THE SOLIDARITY INDEX EPISODE 1: My Love Language Is Action – With Alsarah
[00:00] The sound of waves surging then crashing fades into Alsarah’s voice
[00:14] Alsarah: Solidarity for me, means having the guts to speak on each other’s behalf when the other people are not even in the room. That, to me, is solidarity. It’s like – it doesn’t matter if you’re here or not. My commitment to your freedom is real, whether you’re around or not.
[00:31] MUSIC: Until Everybody Is Free by Bella Cuts – featuring the voice of Maya Angelou
[00:56] Zahyr: Welcome to THE SOLIDARITY INDEX – a gathering place for trailblazing artists from around the world to share experiences of solidarity and liberation through creative practice, and to welcome all of us into freedom struggles – from Palestine to Standing Rock to Sudan and beyond.
I’m your host Zahyr Lauren, currently on Coast Salish territory in Seattle, Washington. Today I am in conversation with singer songwriter and ethnomusicologist Alsarah – coming to us from Canarsie Land, otherwise known as Brooklyn, New York.
Thanks for joining us as we talk taking freedom as a lover… finding your reflection as a displaced people… and choosing to do the unsafest thing that makes your heart sing.
[01:43] MUSIC: Until Everybody Is Free by Bella Cuts – featuring the voice of Maya Angelou
[01:48] Zahyr: We’re extremely grateful to have you here. You are a legend in the game. I’m so honored to be speaking with you.
[01:55] Alsarah: Oh my pleasure, thank you for having me. What’s up! My name is Alsarah. I am a singer-songwriter and ethnomusicologist. I am a Black woman of Nubian descent. I have two nose rings, two earrings, a short little curly afro… wearing a very loose yellow cotton shirt, and some overalls that you can’t see that are extremely comfortable. My pronouns are she and her, but kind of like the way she and her is used to refer to nations.
[02:29] Zahyr: My name is Zahyr and my pronouns are they/them. I am a Black person, we’ll call me gender diverse. I’ve got on a beautiful green button down. I’ve got headphones on, I’ve got glasses. Maybe I’m caramel complected. I’ve got a nose ring. I will leave it at that for me.
[02:46] Alsarah: I cosign this description!
[02:48] The sound of waves surging
[02:52] Zahyr: So I’m gonna hit you with the first question, which we all want to know so we can follow you, so we can be involved in all the brilliance. What are you working on right now?
[03:10] Alsarah: Right now I’m working on a couple of different projects. The Nubatones is my main baby project, my band. We just finished recording our third album. I have a little side project I’m working on right now – field recordings I gathered from the refugee camp a couple of years ago when I was out working on a documentary called Beats of the Antonov, with a music video and collaboration to build artist incubator spaces in Sudan that also will be launched next year. And I have a new baby project called Mesafa that’s very trip hop – Sudanese trip hop. Basically, I’m trying to create different sounds that will match the different mosaics on my sides, you know. So this project is very tender love songs. A duo, me and Sara Michaels, SFM as we call her. Yeah. So that’s what I’m working on right now… and working on staying alive. That takes a lot of work.
[03:53] Zahyr: Listen. And in these bodies. At this time! Oh my gosh.
[04:00] Alsarah: Exactly. Exactly. That’s my number one priority every day.
[04:06] Zahyr: Staying alive. Yes. Yes, indeed. The most important priority.
I love how you describe making music, that it fits different sides of your mosaic or different parts of you – different pieces of you. I’ve been geeking out on music videos of yours and Tiny Desk and, you know, all the things, and I was like, Oh my God the brilliance in the music and the fact that you are singing it in Arabic and not in English, which I know is something that was very intentional for you, it really moves me. And so I take art like that even though I may not be able to understand every word, the power and the feeling and the direction of the music in what you’re saying, in what you are singing… it’s so palpable. I just want to say thank you for what you’ve offered us because it’s incredible music.
[04:51] Alsarah: Thank you! Zahyr, I want to take you with me every time I need a pep talk.
[04:57] Zahyr: Yeah, I’m comin! Let me know!
