In Conversation: McKinley Dixon & Sinkane

The two City Slang artists sat down and spoke with each other about the history of Black music, processing versus expelling, and what they owe to an audience.

Music Features Sinkane
In Conversation: McKinley Dixon & Sinkane

McKinley Dixon and Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab aren’t just labelmates. The two musicians, each falling on a different side of the spectrum of the same generation, share a kinship of energy, of purpose and of emotion. I’ve known of Gallab, who performs as Sinkane, since his Tiny Desk concert seven years ago; I’ve known of Dixon since discovering his AudioTree session performance of “Circle the Block” right before the pandemic started. They both write in historical pursuit of preserving the various measures, defiances and celebrations of Black art. As I said last year when we ranked Dixon’s latest album, Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?, as the third-best of 2023: It’s an album about an entire ecosystem crafting its own optimism in the wake of surviving together.

The progression across Dixon’s catalog is natural, earned and honest. His records have investigated death, love and happiness in reverse order, as grief pierces through cynicism and immortality copes with absence. It all culminates on “Tyler Forever,” when Dixon raps about being “propelled forward by vengeance, penchant for taking yo’ pendants / Accountability process is loaded in them extensions / We done fixed on ascending, my boys might break through the roof / Y’all become killers all of a sudden when you find dusty loops.”

Likewise, there is timeless poignancy to Sinkane’s latest album, We Belong, which investigates the deep, societal wounds afflicting Black Americans and oppressed people around the world. The systematic inequalities and the indifference that so many people of privilege express towards the horrors that the imbalance can result in are baked right into the short lyrical stanza of “Everything is Everything,” when Tru Osbourne sings “We’re here again / Ain’t nobody listenin.” Like Dixon, Sinkane’s music emboldens considerations and reflections of the past and the future, portraits of people they’ve met and places they’ve been. You can hear Sinkane’s extensive, rich upbringing in, as he puts it, a new city every four years, embedded in the DNA of his albums. Dixon’s street corner coming-of-age is crucial to the language he speaks and the language he has yet to find the words for.

Just as Dixon did last year, on the precipice of Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?’s summer release, Gallab took the stage at our East Austin Block Party during SXSW week and delivered renditions of We Belong that acted as a declaration of a new, non-negotiable chapter of joy for Sinkane as a project, as a vibe and as a name. Songs like “Another Day” and “How Sweet is Your Love” and “The Anthem” became brilliant, clear-eyed projections of uptempo, silky earworms that plug in messages you’ve gotta pay close attention to, too. Landing somewhere between Headhunters and What’s Going On, Sinkane’s latest is a gift of uplift and slinky bounce, as backup singers kick tracks into higher gear and explore everything from R&B to funk to soul to tracks far more undefinable.

Black music—and Black art—is an ongoing conversation. Dixon and Gallab both understand the history of jazz and its genesis from Southern blues and the classical music in Congo Square in New Orleans. It’s poetry, too, indebted to the Black Arts Movement continuing the conversation of the Harlem Renaissance, and so on. To me, McKinley Dixon and Sinkane represent two unique and unified examples of Black expression—beauty found in struggle, romance and magical-realism. It’s generational and genderless, like a time capsule that will never stop being built.

With that, I invited Dixon and Gallab to sit down and talk with each other about their perspectives on music, on their relationships with their listeners, on the historical foundations of their work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

McKinley Dixon: What does “a choir” mean to you?

Sinkane: A choir?

Dixon: To me, “a choir” on a record is a narrator or another character—someone that pushes the full story forward and provides more aspects of exposition without actually being the main vocal. I listen to your record and I hear a lot of choir voices. That led me to believe that, much like everything, the choir is very intentional to you. So what does a choir mean to you?

Sinkane: If you look at the history of Black music in America—or even in Africa—it’s all about community. Community is the central point of a Black existence, and it means different things in different places in the United States. It means something a little bit different than it does in Africa, but they’re very much unified. And one way of bringing community together is through song and through singing—call-and-response and group communication. I grew up with that in Sudan and Africa, through community, through religious expression. My grandfather was a well-known Sufi Muslim in Sudan, and he would recite the songs of the prophet Muhammad and have these giant gatherings called Molad—where he would recite this music and the stories sounded like songs. It’s very much non-secular, and he sounded like he was singing, but he was reciting. And people would respond back and forth, there’d be a call-and-response. And they’d all do it together. I’ve always grown up with that. Then, living in the United States and understanding Black music in the United States—and going back to the blues and jazz and gospel and the church and how Black people came to communicate with one another as a form of survival—it was singing that let itself into the church and let itself into secular music. It really brought people together, and it was all community. That’s what that encompasses in We Belong.

