Listen to this track by London-born, Sudanese-originated musical genre-defier now based in Brooklyn, Ahmed Gallab who records under the name Sinkane. It’s “Mean Love”, the title track to 2014’s Mean Love, his fifth solo record.
Maybe it’s his continent-spanning international experience that allows him to seemingly know no bounds when it comes to creating pop music that can’t be easily filed. But in any case, Sinkane’s music has explored several stylistic paths from krautrock to funk, Afrobeat to free jazz. In addition, he’s lent his instrumental talents to a range of artists including Caribou, Of Montreal, and Yeasayer. He served as musical director to a show celebrating the music of early Nigerian synth innovator William Onyeabor, himself something of a maverick when it came to unexpected instrumentation and disregard to musical barriers, while at the same time appealing to a distinct pop sensibility.
This particular tune, sung in a keening gender-neutral falsetto, incorporates soulful torch singing style in an R&B vein, coupled with a weeping pedal steel line that suggests the sounds of country music. There is something distinctly 21st century about this, even if the connection between these two poles has always been stronger than most immediately recognize. Maybe too, there are other connections that this song reveals which are of a more personal nature, specifically surrounding the concept of otherness, and of being a stranger in a strange land.
The son of educated Sudanese parents, Ahmed Gallab jumped from place to place, born in one place, temporarily living in another, and finally settling across an ocean as his career began. He came by all of this honestly, with his family coming from a nomadic line. It’s no wonder that his albums are self-contained statements that explore various genres internally, and present a colorful stylistic spectrum when compared to each other. They are all like independent countries, with distinct identities. Moving from one album to another is a microcosm of the experience of their creator.
When you come to live in another country, even one that you come to love, there’s a lot of pain to be endured first; learning the language, mastering the customs, following the unwritten rules, and suffering the consequences of breaking them. This is true of any immigrant experience to varying degrees. “Mean love” is a good way to describe the relationship between the recognizably foreign and the place in which they live that fears foreignness, even if that fear is tempered with often begrudged admiration. A cultural landscape like that can still serve as the staging ground for great and lasting beauty around the gathering of cultures in their diversity. It’s the paradox between these two truths that often results in the most vital expression of art.
Pop music as we know it today was born out of the blues and jazz that preceded it. Those musical forms in turn were born at least in part out of the social disenfranchisement and outright suffering of its authors, and their audiences. Great art has been a double-edged sword in that respect, with the duality between pain and joy being played out again and again. “Mean Love” is another expression of that. Having to navigate the often unfriendly world, sometimes getting it wrong and having to pay the price is a common theme in art, and in the real lives of many that are reflected in that art. But, the most vital examples that connect the most widely are ultimately about gaining a better understanding of our common humanity that help us to rise above our prejudices, and turn our pain into something relatable.
And that’s the most important takeaway in this song; that the love sung about is stronger than the meanness. To me, this is anthem to overcoming the odds on one’s own terms, while also acknowledging that the game remains to be a cruel one.
For more about Sinkane and Ahmed Gallab, have a read of this interview from Stereogum in which he talks about the Mean Love album, about his collaborations on other projects (including the time he appeared on stage with both Usher and the Afghan Whigs at the same time, just in case you didn’t take that genre-defying point seriously enough …), and about his cultural background as it informs his art.