[05:00] Alsarah: My internal pep talk.
[05:02] Zahyr: Let me know. I got you.
[05:04] MUSIC: Let Me Tell You About My Love by Mesafa
[05:36] Zahyr: As you know, this is THE SOLIDARITY INDEX, and we are, in short, trying to elevate in these different spheres what it means to be in solidarity in general, and in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle specifically. And so just as a general ask – what does solidarity mean to you?
[05:58] Alsarah: Solidarity for me, means showing up for each other, in a real, actual way by providing emotional support, cultural support, fiscal support, emotional support one more time.
[06:18] Zahyr: Yes. Yes. Yes.
[06:19] Alsarah: And having the guts to speak on each other’s behalf when the other people are not even in the room. That, to me, is solidarity. It’s like it doesn’t matter if you’re here or not – my commitment to your freedom is real, whether you’re around or not.
[06:34] Zahyr: Right. And so you are on the lead-by-example not-for-show tip, because a lot of people don’t do it – don’t do it in the dark.
[06:42] Alsarah: My love language is action, strictly.
[06:45] Zahyr: Yeah, you about that action. A lot of people don’t do it in the dark so that is being reminded of that, that it should seep into every component of your life, not just when you’re on camera or, you know, in front of somebody. I appreciate that. Yeah. So you mentioned earlier the sounds you gathered when you were doing the documentary when you were in the Sudanese refugee camp, and I’m interested in hearing if you find any similarities between Sudanese folks being disappeared within and the struggle of the Palestinian people.
[07:20] Alsarah: Oh my God, it’s so similar, as a Nubian person. So it’s really interesting you’re asking me this question because I was just writing an article about it. I was interviewing this musician from Port Sudan, and we were both – he’s Beja and I’m Nubian – and you know, we were talking just about growing up in a country where the national identity was decided and it didn’t leave any room for you. And so you never hear yourself reflected around you. And we were both bonding over the fact that it took us having multiple displacements because, you know, first you have my grandparents’ displacement from our village to the big city in order to seek improvement, because displacement sometimes can be a choice when there is no other option, also.
[08:03] Zahyr: Right.
[08:04] Alsarah: So once the high dam was built, people had to leave. And for him and then – growing up being assimilated by force into this is normal. This is what modernity looks like. The sacrifice of your existence should be okay with you, because what we’re preserving is higher, is better. However you want to do so – whether that’s from an outsider or not, even if that outsider looks like you. When there is no room for you in that dialogue and that conversation, you can’t help but realize that you are being sacrificed in the name of modernity. And this modernity doesn’t include you, and you didn’t vote for any of that.
So for me, it feels like I empathize with this struggle from a personal space as well as from just an intellectual space. It’s not just like an intellectual understanding for me of what’s happening in Palestine and the occupied territories. I had the privilege of doing one show in Ramallah before, and the amount of checkpoints I needed to get through. The amount. And of course, I’m Sudanese. And so even though my passport is American, I was held for 10 hours because they weren’t sure of my presence there. Same thing happened to me, though, in the Gulf, in the Arab Peninsula, in Khalij and in Kuwait and all those places.
So being othered and being told that you don’t belong to the status quo of the conversation really makes you realize that colonization is a political agenda, it’s not in any way a natural state of being. And it’s always sold to the people on the ground as the natural state of being. And it’s not. That’s why you need guns to keep it in place.
[09:52] Zahyr: I mean… say that.
[09:55] Alsarah: If it was natural we didn’t need a gun for this, baby… we’d all be all about it.
[10:00] Zahyr: Say that. Say that. I think for me, my spirit, energy and solidarity with the Palestinian struggle came once I started to see the American police influence and training with the Israeli military, and really started to kind-of stack these things up line by line. And I come from a legal background. So for me, that is something that I’m always really trying to research, and the stories of families like Ahed Tamimi’s family and understanding how many babies are in cages and military prisons in Israel. The ways that they speak about feeling threatened by people who have rocks when you have semi automatic rifles. But you – but your life felt threatened though, right?? Which is the same thing they tell Black Americans based on skin.
