Sinkane We Belong
April 05, 2024
We Belong, is the eighth studio album from Sinkane, a band led by multi-instrumentalist Ahmed Gallab. And like much of Sinkane’s previous releases, it resists genre. It’s pop. It’s funk. It’s electronic. It blends the gritty punk newness of a 70s and 80s New York with the steady, foundational soul of the rhythms of his native Sudan. Though We Belong comes deep into the catalog of a long career, it also resists stagnation. It moves and travels—through words and eras, through emotion and healing. It is a kind of rebirth for Gallab, who began releasing music under the Sinkane moniker in 2007.
Though it can be painful, it can be cathartic to revisit the past; this album is both. Because to be Black in America is to know great suffering and great joy. “I made this album as my love letter to Black music,” Gallab says. Each song is addressed to a different era, a different form: the gospel-soaked “Everything Is Everything,” the dreamy, Quiet Storm-influenced Afro-beats of “Rise Above,” the 70s-funk of “We Belong” and its Sly Stone influence, the Stevie Wonder-edged “Another Day”—they tell a story about Black music and Black people.
“A musical community exists in New York, a specific kind of Black musical community,” Gallab says. We Belong assembles them, makes them visible, not just to each other but to anyone willing to see, to hear, to feel. Gallab and Amanda Khiri, co-lyricist on most of the songs, passed notes across the digital divide. Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Ismael Reed, scraps of poetry. The pair turned these late-night ideas into fully realized compositions. Casey Benjamin, a multi-instrumentalist who has worked with jazz pianist Robert Glasper, left his touch on several tracks. Jazz trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley soared across three songs. Soul singer Bilal lent his voice. Rising artists like vocalists Ifedayo Gatling, of the Harlem Gospel Travelers, Tru Osbourne, and STOUT, joined this community as well.
All of this is by design. Gallab wanted to lead and allow himself to be led. “Having all these people at my disposal [meant] I could actually be a producer,” he says. “I could zoom out a little bit and see what serves the song best. How can I make this better? Having a community around me really just allowed this to turn into something bigger than I could have ever imagined.”
Sinkane had long been the solitary vision of its creator, melding the classic American sounds mingling in his head—rock, jazz, soul, pop—with the syncopated rhythms of Africa to create his own Afrofuturistic vision. But for this album, the idea of a single voice no longer felt right. The methods that once felt natural now felt heavy, an old way tethered to old sounds. Gallab’s longing to reshape what a “Sinkane song” could be required rethinking fundamental ideas about music and collaboration. He returned to school, at SUNY Purchase, and earned a masters in composition; on the way, he learned new ways. “We are hardwired for connection, and we want to communicate with each other,” Gallab says. And as much as this is an album displaying his new ways of thinking and creating, it is also about connections. Between musicians. Between cultures. Between sounds. Between histories.
Letting go of the urge to create alone has led to beautiful things for Gallab in the past, including his stint leading the Atomic Bomb! Band, a tribute band celebrating the work of Nigerian funk musician, William Onyeabor. The project included notables such as Pharoah Sanders, David Byrne, Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz), and Dev Hynes, among many others. He found it essential for We Belong, as well. “Collaborating doesn't mean you're losing a part of you, you're only showcasing more of a very beautiful part of you,” Gallab says. “And once I was able to understand how to move away from that it allowed this process to work a lot easier, and it allowed me to really understand myself.” Gallab reached out to a frequent collaborator, producer Money Mark (who produced for the Beastie Boys and Beck), who helped him understand more about the journey his music was about to take.
Returning to the classroom not only honed Gallab’s composition skills, but his listening skills too. Each week, he’d bring a new song to his instructor: old favorites from David Bowie, John Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock. They’d listen together and hear the notes anew. It not only deepened his understanding of how music worked, but how he worked. It vastly expanded the definition of what a Sinkane song could be. He started writing new material. “We'd lock in on one song and spend two or three weeks on a song,” Gallab says. “And by the end of the year, I had thirty-plus songs in demo form.”
When the last note fades on this album, there’s hope. The we of the title is all of us. All of us who have lost and found community. All of us who have reached into the past to find our future. But, Gallab says, the “we” is also Black people. It’s his message to a culture, to a history, to a people. “I think We Belong ultimately turned into, ‘This is about us, this is about all of us.’ And we all feel the same thing about how the world responds to us, and how we feel like second class citizens, and how a lot of people try to tell us all of the time that we don't belong, in one way, shape, or form,” he says.
“In making this album, I realized very quickly that I got a lot of freedom in not making it about myself,” Gallab says. “I realized I'm more than just me, there's all of us, all of us together. It's much more about community and much more about connecting with other people. But maybe, that's how I've kind of come to find myself.”