In the video for her latest single, “Honey,” Amaal Nuux reveals herself slowly. Wrapped in a glamorous bodysuit, she displays only her silhouette first — a hint — before launching into a captivating strut through a hallway as she sings “super thick, superfly, Gemini.” It’s a move that subtly echoes the 31-year-old artist’s claim to a modest sexy power. Amaal burst into the music scene in 2012 with the release of her songs “Words Revealed” and “Mufasa” at a time when she didn’t see music as a viable career. That was the hint, the silhouette of what was to come.
By 2019, and after fully committing to her calling, she snagged a Juno nomination for Soul/R&B Recording of the Year for Black Dove, a 20-minute soulful EP that displays the strength of the artist’s powerfully tuned vocals and R&B roots. She became the Goodwill Ambassador for Somali women and children, and for a Junos’ Rising episode, she highlighted Dixon, a neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto that is home to the city’s Somali diaspora, and where she grew up. Now, we’re about to witness the well-earned strut, as she delivers her sophomore EP in collaboration with Grammy-nominated duo Nicky Davey. Titled Milly — for her once-buried self we meet in the “Honey” video — it’s a project that she says freed her to merge her multiple identities and reveal her most honest self.
In a world that continuously hyper-sexualizes Black women, and desexualizes Muslim women, it can be difficult for Black Muslim women to find liberation in their sexuality. This has certainly been the case for Amaal, who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia during the height of its civil war and then subsequently immigrated to Canada, where she was raised. When Amaal first shared her music, she received negative backlash from Muslim community members who didn’t feel like she was falling in line with a particular conservative expectation. In some Islamic schools of thought, the permissibility of making and performing music is disputed, and that goes double when the musician is a woman. For Amaal, the criticism was so loud that it momentarily hindered her creative expression. When she recognized how isolating it was, she embarked on a healing journey, becoming committed to living unabashedly as herself.
Ahead of Milly’s highly anticipated fall release, Refinery29 spoke with Amaal about her new music, community expectations, and liberating herself in order to liberate others through her music.
Refinery29: Who is Milly? How is she different from the person we saw in your earlier work?
Amaal: "Milly is me — it's always been a part of who I am. Growing up, we would have nicknames. It was our way of being able to maintain a sense of anonymity so we could go out, have fun, be wild, be our uninhibited, fun selves in a space [with] no judgment. People couldn’t say: Oh, I was hanging out with Amaal from this block, and it would immediately come back to me. It was a part of me that I felt like I could only share in certain spaces and it wouldn't be able to come out in my music. When I started doing music, I lived in a place of [being] very conscious. [The music] was about our motherland. That's still who I am; that sense of activism and having meaning in my music — a message is always going to exist within me. But I felt like I got stuck. I felt like I got a pass if I [would] stay doing music like that, but if I stepped away from it... it was the backlash I was afraid of. With Black Dove, my last project, that was the beginning of me allowing those parts of myself to come out and flourish. With Milly, she's coming out fully. It's daring, fun, sexy, empowering, but still always true to who I am."
Can we talk a bit more about the backlash you’re hinting at? There’s this constant pressure, as Somali women, to hide parts of ourselves in order to fit into other people’s ideas of what Somalinimo is. How have you experienced that?
"When I first shared music, a lot of family members were really unhappy. Some of them were calling my mom, my inbox was pretty brutal. I noticed a bit of a shift when I [shared] “Mufasa.” And, I love them to death, but even with some older family members, I got this sense that, okay, she's talking about things that are important. But if [I went] beyond that box, it was going to be a problem. I caged myself in and I completely stayed in that world. I never felt comfortable being able to express the things that I was going through with my relationships [and] heartbreaks. I didn’t want to share that because of the fear. I realized that I was doing a disservice to my music. I let the fear of others control me. And I knew right there this is gonna kill me, you know? Depression, stress, and anxiety, it was [all] weight lifted off my shoulders.
"My stories are valid, and I'm allowed to be multifaceted and multi-dimensional. As Black women, we deserve and can be those things. We should let it shine and come out, it shouldn't be held back or covered. As Somali women, I feel like we do have to sort of teeter between two worlds. With this project, it's me finally doing the work and saying: This is me, this is a part of who I am as well. And I'm not shying away from it no more. And you can't scare me. I'm happy. That's all that matters."
What inspired you to write and record “Honey?” And what do you want your audience to take away from it?
" I collaborated with the Somali stylist Lebani Osmani, who is so talented, and killed it [for this video] during COVID-19. He exceeded beyond [expectations]. Everybody was incredible on set. I remember making a vow to push my boundaries, get comfortable being uncomfortable. I want to be able to express myself, but there are still those fearful thoughts that enter my head. In the end, I was just like, yo, let it go. I wanted “Honey” to be sexy, fun, cocky, like, why not? Why can’t I be full of myself saying I got that honey if that's the space that I'm in right now? Honey is that je ne sais quoi, that sauce, that Black girl magic. It is that thing within us that is so special. It's capturing a feeling of having that special something and I'm not going to shy away from it anymore. I'm going to sit in my confidence. [Milly] is getting [described as] an alter ego, and I’m like, no, not really, it's me. I’m finally living it now because I've healed and I've grown.
"There's a huge misconception because culture plays a huge role in the way that society operates and dictates, that Islam does not empower women to be sexually empowered, especially within their personal spaces, with their husbands. I understand I'm crossing boundaries here; the way that I've been able to do this is [within] a space that's respectful to me. That's why I call it modest sexy. I'm able to still express myself and show what it is that I'm doing. [Honey] is coming from a place of wanting women to be able to be sexy, [and] feel sexy on their own terms, especially now. As long as you are doing it from a place that's not for acceptance from other people. The only validation that is important is your own."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.