[10:58] Alsarah: Yeahhh.
[10:59] Zahyr: Right, right, right. And so it really started to impress upon me the similarities between oppression in that way.
[11:06] MUSIC: Let Me Tell You About My Love by Mesafa
[11:19] Zahyr: You come from two human rights activist parents, is that right?
[11:23] Alsarah: It’s true. That’s how we ended up in the States, actually, as political refugees. Because first we needed to leave Sudan in 1991, and we went to Yemen and we thought it would be temporary. And then my dad ended up getting arrested – he’s a torture survivor – so we had to sneak him out of the country. And then a civil war broke out in Yemen in 1994, and that’s how we ended up in the States. We kind of ended up here with like one bag between us all, and we’re like “We’ll be back in one minute!” And now fast forward 20 years later, here we all are. And it just makes you realize the uncertainty of life, really. It presses it upon you… and it presses upon you, I think, also realizing that our bodies are political spaces.
Politics is personal and personal is political: the way we love, the way we eat, the way we – we marry, the way we die is political for me. I don’t know how you can’t see that. Maybe I see it more clearly as a Black woman and a former refugee and as somebody who’s been in between spaces a lot and been an outsider and othered a lot. But I just, I can’t escape it. It’s palpable in every section of life, down to who you try to put in a cage, you know… who you decide doesn’t belong here… whose passport get questioned and whose doesn’t… who – why does 16% of the world have the right to movement and the rest don’t? These kinds of things to me are just, they’re part of everyday life.
And my parents, I’m privileged that I have parents who always had answers when I would have questions, and references to things, and always emphasized for me the importance of knowing history and the importance of understanding that – step back so you can see the big picture… because this whole thing of naturalizing something to you so you think it’s okay, is really about making sure you don’t know how you ended up here.
[13:13] Zahyr: Right. Right. Making sure you don’t have a grasp. And when you don’t have a grasp, you are always in a tailspin. And when you’re in a tailspin, you can’t focus on the problem.
[13:23] Alsarah: Exactly. Exactly like if you don’t have a grasp of how Israel was created – Israel is America’s best project. It’s its best colonial project. I would say Saudi Arabia is running second, I mean hey somebody has to say it. And so it’s just fascinating to me to watch such a clearly colonial project not be called that. I’m just like, this is colonization. I see it.
[13:53] Zahyr: Mm hmm. Word. With being a revolutionary yourself and having parents who come from that space… there’s a song that I really love the music video to, I wanna say – and please forgive me boss if I mess this up – is it Men Ana?
[14:09] Alsarah: Men Ana. No you did good!
[14:11] Zahyr: Okay! It’s about revolutionaries in that space… and I’m wondering how you felt making that piece.
[14:20] Alsarah: Honestly, I felt so honored and privileged making that piece. I wrote it at the end of 2019, watching Sudan’s revolution take off. I’ve seen so many revolutions come up and fail, and somehow for me Men Ana became a song about – how do you define yourself in the space of waiting for what you consider to be an inevitable freedom? And writing that song for me was about that space. How do I define myself through time as I am in relationship to this idea of freedom? And freedom for me always has a symbolism in my lyrics as the lover. The beloved. So how do I define myself while I am waiting for my beloved? And so for me, it was really important to shoot a music video for it on the ground in Sudan, and really important for me to work with an all Sudanese team – which I did.
[15:16:] Zahyr: Yes.
[15:17] Alsarah: And have a female director and have a female lead star in it, and just do it there when everyone says you can’t do it there.
[15:26] MUSIC: Men Ana by Alsarah & the Nubatones – continues softly under Alsarah’s voice
[16:13] Alsarah: Everyone says that it’s impossible to create beauty in that kind of a world. And I was just like, absolutely disagree. Beauty comes from the most volatile places. This incredible destruction and chaos often gives birth to the most intense forms of life. For me, I feel like when I’m making music and art out of that place, it’s about – it’s like you put out an essence of you out there, and because sound reverberates forever – forever and infinity… for me it feels like at least this part of me will survive. And I see that very clearly in so much of the creativity that comes out of a lot of places that are under occupation. It was super important for me to go home and make that song there. It’s our song together.
