Growing up, Amaal Nuux was not allowed to listen to the type of music she releases now. Her traditional Muslim family considered it taboo. The 29-year-old R&B singer, who just goes by the name Amaal, is now on the same record label as The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes.
So big things are expected of her. Somali-born Amaal, who lives in Toronto, was an independent artist until recently. At a concert in London earlier this month, she recognized some of the fans in the crowd because she had talked to them on social media.
“I had a moment up there; I kind of had tears in my eyes, it was really emotional,” says Amaal. “I got to stay behind and I asked the owner of the club to give us an extra hour and I had a chance to talk with everybody.”
But her soft touch with her fans belies the tough work ethic of a daughter of immigrants, an ethic she says she still applies to everything she does. “I had it built into [me] that I needed to do whatever it was to excel in whatever way possible.”
Beginning her career, Amaal knew she had to be committed to her craft if she was to pursue music against her parents’ wishes. Her family fled Somalia in the wake of civil war in the early 1990s, when Amaal was a baby, settling in North America.
They lost much of the life they had before. “My dad was a pilot and my mom was a teacher, and they had these amazing careers back home. And everything collapsed just like that.”
On top of this, Amaal’s family briefly moved to Calgary when she was 15. One of only seven black girls in a school of 1,500, the typically outgoing Amaal felt isolated. But during that time she discovered what would give her strength and confidence for years to come: music.
“Because I was raised in a conservative Muslim household, music wasn’t something that was in my upbringing at all,” says Amaal. But when a friend lent her some CDs, Amaal immediately felt a connection. She says her absence of musical background was a blessing in disguise, helping her develop an authentic sound not hindered by contemporary trends.
“When I did start to discover music, there was actually no pressure from the outside world of what I should listen to and what I did, it was really my own discovery and my own taste that I was able to create.” She gravitated to R&B greats past and present, from Sam Cooke to Alicia Keys. “There’s so much pain you can hear behind it,” she says of the genre.