Just two days before Sinkane hopped on Zoom to speak with Billboard about his stunning new We Belong LP – a 46-minute ode to the music of the Black diaspora and the undying legacy of the Black Arts Movement – the NYPD stormed the campus of Columbia University and arrested nearly 100 students who were occupying one of the school’s halls in memory of Hind Rajab, a young Palestinian girl murdered by Israeli military forces. With a historic moment in U.S. protest history in the background, a conversation about an album laser-focused on global Black liberation and solidarity is as disorienting as it is necessary. 

As guest vocalist Tru Osborne beautifully sings on standout track “Everything Is Everything”: “That’s the problem with tomorrow/ Always one day away/ I wanna be free in this moment/ And this is what I pray.” 

We Belong, the eighth studio album from Sudanese-American musician born Ahmed Gallab, arrived on April 5 via City Slang. At a brisk 10 tracks, the ‘70s funk-rooted record pulls together a bevy of standout vocalists including Osborne, Stout, Hollie Cook and Bilal for a journey through the sounds of quiet storm, Afrobeats, reggae, jazz, gospel and disco. With a catalog that stretches back over a decade, Sinkane chose to both pour into himself and step away from the spotlight to craft We Belong

“I came into this album with one singular vision: I wasn’t going to make it about me,” he declares. “Every other album is about me, my identity issues, that stuff. Music is essentially therapy to allow me to figure out who I am. In the last five years, I did all that self-work on my own. I went to therapy, went back to music school [and] took time off from playing music.” 

Not only does We Belong mark Sinkane’s first LP since the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also stands as his first record since going back to music school. In 2022, he graduated with a master’s degree in studio composition from SUNY Purchase, an achievement that radiates across the boundless, intricate arrangements that comprise We Belong. It was through this self-work that Sinkane could built the community he needed to create an album dedicated to collective freedom in the spirit of the interconnected poetic works of Black Arts Movement writers such as Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde. 

“My grandma on my dad’s side was a poet,” he muses. “My dad was a creative writer. My grandfather on my mom’s side had religious gatherings in our house where he would recite stories of the Prophet Mohammed, essentially spiritual Sufi poetry, so it’s all existed in my life since I was born. We drew a lot of influence from the ‘70s Black Arts Movement.” 

Between a deeper level of understanding of his craft and years of introspection, Sinkane ended up with this gorgeous new record, which he’s supporting with a series of electric live shows across the U.S. and U.K. Below, Sinkane unpacks the Afrofuturist influences on his new record and the value of short albums — and at the end of our discussion, the genre-bending artist shares the stories behind three key tracks from We Belong.

Did you go into the studio with a pre-existing concept for We Belong, or did the album naturally come together through each studio session? 

I got really bored of writing Sinkane music because it just became too easy. I could sit down and write this song that sounded like “Sinkane” very quickly. I [wasn’t] challenged anymore. So I’m like, How can I create something new? Let me not make it about me. Let me look at different genres of music that I’m not always connected to or that I don’t necessarily draw my influence from. I became really obsessed with Afrobeats, dancehall, the American sound sounds that I like [such as] funk and soul how reggae songs are constructed and how they harmonize, straight-up jazz. I really threw myself into that stuff and I realized [that I was] connecting with Black music in a way that I haven’t before. 

Another big inspiration was the Black music coming out of the U.K., like Sault and Michael Kiwanuka and Little Simz and Moses Boyd. They all really inspired me. They’re doing this really interesting thing with electronic music, and it seemed connected to Africa in a way that Black music in the United States isn’t quite connected to Africa. It was different and it piqued my curiosity, and I really delved into it. 

As I started formulating music that started to make sense to me, it came time to write about something. When you’re listening to Sault and Burna Boy and Bob Marley and Parliament and Stevie Wonder, all of their songs are about the Black experience in one way, shape or form. It was a perfect opportunity for me to not make this about me [and] figure out how I respond to this collective experience. It was really, really cathartic and very affirming for me.  

It connected me to a really large network of people that were kind of hidden in plain sight in New York and in the U.K., who I could tap to help me create this thing. It connected me to Stout, Tru Osborne, Casey Benjamin, Kenyatta Beasley, Hollie Cook, Corey Wallace and Sheddrick Mitchell — all these really amazing Black artists who were able to help me make it about all of us together. 

Talk to me about going back to music school shifted your approach to We Belong in comparison to your previous records. 

Before, the way I would write songs is I’d listen obsessively to music that I was inspired by, and I would essentially bring it to my studio and rip it off in some way. I’d be like, Oh, man, I really love this baseline, let me replay it, and then I’d go from there. It was really great to write like that, but after a while, I could feel and see how blocky everything was. It didn’t feel like it was telling a story. I was [just] showcasing what I was listening to. I was able to create really awesome music out of it, but it just got really boring. 