[16:59] MUSIC: Men Ana by Alsarah & the Nubatones – swells then fades under Zahyr’s voice
[17:11] Zahyr: Yesss. Beautiful. Yes. It’s the, what I like to call for art, the infinite bloom, where you just – you never know where it’s going to go. You never know who’s going to say, Wow I saw this, heard this – pass it on. The pass on – it will never be controlled. You can never control that, especially in the age of the internet.
[17:32] Alsarah: Honestly, that’s the only thing that gives me hope. Because I keep looking around and sometimes, I don’t know about you guys, but for me sometimes systemic change feels really overwhelming. And I come from activists, and so for me, I had to actually step away from the world of activism for a while, as someone who was raised in it, for many reasons beginning with the fact that I needed to define my relationship to change on my own. And so because I feel like in a lot of the activist world something is lost in this – in this idea of living the change you want to see. Because there’s this idea of like whatever it takes to get to the goal, which I really respect about activism, but sometimes it becomes a little scary, you know, when you’re not quite sure how we’re going to move around to do it.
And so for me, coming back around to activism from a space of being an artist has felt like the most in alignment with myself. Because what I’m interested in is one-on-one change, and what happens when people are standing in the room next to each other listening is that you are quiet when you’re listening. And that means you have to hear everything around you… and it opens up a place in people that they rarely open up. And in that place is where change is possible. And in that place where I think the intersectionality of all of us coming together is so crucial. And so for me, music is about that, because it sets up the room for all of us to be there together.
[19:06] Zahyr: Wow. I mean, you’re speaking to me so hardcore right now. I’m just like, man. If I may share – for me as well, coming from the legal field and working with our folks in the cages, working with our folks coming home out of the cages, and being in these spaces that are deemed to be activist spaces – I find that how you’re saying you’re silent If you’re listening, there’s that. And then also, to me, it can be very isolating if you don’t understand that specific language. Whereas as an artist, like you’re saying, we can bring people in. It’s an open platform. You’re not necessarily feeling like you have to respond to a certain movement or an idea, but you can first feel something and connect with the person who is like elevating that, and then that makes room for more questions and more ability to bond and, you know, just sit down with somebody and talk and like talk regular.
And I’m not hating on – nobody. I just feel like sometimes the organizing-activism explicit world can actually push people out of those spaces unintentionally, because of the restrictions and the language and all these different things. Whereas art, like you said, that’s a freedom for everyone to engage.
[20:28] Alsarah: Yeah, exactly. Thank you for adding that. I completely echo that sentiment.
[20:33] Zahyr: No, I mean, I’m echoing you! I was like… wow. I’m like, recently getting into that space. That’s why I left New York. Yeah, I left being an attorney, which meant I had to come back home just to pursue my art and all that stuff. So thank you thank you thank you for that.
[20:52] Alsarah: Yo kudos for that! That’s revolutionary right there. The most radical act for me is choosing to do the unsafest thing that makes your heart sing.
[21:03] Zahyr: Eyy, we’re following your lead! We’re following your lead.
[21:07] Alsarah: We’re all following each other. It takes all of us like – our existence is our resistance. Like, I couldn’t imagine doing what I did if I didn’t see somebody doing it before – being like, All right, I like that. I want to add that to my life. I want to be like that. I want to do that. And so I think it’s just – it’s too fragile, the life that we have, to spend it being unhappy.
[21:28] Zahyr: Full stop. Like… that is – that is the point.
[21:34] MUSIC: Let Me Tell You About My Love by Mesafa
[22:18] Zahyr: Where do you find hope and inspiration? I know you’ve been a part of incredible things like the BDS mixtape, and you were one of the first signers onto the letter from musicians challenging the occupation in Palestine. And so, I’m wondering if those types of things make you feel hopeful or are there other things that kind of buoy you when you’re feeling weighed down by the struggle?