Dixon: To me, experiences and who you are are just reflections of the people that you are around. When I listen to the album, I hear so many people from all over—so many beautiful people. It really becomes something that is a physical community, not only with the choir but the collaboration and, especially, the juxtaposition to your last two albums. Whereas, [on] this one, to me, a choir in the realms of your music is a celebration. For me, it’s a narrator. But for you, a choir is a celebration of life. I think, whenever I hear it, it’s a moment that is supposed to be momentous within the realms and the story that you’re telling. That’s what I hear. I was reading about [We Belong] and everybody keeps saying your album is disco, for some reason. I was like, “Disco? This don’t sound like no disco.” So, I was wondering, what would be your influences—not only outside of the genre, but outside of the medium? Are you inspired by any poems, poets, art, artists, pieces of something else? And are you inspired by a genre besides yours?

Sinkane: Oh, yes, absolutely. As far as music is concerned, what makes up Sinkane music is just a hodge-podge—a smorgasbord of different genres. I grew up playing punk music, hardcore music, and then I started touring as an indie rock session guy. When it was time for me to make music, I realized the music that I’ve been affiliated with and I’m connected to is not the music that I really feel like I want to make. So, outside of African music, there’s a lot of music from the Black diaspora that makes up my music—reggae, funk, soul, classic rock, blues, gospel. One thing that is really important is country music, too, because country music has a very strong narrative in the same way that African music has a very strong narrative and has very distinct sounds that emulate feelings and energies—like pedal steel and banjo, which is a Black instrument in itself. So, a lot of that is really inspiring to me.

Outside of the music, I’m really, really, really inspired—especially with this album—by the Black Arts Movements of the ‘70s. All the poets from that era—Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez and Ishmael Reed, Audrey Lorde—I read a lot of their poetry and read a lot about them while I was working on this album. And it really led me to where I am. Also, just life experiences—just stepping out of my apartment every day. One thing that I learned during music school, in one of my private studies, was feelings—just straight up feelings. My professor told me, anytime you feel low, that’s a trigger. There’s a song in you. You don’t have to have anything really relating to music that makes you feel that way. You might not even know that you have a song in you, but that’s a feeling that could inspire you to do something and create something that might surprise you. So, I kind of lead with that.

Dixon: I definitely agree. The reason For My Mama sounds like it does is because, when I was recording, everybody was wandering around the city of Richmond. I would send music out to a bunch of people—sometimes two keys players, three guitarists—and it would become this thing where I knew that there is two ways people make music at that level: whether they feel very comfortable and it’s time that’s perfect for them to sit and rest and think, or when they’re going through it and they need to expel. A lot of the time, the reason why the record sounds how it does—and most of my records—is because the people are expelling. I welcome expelling that energy onto my music, because it provides my stories with the backdrop that is needed when discussing turmoil, complexities, chaos, beauty, love, all these things. So, I definitely agree that the feeling that you’re in is going to 100% come out in the sounds you make. How to dictate that and weave [through it], that is what makes a great band and that is what makes Sinkane different from The Message—you know what I mean?

Sinkane: Now, let me ask you this: Do you feel like you expel?

Dixon: 100%. I feel like a lot of artists in rap music specifically, they make these records, find a way to profit off of them—a lot of artists that do turmoil in the same way I do—and then they don’t process post. They only think that making the record was processing when, in actuality, making the record is one form of expelling, but processing is different. You cannot process while you are expelling, you know what I mean? You are just releasing and then, once it’s out, once it’s said, once it has been brought to fruition and spoken of, then you can be like “How do I move past it?” Because, if it’s not there in front of you, you can’t move past it. So, I expel and I think I expel and I try to learn every time. That’s the real difference. My first records—The Importance of Self Belief and Who Taught You to Hate Yourself—were happy records about the beauty of life. For My Mama was about death and life and marvelous times. And then Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?was the processing. I expelled on the first one, I processed on the second one. I think everyone processes and expels when they make music. I just think processing and expelling at the same time, it’s not gonna benefit you. It’s not gonna work.

Sinkane: I’d like to know what you think about this. I’ve seen you a couple of times now, and I find that in hip-hop live music is having a renaissance. Before, it was not quite as important to hip-hop artists to perform live. It was all about just producing, making music. And when I see you, I find that your live show is one of these hip-hop live shows that is doing something interesting. It feels, to me, like you’re processing during that time. You’re very emotional, and it’s very addicting, as a person, watching you perform. It’s magnetic; you can feel your energy and you can respond to it. I remember seeing you at Pitchfork [Festival] in London, and when you were singing “Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!?,” you had a very chill arrangement of it in comparison to the album. And you had everyone in there singing with you. I found it to be so beautiful. Do you relate to that? Are you processing when you perform?

