feels close to me. It’s nothing that was strange to me ever. For me, it’s kind of a safe space.
You’re an activist and that comes across in your music. How do your politics inform your music?
I don’t think they’re such different things. They play into each other. A lot of the time, music and art are a reflection of the politics and of what is happening. They play hand in hand. Music is an expression of life and of honesty in whatever form. If you don’t ever touch on that stuff, I mean it’s one and the same. Don’t be a political asshole and talk about politics every three seconds.
You said “activist.” I don’t think I’m necessary an activist. I just speak on things that I feel are important.
What does it feel like to be a part of this first-time COLORSXSTUDIOS live experience?
Literally insane. I’m freaking out, seriously. On Wednesday I was supposed to go home and then in the space of half an hour, I decided I wasn’t going to go. There was too much stuff happening and I wanted to stay and work more and do sessions. In the space of that half-hour, they also sent me the message to be here. It’s insane. I’m really honored. The whole COLORSXSTUDIOS family has been really lovely to me. I’m honored to have done the actual COLORS video, which was my debut, as well. This is just a blessing.
Stay tuned to Milk for more NYC music moments.