[22:46] Alsarah: You know… I think I need all of it together. I really love watching activists. It’s like – people forget that it’s a job and it’s a hard job. And you can be politically conscious and be an activist on your own, but like to be a real organizer-activist it takes a lot of work. And it used to bog me down because I’m not good at that. So when I watch folks pull together these beautiful big movements, I’m so inspired to lend my voice in whatever way I can, because I know my change is really micro and it happens itty-bitty bitty bitty. And so what we need is somebody like this who has a bigger boat that can just shovel us all there together. And you need us all for that.
So for me, I find inspiration in having conversations like this with you… being around a network of people that are constantly inspiring me to do better and inspiring to do better in the best of ways, by living that change. And for me, like living that change is about cultivating your happiness in the best way possible. And for me, my happiness is at the intersection of other peoples, because the happier everybody the happier we can all be. Honestly, happy people don’t shit on you. I promise you. They’re busy being happy, eyy! You know. So for me, I find it really inspiring to be in these kinds of conversations and dialogues because I feel seen and I feel like I can see others.
And at the end of the day, colonizers are really unhappy people dang, and very full of hate and – whatever, you could die that way if you feel like it or you can change your mind. It’s that simple. You could just change your mind. So for me, that’s inspiring. And for me, also inspiring is just like little tender moments of love between people like… watching people feel safe enough to love up on each other. And I get to see that a lot in music rooms, which is again why we keep circling back to that. There’s nothing more radical and joyous than that. Let’s just love up on each other.
[25:01] Zahyr: Yes, yes, yes.
[25:03] Alsarah: You can see happiness on people. You can smell it on them. They smell like the morning breeze. They’re delicious to be around, you know? You want that.
[25:12] Zahyr: Absolutely. And so speaking of happiness, what does it do for your spirit to be in a position to cultivate your own happiness?
[25:29] Alsarah: Mm, interesting. Well, I mean – I feel really privileged, first of all. I kind of yo-yo actually between feeling really privileged and feeling like I earned it. Like, because I could have done the safe thing, and I never gave myself enough credit for that. But I was under a lot of pressure to do the safe thing. And I chose not to do the safe thing. And I chose it over and over and over again. And to me, that means that I chose myself over and over and over again. And I’m really proud of myself for that part. And I want that for all of us, for all of us in the world. And for me, our solidarity is so crucial in order to cultivate a safe enough environment that we can all choose ourselves over and over. Yeah… It makes me feel happy, but also proud. Really proud.
[26:21] Zahyr: Yeah. Word. Yo can you tell me what your safe space – so-called, ‘cause I feel like at the end of the day, it’s actually not a safe space but that’s what’s beat into our head ‘cause really somebody else could be like, Mm you’re fired or Hey, too authentic today gotta go – but like, what was that trajectory for you that you thought you may have went into, before choosing yourself?
[26:47] Alsarah: I think safety is an illusion, a very expensive illusion we spend a lot of money on. There’s no such thing as safety. You can die any minute, anywhere. Anything can go wrong at any moment. That’s it. So I didn’t have the privilege of believing in safety because my life collapsed at a young age. So I saw very clearly that there is no such thing as safety, you know. And that’s what I think also helped me choose myself over and over, because I was just like my parents always did the right thing, always, and their life kept collapsing over and over due to other people not doing the right thing. I don’t know, the trajectory towards it was painful. It was scary. But once you make that leap, you realize everything’s kind of scary. And honestly, I also made that leap when I got fired from my job. I had a job and I got fired for asking for my rights. The entire position was eliminated and then I never got anything. And I was like, Well, this was my safety net.
[27:46] Zahyr: Yup, yup.
[27:48] Alsarah: Whatever, let me just go willy nilly into the world. And I realized everyone’s just winging it. We’re just lying to each other about it.
[27:58] Zahyr: Whoo! And then you chose yourself. And you are you. You are all around the world. You are infecting the world with this like… power. The power of your voice… power of your message… the power of who you are.
