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Duke Performances hosted Alsarah & The Nubatones of Brooklyn, NY, for four days, starting February 26, 2018, officially launching its three-year “Building Bridges: Muslims in America” initiative featuring weeklong residencies by US-based Muslim artists. The initiative aims to combat Islamophobia by showcasing the richness and diversity of Muslim art, with a particular focus on engaging local public school students. Alsarah’s residency was by all accounts a remarkable success — an auspicious beginning to the “Building Bridges” project that can serve as a model for future campus and community engagement.

“It’s interesting who we decide needs to navigate their identity only in one lane and who we allow to navigate it in multiple lanes. Me being Sudanese and me being a New Yorker are both equally true and equally a huge part of me, so to me, I don’t have a divide in them. That divide is in other people’s eyes and minds, it’s not in mine.”

Alsarah, a rising star in the international music scene and self-described practitioner of “East-African retro-pop,” is of Nubian descent, born in Khartoum, Sudan. She fled the country with her family after the military coup in 1989, first to Yemen, and later to the United States, where she grew up between Boston and New York. She has earned widespread critical acclaim for her ability to blend traditional East African sounds with lyrics that celebrate her relation to her homeland as well as her hybrid identity as a Sudanese-American.

Alsarah sitting on steps in front of graffiti-covered door

Alsarah had a chance to share these Sudanese traditions with students through two day-long visits to Durham School of the Arts (DSA). Monday, February 26 began with a rousing school assembly and performance by the entire DSA band. She then attended Sean Grier and Kellen Moss’ choral class, where nearly a hundred students greeted her with a vocal arrangement of her 2016 song “3roos Elneel (Bride of the Nile),” prepared for this occasion by Duke PhD student composer Sid Richardson. Alsarah—who was visibly moved by the performance—referred to the moment as “the highlight of [her] career so far.” Later that day, she had the opportunity to work in a more intimate setting with Alexa Garvoille’s creative writing students. Here, Alsarah discussed her approach to crafting lyrics and invited the students to create poems for her return visit on Wednesday that employ a strategy found in many of her songs: the playful subversion of an ancestral myth or legend. That evening, Alsarah joined a group of students from Duke’s Muslim Student Association for three hours of dinner and conversation at a local restaurant.

A row of girls in the Durham School of the Arts chorus holding music and smiling
Durham School of the Arts chorus rehearsing with Alsarah (from video by Saleem Reshamwala)

On Tuesday, February 27, Alsarah visited with students from a wide range of Duke classes, beginning with a joint gathering of several dozen students from “Strategic Storytelling” (Catherine Admay, Public Policy) and “Refugee Lives” (Maha Houssami, Asian & Middle Eastern Studies; Nancy Kalow, Center for Documentary Studies) to discuss her experience in Sudan and her use of songwriting to tell stories that both reflect and reimagine Nubian traditions. This was followed by a conversation with students and faculty from Arabic language classes at Duke and UNC, during which Alsarah spoke about her relationship to Arabic and struggles with translation, as well as her art, activism, and influences more generally. On Tuesday evening, percussionist and Nubatones co-founder Rami El Aasser gave a free public percussion workshop on Duke’s East Campus.

On Wednesday, February 28, Alsarah returned to DSA to work with the school chorus, this time bringing her entire band to accompany the students and help them refine their performance. This was followed by a second visit to the creative writing class, where Garvoille’s students shared and explained the personal significance of the poems they created using Alsarah’s songwriting as a guide. These exchanges were deeply emotional, both for the students and for Alsarah herself, providing the basis for a robust discussion about value of diversity in America and the ways in which the personal and cultural intersect in the formation of one’s identity. Later that evening, Alsarah had the opportunity to elaborate on these themes in her spirited public discussion, moderated by local visual artist Saba Taj, at Beyu Caffe.

Alsarah and interviewer Saba Taj on stage at Beyu Caffe
Alsarah with Saba Taj at Beyu Caffe (from video by Saleem Reshamwala)

Alsarah began the day on Thursday, March 1 with an interview for Left of Black, the weekly video podcast hosted by Mark Anthony Neal, chair of Duke’s Department of African and African American Studies. The residency concluded that evening with a sold-out performance at Motorco Music Hall in downtown Durham, to an enthusiastic audience that represented diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, including local Muslim communities.

A total of 780 students, faculty, and community members were served over the course of the four-day residency.

Overall, Alsarah’s residency exceeded expectations in every way, connecting disparate elements of the Durham community through four days music and robust conversation about what it means to be Muslim and American in the contemporary United States. A total of 780 students, faculty, and community members were served over the course of the four-day residency. The residency had an unusually broad range of campus and community partners and project sponsors, including DISC, DUMESC, DSA, the Duke Africa Initiative, The Forum for Scholars and Publics at Duke University, Beyu Caffe, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, and NEA. Iyman Gaspard of the UNC Center for Global Initiatives, a native of Sudan, made advance visits to DSA to provide participating students and faculty with context about Sudanese music and culture.

Going forward, Alsarah’s residency will serve as both a foundation and a model for the “Building Bridges” series. It painted the first bold strokes of a vivid picture of Muslim culture. And it showed how subsequent residencies can flesh that picture out in all its geographical, aesthetic, and ideological diversity, while allowing local audiences to reflect on the ways in which Muslims continue to make essential contributions the social and cultural fabric of America.

Alsarah in photo shoot on Duke's West Campus plaza
Video shoot on the West Campus Plaza (photo by Brian Valentyn)

About "Building Bridges: Muslims in America"

Funded in part by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), “Building Bridges: Muslims in America” is an initiative intended to combat Islamophobia by showcasing the richness and diversity of Muslim art, with a particular focus on engaging local public school students through creative assignments and class visits. The project, which also includes substantial engagement with Duke students and faculty, is part of an ongoing collaboration between Duke Performances, the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC), and the Duke University Middle East Studies Center (DUMESC).