With robot-like vocals and synth-infused beats, Zohran Kwame’s new single “Salaam” musically departs from his work with Young Cardamom & HAB (Hussein Abdul Bar) and their 2016 debut EP Sidda Mukyaalo (I am not going back to the village). The duo’s unique “Kampala sound” featuring rap, hip-hop and influences from different parts of Africa, South Asia and the U.S., made for catchy tracks like “Kanda (Chap Chap)” celebrating the East African street food chapati, and top-ten hit “#1 Spice” from the Queen of Katwe soundtrack.
However different the ’80s throwback electronic sound of “Salaam” may be, it does carry over from the earlier work a politically conscious sensibility especially relevant to the environment where it was created. Born in Uganda and having lived there with his parents, filmmaker Mira Nair and academic Mahmood Mamdani, Young Cardamom created music in Kampala which shared perspectives on Ugandan politics and brown-black relations relevant to his identity there, as discussed in interviews with OkayAfrica and Teen Vogue. Now based in New York and making music with his given names, Zohran Kwame with “Salaam” speaks to Islamophobia as experienced by Muslims in post-Trump America, and connects it to events of the past decades in America. Listen to the single below and read The Aerogram’s interview for more from Zohran Kwame.
You wrote that your new song “Salaam” is about “what it means to be Muslim here in America today, yesterday, and tomorrow.” What inspired you to make a song about this?
When I started writing this song, this was really the only thing I could imagine writing about. As a young Muslim man in America today it’s hard to ever completely get away from the fear that something wicked is waiting for you, your family members, and for those who look like them.
Much of the first verse comes from conversations I’ve had with an auntie of mine who wears a hijab. The rampant Islamophobia across America today means that she now lives forever surrounded by walls — whether in her own home, in her car, or at her job. She used to go for a walk every day but now she’ll rarely venture outside, all because she simply doesn’t know what could happen to her.
“Much of the first verse comes from conversations I’ve had with an auntie of mine who wears a hijab.”
The second verse is more of a response to the amount of times I’ve heard people talk about Trump’s proposals as if they’re a total break from the past, when in reality they build a lot on previous policies and an American society that, on the backs of being groomed by the media for years, is ready and willing to hate Muslims. This is part of why the song is so heavily based on 80’s synth and drums — it’s a nod to that decade’s obsession with other-worldly creatures, monsters looming in the darkness. Today, Muslims are the monsters. The artwork draws on that too, showing the discrepancy between a lady in a hijab and her shadow.
How did you achieve that distinctive vocal style in the song?
This song uses a combination of vocoder and heavy auto-tune. The former I worked on with Myles Avery and the latter with Magnus Thomson — the two producers of “Salaam.” It’s not something I’ve done before — at least to this extent — and it’s all part of building on the conception of Muslims as removed from humanity, in this case by veering towards robots and electronica.
Is “Salaam” part of a project like a mixtape or album or anything else?
All I know right now is that I want to release a song a month after “Salaam,” each one exploring different sounds and idea that I’ve had stuck in my head for some time. They may end up forming one larger mixtape or EP, but it’s also possible that they remain singles.
How did you get interested in making music?
Music’s always been a big part of my life — I often think of a time in relation to the songs I was listening to. I’ve made songs since high school but I never took it seriously or considered playing them for anyone outside my close friends until 2015. I credit my brother Abdul for helping me take that jump from privately to publicly creating. He showed me that it was simply a matter of desire, creativity, bravery and — in the case of our first song [“Kanda (Chap Chap)”] — $100.
Who were your musical influences growing up?
Rap was, and still is, the closest to my heart but I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I listen to whole lot outside of it. I mean I was the kid that listened to Eiffel 65’s Europop alongside Jay Z’s The Blueprint. High school is where I remember my influences the clearest though. Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, K’Naan, Immortal Technique — those guys really formed the soundtrack to my bus and train rides.
How have your parents inspired you? What advice have they given you in regards to your career?
My parents are big inspirations of mine. The most important advice they’ve given me is to never pander. Some of my songs won’t succeed, and some already haven’t, but they’ve taught me that the answer is not to then try and create a follow up that just chases what’s popular. It’s to buckle down, work harder, and keep finding ways to express myself.
How will the work you release under your given name Zohran Kwame depart from your work as Young Cardamom with HAB (Hussein Abdul Bar)?
It’s impossible for me to disassociate the music we made as Young Cardamom & HAB with the city of Kampala — it’s music that was born out of the city, who we are within that city, and for our friends family from the city. The same applies to the music I’m making in NYC as Zohran Kwame. There’s obviously some carry over, but there are a lot of sounds that I’ve grown up listening to here that are distinctly New York — same applies to the stories and people of this place.
Will you ever create work as “Young Cardamom” in the future?
I’m honestly not sure — I’d have to be back in Kampala, which is not out of the question but definitely isn’t on the horizon for now.
Are there any plans to feature HAB on any of the new music you are creating?
I’m currently working on a bunch of songs alone, but I don’t see why I wouldn’t hassle him for a verse at some point. He’s an incredibly talented rapper — I’ve been listening to his solo debut “Kabala” on repeat for the last week.
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