[28:16] MUSIC: Men Ana by Alsarah & the Nubatones – swells then fades under Zahyr’s voice
[28:57] Zahyr: So let me ask you one more question. How do we celebrate being a part of these mass movements and shifts, like the movement for Palestine? I was reading somewhere about your love for being a part of these. And again, this is also something that you have touched on, but how – what is in your energy right now to share with us about how we should celebrate the elevation of these movements?
[29:25] Alsarah: You know, I think it’s important to celebrate the fact that, first of all, we are capable to come together to create a movement. To me, that’s so amazing. Already a success. The creation of community and global community?? Already a huge win for us as humans. So to me, I feel like we’re winners – already we’re winners. And that change is coming. It’s coming y’all just wait because change takes time. Don’t wait in like a plateaued state of inertia, wait with a proactive sensibility. Connect with a proactive sensibility. Choose each other every day. Choose to be kind every second in every moment. Work on yourself. Do the work on your self.
Because a lot of the internal work is really hard. And when you spend so much of your time looking outwards and trying to reach a goal and a change, sometimes we forget that a lot of those goals and changes can already start from in here, right? But it really does work. You need to address your own crap first, your own issues first. Unpack any space where genuine hate lives, really unpack it – and it lives in all of us.
Nobody’s above hate. For me I’m just like – all I want is a ginormous tribe, and that means I need to work with all my human fellows, to work towards that. And that doesn’t mean we erase our differences. In fact, no! Cultivate our differences. That’s what makes us sexy and special! And at the same time, make room for all the differences. There’s room for all of us. And so for me, I don’t see any reason – if you say to yourself you believe in life and you believe in freedom and you believe in people’s right to live, then you shouldn’t have an issue with wanting to join a solidarity movement like this.
I think a lot of times people can confuse the BDS movement and the solidarity in general as being anti Jewish and anti that. And I’m just like – it’s not anti anything it’s actually just pro living and pro existence of all. There’s no anti in it and there shouldn’t be an anti anywhere in any kind of freedom movement – there is not an anti somebody, it’s a pro something. That’s how I think of change. Focus on what you’re for. I am here for this. Yeah. Let’s make family y’all.
[31:56] MUSIC: beat from Until Everybody Is Free by Bella Cuts
[32:01] Zahyr: Alsarah gave us the jewels. Finding the spark of solidarity within ourselves can create pathways to each other and to our collective freedom.
[32:11] MUSIC: Voice of Maya Angelou from Until Everybody Is Free by Bella Cuts: People have to develop courage. In your heart – you have to have courage.
[32:25] Zahyr: Thank you for listening to the first episode of THE SOLIDARITY INDEX. Please share it with your friends and follow us wherever you listen to podcasts.
And deep gratitude for our conversation with Alsarah from Alsarah & the Nubatones. You can find out about her upcoming album release and shows on instagram at Alsarah and the Nubatones.
Learn more about Musicians for Palestine and the BDS mixtape at THE SOLIDARITY INDEX dot com.
This podcast is a production of State of Mind Media. Created and produced by Jen Bell, Shalva Wise, Stina Hamlin, and Zahyr Lauren. Audio editing and production by Stina Hamlin. Audio mix by Matt Gundy. Logo and identity design by Marwan Kaabour. Art direction, website and additional design by Jen Bell at Studio Analogy.
Our theme song – Until Everybody Is Free by Bella Cuts – is out now everywhere you listen to music. All proceeds from streaming and downloads go to the Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation.
Additional music featured in this episode: Men Ana by Alsarah & the Nubatones, and Let Me Tell You About My Love by Mesafa.
I’m your host Zahyr Lauren – aka The Artist L.Haz.
Follow us on instagram at THE SOLIDARITY INDEX.
For more information about THE SOLIDARITY INDEX movement, podcast, and events – check out our website at THE SOLIDARITY INDEX dot com, and please follow our show anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Thanks for listening… Peace.
[34:07] MUSIC: Voice of Maya Angelou from Until Everybody Is Free by Bella Cuts:
The truth is – no one of us can be free until everybody is free… No one of us can be free – until everybody is free.