Dixon: Live shows are a little bit harder for me, because I process while I perform—but the other thing that I’ve learned is that people are processing while I perform, as well, which is fine. It’s very fun. But, when you are processing and you come to a revelation, you must tell it—and then they expel. People will come up to me at the end of the shows and take my processing as me helping them process, and it becomes this thing where it’s like, I’ll hop off stage and immediately someone will be like, “My homie just died, he would’ve loved this shit, man.” Now, my processing is not processing; it becomes this thing where it’s community. You process for yourself. That’s what it is. I don’t process out on stage. I just want everyone to remember me forever. That’s what I do onstage. I can’t really process when it’s not an interest, because who am I doing it for after a certain amount of time? I can sing “Tyler Forever” as much as I want, but, at the same time, a n***a singing “Tyler Forever” with me ain’t got nothing to do with me. “Tyler Forever” ain’t even really for n***as like that, but I’m not gonna stop somebody who can find community in something. I’m just not gonna give y’all access to me.

Sinkane: I hear that, that’s real. It’s interesting that you say all this stuff, too, because you flipped it on me. This album, for me, was one that made me realize the importance of the process—not processing, but the importance of the process. Previous to this, I would make music and just be so excited to go play it live. I would always say the start of the conversation is the record and then the next step is the performance—seeing Sinkane live is a very important part of the conversation that I’m having with people, but I never really thought about what it took to get there. On [We Belong], I was so present with the process the entire time that I was making it, from the moment I started, right after Dépaysé, to working out and workshopping all this music in grad school, to starting to work with my collaborators—Casey Benjamin, rest in peace, Amanda Khiri, Money Mark, my band, all those guys, bringing them in with Hollie [Cook], Tru [Osborne] and STOUT—I was so present along the way. And then I get to the end [of the record], and all I can do is look back and be like, “Man, that was a trip.” I’m in a very different place now than I was two years ago or five years ago when I started working on this. It’s really interesting; it’s all connected in a weird way.

Dixon: It really never ends. I think that’s the thing with rap music, it comes and hits you quicker. For me, there is no distinguishing how I fel. I’m not saying other genres can do it, but I’m saying rap music—it’s straightforward. You’re focusing on what I’m saying a lot more.

Sinkane: It’s all about what you’re saying.

Dixon: It’s all about what I’m saying, and I think that I learned that, if I can never separate myself from rap music again, that I won’t make rap music be the thing that I need to separate myself from. I’ll make it so that rap music is now a part of how I speak. When I see something and I see a moment and I’m inspired by a moment—it’s like, how do I know when I’m inspired by a moment? Well, I’m inspired by a moment when I smile. And I think, then, that becomes something that I can use in my rap music. All of it, for me, it’s easy to never separate yourself from rap music—because rap music is something that is never-ending. You can do it all yourself if you want to, but I had to be like, “Well, how do I learn to talk to somebody?” Then, once I learn how to talk to somebody, now I can learn how to ask somebody to be on my record. I’ve just been doing that for so long that, now, it is automatically how I speak. And how I move is in this way of “Well, what would this be in terms of musical poetry?”

Sinkane: I relate to that, because one of the reasons I went back to music school was so I could learn how to talk to people. If I didn’t go back to school and learn the science of music in school, essentially, it would have been really difficult for me to get my point across to a person and speak their language of music—the universal language of music—to them and say, “This is what I’m trying to do and here’s the structure of this.” We all kind of connect that way, because we’re all trying to tell the story that’s in our head. There’s a way to do it, utilizing the people that are your community that you’re a part of. Sometimes you need to learn a new language to do it. Or, sometimes, you need to shift your perspective to do it.

Dixon: What is the image you make in your head when you hear your album? What is the story like?

Sinkane: When I haer my album, it feels like a kaleidoscope. It sounds like it looks like a kaleidoscope. And it’s a perfect kaleidoscope. It’s all the things and all the shapes and all the colors that I’ve wanted to work together, working together. [We Belong] is the first time that I’ve made something where I think to myself, “This is my voice, this is my sound and my feelings that I’ve wanted to project as a musician, as an artist, done in a way that makes me feel like it’s me.” I grew up in a lot of different places. I moved every four years of my life until I moved to New York in 2008. I was living in the United States and in Sudan, so I’d go back and forth all the time. I really experienced a lot of different people, languages, religions and cultures all over the world my entire life—so my perspective on things was just open. I would start writing a song and make this disparate connection of what was happening in the music with what I wanted to happen in my mind, based on my experience.

