From Techno to 105-Year-Old Tanzanian Singers, Mim Suleiman’s Music Knows No Boundaries
How the genre-hopping artist, educator, and mother from Zanzibar's bringing East African stories to the world.
Courtesy of artist
Mim Suleiman's life is a blur of constant motion. In the middle of listing her credentials to me—singer, songwriter, composer, documentary filmmaker, lecturer—she pauses and calls down the hall to ask if her daughter can check on the fish fingers in the oven. The roles of mother, chef, and globally-renowned musician must be tough to balance. Speaking to her today over the phone though, it seems I've actually caught the Zanzibar-born, Sheffield-based artist in a rare moment of downtime.
Her latest album, last year's Adera Dera (released on BubbleTease Communication), mimics the frenetic energy of her life. It shifts amorphously between soaring analog house and k-hole techno hallucinations, coming out on the other end of the spectrum with Balearic funk and traditional folk music. In the hands of most, such genre-hopping could be disastrous—the sonic equivalent of opening five different tabs on YouTube at once.
Not only does Suleiman hop genres with authentic ease, she shares production with Melbourne-based house veteran Maurice Fulton, who has had a hand in everything from Crystal Waters' 1991 hit "Gypsy Woman" to the ketamine-informed jazz of Syclops. Having produced three albums together, her relationship with the producer is built on a foundation of trust. "One album finishes. Work on the next one," she laughs. "Our work always ends up reflecting something I believe in, something I want to tell, making connections, breaking boundaries, and awakening people."
Though Suleiman sings in her mother tongues of Swahili and Fulani, her songs are deeply communicative to those who don't speak the languages. The opening frenzied percussive patterns of "Tutapona," drummed and clapped out by the artist herself, beams with loose joyfulness. The soaring chorus of "Adera Dera" needs no translation, with Fulton's clanging drum machines kicking up dust around Suleiman's strong tones.
"Before I spoke English, what stood out about music from other cultures was the impact of the voice," she explains. "The emotion contained in melody... the energy that it gave me. It moved me deeply, even if I didn't know the lyrics." Now, Suleiman uses that mix to push audiences outside their comfort zone. For listeners, she emphasizes the importance of communication outside of the English language; for her own music, she never restricts herself to traditional East African sound palettes.
One minute she's channelling paradise garage disco in "Nyuli," next she's sing-yelling at breakneck speed over the 808-heavy futuristic jam "Furahi." She's also collaborated with famed 105-year-old Tanzanian performer, Bi Kidude, who passed away just a month after the recording.
"She was amazing," Suleiman says, her voice taking on tones of reverence. "She was one of these powerful women who possess so much knowledge, but it's untapped. We still haven't quite acknowledge the contributions to the arts that women like her have made."
However, the singer is hoping to change that, by preserving the legacies of women like Bi Kidude through other outlets. Directed by Zippy Kimundu and prominently featuring Suleiman, the 2015 film uSISTA looks at how women in East Africa have organized, agitated, and influenced the world around them, and the artist hopes to continue these conversations. "We're speaking to inspiring women who've stood up for art, or the strength of different cultural aspects that we don't see reflected in media," she says. "These histories just aren't reflected. To this day, googling East African women won't give an accurate picture of what we've done in the arts."
Suleiman's music brings the knowledge and culture of her people to the forefront: whether in the traditional costumes that she prepares for live shows, or through interwoven proverbs and stories of older generations—as if time itself is shifting throughout her tunes.
"Some of my music and melodies are definitely intended to awaken the older people who haven't heard or thought about it," she admits. "When my parents' generation are listening to these songs, which straddle house or disco, they're styles they've never heard in their life. But then there'll be a lyric or melody that tells a story that they remember from years ago, music that you sang with your grandparents in the kitchen when you were two years old...When they hear that repurposed in a dance track, they laugh their heads off, just in disbelief of what's going on."
Suleiman's tracks hold space in two places at once—old stories couched within contemporary techno. Performing at international festivals alongside Ben UFO and Mood II Swing, while still remaining relevant to your grandparents, is an impressive feat. In that sense, her music feels almost like a teleportation device flickering between dimensions and historical eras. But when asked if she feels any formal affiliation to ideas of afrofuturism, she sets the record straight. "I don't categorize any of my music—everyone else does that without asking me," she sighs. "Often press want to say that because you're from Africa, you sing African songs, they want to categorize you when they want to exploit you to someone. If my music is futuristic, it's futuristic because it's never been done before."
Her words hang in the air, briefly marking a pause before the blur of motion that is her life resumes: before she gets back into the studio with Maurice Fulton and presses Adera Dera for its upcoming vinyl release; before she writes the next time-unravelling song. For now though, she'll hang up the phone and settle down to fish fingers from her oven and dinner with her daughter.
Brendan Arnott is on Twitter.