When I went back to music school, even though I was doing a master’s program, I took all of the undergrad theory classes that I could take. I was a complete sponge. It made me understand how much I already knew, but also bridged the gap of the things that I didn’t know to get to where I wanted to go. The reason why I made music the way that I did before is because I just didn’t know how to make it. Now, I can take this musical idea and see what it would sound like within the framework of my creative workflow. 

I took different independent studies on Afrobeat music, Afro-Cuban music, and Afro-Brazilian music, and really understood the science behind [those styles.] You learn music theory, and then you learn how Beethoven and Bach and Mozart all broke those rules and created what they created. And then you learn how jazz music essentially did the same thing. It made me so much more confident as a songwriter, because I knew I finally had the tools, and knew how to implement them. 

Nearly every high-profile album this year boasts a lengthy tracklist of over 20 songs. Was the brevity of We Belong intentional? 

I wrote 30 songs for this album. I did that because I read about how Michael Jackson, when he made Thriller, wrote like 900 songs between him and his songwriters. That album has, what, nine songs on it?! They were able to sift through 900 songs to make an album with nine songs that had seven top 10 singles. In the past, [I’d] write like 10 songs and pick nine of them. [This time,] I really pushed myself to write as many [songs] as I could, to see if that helped bring out the best — and it did it. To be honest, I had to stop writing; once I finished recording, I wrote five more that may or may not have made the record if they were done before. 

I feel like my attention span, as far as records, is fairly short. [Beyoncé‘s] Cowboy Carter is a great record. It has so many songs and I listened to it quite a bit on my tour last month ‘cause you’re driving on the highway, you just want to put it on and listen to it all the way through. But an album like Brittany Howard‘s is so tight and easy to listen to. You can really dig into it because it’s so concise. I like that about records. I like making it short and sweet and tight.  

Also, your record label always wants you to make it short, sweet and tight. Everything needs to be like three seconds or less, otherwise people just move on to something else. So, there was that kind of influence — but also, 10 songs got the point across. 

What’s been the experience of crafting and promoting an album that’s caked in the legacy of the Black radical music tradition while the world around us is attempting to stifle that kind of solidarity for liberation at every turn? 

It’s inspiring to make that music; it’s one way of political protest to have a soapbox like I do and use that to talk about these things, so that we do not allow the erasure of our identities to continue. That’s essentially what people are doing, and that’s why we’re not talking about Congo. It’s why we’re not talking about Sudan. People don’t really care about Africa, and it’s very, very unfortunate. It always seems to be up to us to continue the conversation. There should be more of us on the news and more of our story on the news, and it’s just not there.  

Ultimately, I think even though it is depressing, it also instigates a spark inside us. We all connect to one another by talking about this stuff, [which] is why the album is called We Belong

How do you think we might look back on this era of music as it relates to the current global struggles for liberation? 

There’s a lot of things that are cyclical. We’re in a place now where we’re seeing a lot of our Black artists, [LGBTQIA+ artists, etc.] making it very clear through their art who they are and what their identity is. I also think that there is [a lot of music] that’s just not doing that. 

There’s a Brittany Howard record where she talks about someone carving a swastika on her dad’s car and putting a goat head in the back seat. At the same time, there is a Taylor Swift record winning [album] of the year that’s all about her relationships with guys. An artist is going to get inspiration from your past relationships or from the trauma that you deal with for being a person of color or what have you. It all sits with each other really neatly these days, and I think that juxtaposition will be seen in 20/20 vision 10 years from now. Like there’s LCD Soundsystem, and then there’s Sault. Right next to each other. Boom. 

I think it’ll be really great to look back at a person like Beyoncé and be like, At her most creative and powerful, she chose to be political. She could have written another “Single Ladies,” she could have revamped Destiny’s Child, but she didn’t. She chose to be political, and that’s really, really amazing that a person like that is doing something like that now. 

Stout is a truly formidable presence on We Belong. How did your relationship with her steer records like “Another Day” and the album as a whole? 

Stout is like a force of nature, it is criminal how underrated she is. She was introduced to me by my friend Alex – he books at The Blue Note and she plays [there] a bit — and I was looking for a female singer to sing lead on some songs. My mind was set on Brittany Howard. I know that she’s way out of my league, but her voice is just magical and I could hear her [crushing] these songs. Obviously, I didn’t have that kind of access, and [Alex] was like, You should check [Stout] out

So, I hit her up and she’s like, Yeah, no problem, I’ll do it! and we booked her. I remember her coming into the studio, [and] it was one of those moments that you hear musicians talk about where your eyes light up and you’re like, This person is seriously incredible. “Another Day” is a perfect example because I just gave her the lyric sheet [and] my demo track, told her to do [her] thing, and she just nailed it. We were in the studio for a day and a half and [she did] 15 songs. It wasn’t just that [she was] able to do it so quickly, it’s the finesse and color and creativity.  