If you listen to a lot of the older Sinkane records, they’re very experimental in that way. There’s all these different, disparate sounds that make sense to me. It might not make sense to a lot of people, but it makes sense to me. This time, I feel like what I did makes sense to people and it makes sense to me. It’s connected, it’s unified. People see it and feel it and understand something that I believe is my identity. So, if that was a physical, tangible thing that people could look and touch and feel and see, it would be this big kaleidoscope of colors and sounds and shapes all connecting together.

Dixon: If it don’t work the first time, just bring more people with you. This question, I can’t take credit for—because it’s what Hanif [Abdurraqib] continuously tells me—but what is the feeling you want people to have after they listen to the album?

Sinkane: Just joy. We played the song “We Belong,” which I think is one of the best songs I’ve ever written, and the end of the song is this big, joyous celebration. One thing about this whole album is that there is a resolve—that’s the difference between every other album [I’ve made]. There’s questions being asked, but there’s a feeling of resolve, feeling of contentment, the feeling of self-love, self-confidence, radical self-joy. “We Belong” embodies all of that, and when we play that song live, it just sticks the landing. It’s the punctuation of all of that together. And, not only do we feel it onstage every single time that we play it—even at rehearsal—but everyone outside of us feels it as well. We all collectively feel this big feeling. It’s a wonderful feeling.

It’s a fucking dumpster fire outside right now. The moment you leave a Sinkane show, you’re back into reality and people are dying and politics is fucked up and there’s genocides all over the world that people are talking about. There’s a lot of crazy shit going on. You can still feel joy amongst the madness. You can. That’s what Black people have always done, especially in the United States. [We’ve] dealt with so much shit in the United States, and we still get down, we still have a good time, we still love one another. And we still connect with each other, because that’s all we got. That’s the one thing that you can have control over, and you can feel that. That’s what I want people to feel.

Dixon: The signal within an artist that they have found their voice and sound is when they find a way to resolve their records. It’s incredibly easy to start a record, and it’s incredibly easy to make a closing track, but it is not terribly easy to resolve a record—because resolve then requires expelling and processing. And, if you’re not processing while you’re making the record, you cannot make a result—because it doesn’t end. It is hard to resolve a record, because if you are living the music that you’re making, what does this all look like?

Sinkane: One way—and what it was for me for a long time—was that music was my vehicle for self-discovery. It was my therapy, it was my sandbox. It was the only safe place that I felt I had in my life. Everything else just felt vague and ambiguous. I would spend all my energy and time in being vulnerable in the space of music, saying the things that I wanted to say, experimenting with the sounds that made me feel good, hoping that this was going to connect me to who I truly am or allow me to be my true, authentic self. You can hear that on my previous records and, since then, I’ve done a lot of work outside of myself. One of the biggest things about this record was I wanted to write something that wasn’t about my identity struggle or wasn’t about my experience. It was about something bigger than me or outside of me—and that started with listening to a lot of Black music that was outside of my normal periphery.

And then, through that, I was getting into the message of what I wanted to talk about. When you’re listening to Afrobeat and reggae and dancehall, soul music and jazz all together, you’re going to run right into the theme of the Black experience. It was so cathartic and so exciting for me to stop thinking about my experience selfishly and thinking about our experience—what does it look like for Black people, at-large, to live? How do we talk about what we talk about? It’s zoomed out a little bit, and that brought me to community and it brought me to different perspectives and different ways of expressing their Blackness or themselves. And, in turn, it led to my results—which is interesting, because it took leaving myself to get me back into myself. When I say “we belong,” it’s about us. As Black people, we do belong. We deserve to be here. But, it also allowed me to realize that I belong—in an existential way, but also in a community way.

Dixon: It takes finding out that the world is so big to really come back home. Success is measured, for me, when dreams meet liberation—in the sense where my ideas and the things that I love are able to bring me back to the ones I love, in a way that shines light on everybody’s attributes positively. I think, with [We Belong], it is very obvious from the first song to the last that it is not only about me and it’s not only about you. It’s about us, but it is about you and it is about me. You help one, you help it all. And then, you take it back to yourself. Then you realize like, alright, wow, this is what I’ve learned, where I’ve traveled, who I’ve talked to, when I communicated and when I saw and when I listened and when I loved and when I hated. Now, I can figure out who I am. I think that the record you made is not just a record for exploration for you, but it is also one for the listener and it is one for you.

McKinley Dixon and Sinkane are both going on tour this summer. Find their upcoming dates here and here.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste’s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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