“These songs are an unapologetic celebration of my womanhood,” says Amaal. “They’re the sound of me reclaiming my power, my pleasure, myself.”
Listening to Amaal’s extraordinary new EP Milly (releasing this fall) you’d have little idea that the breakout Canadian R&B star was born in Somalia, or that she was raised in a strict Muslim community in which expressions of female autonomy and sexuality were considered explicitly taboo. The songs on Milly transcend language and religion and culture, tapping into the kind fundamental humanity and search for self that binds us all. Amaal writes with a vivid sensuality here, reveling in the power of both physical and emotional touch, and her performances are visceral to match, delivered with a mesmerizing intimacy that hints at everything from FKA twigs and Kelela to SZA and Jhené Aiko. The result is a quietly revelatory work of self-actualization from an artist fully embracing her true identity in all its strength and beauty, a bold, intoxicating collection that, by its very existence, serves as a radical act of feminine liberation.
“My art is my way of confronting the misogynoir and the old, oppressive ideologies that have constrained me for so much of my life,” Amaal explains. “Without music, I’m not sure I would have been able to discover the woman I’m truly meant to be.”
The fourth of ten children, Amaal began her remarkable journey in war-torn Mogadishu, where she and her family lived until they were forced flee as refugees in the early 1990s. Starting over fresh in Toronto, she embraced the poetic nature of her cultural heritage but bristled at the conservative strictures and customs that came with it, particularly the repressive expectations placed upon women. Though it was forbidden at home, Amaal found escape in modern pop and R&B music, and as she began spending more and more time outside of her tight knit immigrant community, she adopted the nickname Milly as something of an alter ego.
“Milly was a version of myself that could be and do whatever she wanted without fear of shame or judgment,” says Amaal. “When I was Milly, I was anonymous, which ironically helped me find myself.”
By the time she hit 20, Amaal had grown bold enough to begin making her own music, but she still felt limited as to what she could sing about, so she focused her creative energy on politically and socially conscious material inspired by the civil unrest in Somalia and the struggles her people faced as a result. It was powerful stuff, to be sure, but there was more to Amaal than being a refugee, and she longed to express the fullness of herself and her story in her art.
“It felt like I was absent in my own music,” she explains. “I was just trying to do things that felt safe and that would make my community proud because I knew that the moment I strayed beyond that, the backlash would come.”
In 2019, Amaal finally worked up the courage to step outside of her comfort zone with the release of Black Dove, a surprisingly vulnerable collection that found her reckoning with love and heartbreak and desire in her music for the very first time. Though it felt incredibly risky, the EP was a critical smash, garnering a Juno nomination for Soul/R&B Recording of the Year, racking up millions of streams online, and prompting rave reviews across the board. Complex hailed Amaal’s “airy and ethereal vocals,” while Exclaim! dubbed her “an artist that demands attention,” and Vibe proclaimed her a singer “like no other.” Perhaps more important than any reviews, though, were the messages Amaal began receiving from women around the world who saw themselves in her story and were learning to find their own voices through listening to her music.
“I called that EP Black Dove because I felt like this bird that was finally being uncaged,” says Amaal. “It was the beginning of me stepping out of the constraints that I’d grown up with.”
If Black Dove represented Amaal’s first steps towards self-expression, then Milly is more like a flying leap. Written and recorded with GRAMMY-nominated production duo Nicky Davey (Beyoncé, Zayn), the collection embraces the wild sense of freedom and discovery that came with Amaal’s alter ego growing up, tackling sexual liberation and female empowerment in no uncertain terms. The arrangements on the EP are spare and spacious, fueled by sultry beats and hypnotic synthesizers, and the minimalist approach only serves to intensify the spotlight on Amaal’s captivating vocals, which flow from a deeper, more full-bodied register here than ever before.
“This project forced me to explore whole new ranges in my voice, which put me in touch with whole new parts of myself as a woman,” Amaal reflects. “I honestly didn’t know I could sing that low or feel that confident until we recorded these songs.”
That confidence is clear from the outset on Milly, which opens with the steamy “Heaven.” “Open up the gates of heaven / Holy water dripping blessings / My blessings on you,” Amaal sings on the track, elevating physical intimacy to the level of divine consecration. Like much of the EP, it’s a rapturous ode to power and pleasure, to flipping the script and centering the sexual experience on female satisfaction. The swaggering “Honey” minces no words when it comes to women knowing their worth in the bedroom, while the dreamy “Renegade” takes the reigns with dominance and authority, and the effervescent “Special” brushes off the dime-a-dozen men who don’t have what it takes to keep up. Even a sweetly romantic track like the understated “Lullaby,” which features Syd from The Internet, blurs the lines between love and lust in its portrayal of the kind of deep, committed relationship in which insecurities and inhibitions are a thing of the past.
Watch the mesmerizing live performance of Amaal’s latest single “Honey” here.
“After a lifetime of being told how I could speak and act and present myself as a woman, it felt like some kind of spiritual experience to be able say and do whatever I wanted on this EP,” says Amaal. “Singing these songs felt so radical, but at the same time so natural.”
It’s that duality that lies at the heart of Amaal’s music. For much of her life, she’s lived between two worlds; with Milly, Amaal is creating her own.