“We Belong,” in particular, is a really interesting song because my singer, Ifedayo, was actually supposed to do the ad-lib at the end. She listened to [the song,] looked at me and said, This is the one. Let me go in real quick. She was about to leave and she did that thing in one take. She didn’t have any issue. She crushed every single bit, and there are weird melodies in some of those harmonies that would take people a long time to digest how to sing it. She had no issue. 

I feel so grateful to have a person like her. We’re continuing to work with each other and she’s a part of a musical community that I can tap into for music now. 

When I listen to We Belong, I pick up a very strong Afrofuturist bent. What’s your understanding of Afrofuturism? 

Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is an amazing Afrofuturist work. I’m obsessed with Sun Ra, who is like the godfather of Afrofuturism. Janelle Monáe, Parliament, etc. I knew I wanted to bring all of these elements that I’ve come to understand is Afrofuturism in music — like synthesizers, electronic elements, etc. — and talk about these visceral, poetic things about African identity. I was following a tradition in Black music in that way. I am more aware of [Afrofuturism] now than I was before, but it was always there. It’s always been a part of who I’ve been.

“We Belong” 

[We Belong] is my most fully realized musical project that I’ve ever made. My voice rings true in a way that it never has before. One of the key things about this album is [that] there’s resolve. Every record before this didn’t have any resolve; it was just questioning and experimenting, and you can hear it in my voice, the music, [and] the themes. It was just me traveling around aimlessly figuring it out. [On this record], I’ve I figured it out and [“We Belong”] is exactly that. 

I’m a really big Parliament-Funkadelic fan, and I always aim to write my version of “One Nation Under a Groove” or “Wizard of Finance.” There’s this George Duke motif that I was playing in one of my music programs, and it reminded me a lot of Parliament [and] Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes — my biggest influence ever, and my most modern influence. 

Then, I started music school. Every week I’d bring in a different song or an artist that I was admiring and we would analyze and extract the science of the music. [My professor] would give me homework and [explain] what they’re doing in music theory terms. [“We Belong”] slowly started taking me to these different places that I never knew I’d get to. It starts in a very different place than it ends. 

The one thing that’s really important about this is the song embodies everything that that this album is about: a love letter to Black music, Black people and Black culture. It took me into writing songs that Black artists traditionally write, especially when you’re influenced by the 70s, Parliament, Sly Stone, etc. Funnily enough, through Jorge Ben Jor’s “Errare Humanum Est,” [it] took me to Alexander Pope [and his] “An Essay On Criticism” poem, where he says, “To err is to be human, to forgive is to be divine.” 

All of a sudden, everything in my life started to make sense. The intellectual side connected to the spiritual side and all of these influences. It all fits into this wonderful song. 

“Come Together” 

[This track] embodies a bridge between what Sinkane was and what it is now. If [people] went back to anything before, they would see the linear progression between the past and the present with the disco and funk and African syncopation in the song. 

Yet again, it’s the theme about being a foreigner in a foreign land, a displaced person, a third-culture kid. It’s about a Black person living in the world anywhere other than Africa. We deal with issues all the time about our identity. But this album is about resolve. This song has a very strong resolve. [We sing,] “Don’t know where we come from,” and then it goes back to “Africa,” which is something that was really fun for me to explore. 

“The Anthem” 

It’s the last song of the album, [and] an absolute celebration of us, of Black people. As much as there is beauty in the struggle and our way of transmuting our pain into creating wonderful art, we also are very good at celebrating for the sake of celebration. For the sake of just loving the self, and there’s a tradition of that in Black culture and Black art. I wanted to add to that and make a very straight-up song that celebrates us [and] how much we love each other. Every generation might say this, but we need that right now after everything that we’ve gone through in the last 400 years, but specifically the last 10 years. It’s really important to say, Yes, I love myself, I love being black, I love what we have.  

I remember sending [Amanda Khiri] a text and being like, “Send me a list of things that Black people have that make white people mad.” We started coming up [with things] like the way we walk, the way we talk, our fashion sense, etc. It became very inspiring to write a song with that prompt, and I found it to be a very cathartic song for us to listen to live. I [also] found it to be really interesting — because, although it is specific to Black people, it’s very magnetic to other people. 

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