Sabrina Bellaouel, raised in the Paris suburb of Bagneux, is the consummate 21st century musician. Since making her recording debut with Parisian hip hop / jazz collective The Hop around a decade ago, she has gradually found a musical identity that expands beyond just songwriting. Combining poetry, visual art, fashion, experimental electronica and classical music, and alluding often to her own Algerian heritage, she turns what we might think of as the very American form of modern R&B into something unique and all her own.
After self-releasing her first couple of solo records, she is now signed to the French label Infiné – a perfect pairing, as the imprint has always been about the expansion of genres, with classical, techno and alternative songwriting sitting happily side by side. Her second EP for the label, Libra, is released this week, and it confirms without question that this is a talent here for the long haul: entirely self-produced, it is provocative, fun and sensuous in equal measure.
Bellaouel is a great example of how 21st century soul and R&B is increasingly becoming a vehicle for sophisticated personal and political vision. This is the era, after all, of Frank Ocean and Solange – and as we remarked on Mixtape earlier this year, the UK is in the midst of a huge wave of alt-soul. But what happens outside the Anglophone music world is going to be crucial to watch now. So when we spoke to Bellaouel, we also asked her to pick some of her favourite alt-R&B tracks from France and beyond, and she didn’t disappoint. From Iranian-Dutch avant garde singer Sevdaliza to the modernist-traditional blend in Algerian star Cheba Warda Charlomanté’s attitude filled performance it’s an intro to a world of talent out there.
Hi Sabrina – first up, how are you feeling about the new EP? How are the reactions to it, and how is it promoting a new record in a pandemic?
Hello – I am feeling great! Libra represents me in this very moment of my life. I’m proud of every track really. It is the second one I’m producing entirely myself. It has a concept, a vision and a lot of colours. I think “Arab Liquor” is the one that is most surprising to people from what I’ve heard – maybe because of the theme. And yes, it is really challenging to release a project that you know you won’t be able to defend on stage. But my team and I are currently thinking about other ways to share this to the world; we just have to be more creative, I guess!
Can we talk about R&B? It seems to be the heart of your sound – what draws you to that?
R&B is the just genre that touches me the most, probably because the voice is the main instrument. My inspirations when it comes to R&B, are K-Reen and Wallen in France – then Brandy, Aaliyah, Jill Scott, Tweet, Yvette Michele, Faith Evans, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. In terms of how she has broadened the spectre of R&B to a more experimental genre, Kelela is one of the main references. Sevdaliza’s work is also very exciting to me, musically and visually.
Why did you make the choice to sing mainly in English on your records?
I made a lot of songs in French. This EP just happens to be in English.
How do you feel about the French music scene of recent years? Is it supportive of individualist artists?
I feel like the French music scene is becoming more inclusive and allowing variety where it once didn’t. We are getting there!
Modern R&B seems to have increasingly become a vehicle for political consciousness - do you feel like you're part of a movement in that regard?
Everyone’s free to express their views on their music. I feel like I express myself through all of my project, although I don’t feel I’m a part of any movement. I just hope that my music inspires.
But you allude to your identity as French, Muslim, North African – directly and indirectly...
Though I have a mixed background, I’m just a child of the world. I have the opportunity to express my feelings and experiences, not these kind of ideas. So I feel like my songs are always authentic to me. It’s not a representation of anyone but myself. When it comes to making music, I don’t think in terms of strategy or who I want to reach. I make music with my heart. I’m a musician, not a politician.
Do you have a plan for your future beyond this record? Or are you a go-with-the-flow kind of person?
I have a clear plan moving forward, but I’ll probably change it on the way!
Sabrina Bellaouel’s internationalist influences:
The lyrics of the song are timeless. The flow is stylish. It’s such a clever way to tacle the topic of inequalities between the sexes. I’m into this 100%
What I like the most about this song is that it’s fictional, but the excercise is so well executed. Everyone can relate to Nikita – who is a female contract killer! She is a formidable adversary.
I like the melody, the treatment on her vocals, the space that is left to silence, and the fusion between the electronics and the organic.
“So I lay and wait
I don't take it lightly
That you're far away
But I need it nightly when I'm full I take another
Never been so greedy with a lover”
Cheba Warda Charlomanté
Cheba Warda is very controversal in Algeria. That’s what I like the most about her. She is fearless and unapologetic. I like to think that she is a G. I attended this exact concert in Marseille years ago – then found it randomly on YouTube years later.
Cover Image: Sabrina Bellaouel
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs