Rapper Nadine El Roubi on the Afro-Arab Storytellers That Inspire Her


Throughout April, we're honoring the ancient Arab tradition of hakawatis, or storytellers, highlighting the writers, performers, and poets who are driving the conversation around what it means to be Arab American today—and celebrating the rich culture and histories of the diaspora.

Nadine El Roubi’s story is one of constant motion—she's never been anchored in one place for too long. “I always say that a place is also a face,” says the Afro-Arab rapper and artist. “I love vicariously living through other people and telling their stories, too.”

Born to an Egyptian Sudanese mother and an Iranian Sudanese father in Khartoum, Sudan, El Roubi’s has called many places home: She moved to Fairfax, Virginia, at age 1, before returning to Khartoum at age 10. After high school, her love of travel inspired relocations to Maastricht, Netherlands; Birmingham, England; Amman, Jordan; Aswan and Cairo, Egypt; and, now, to Boston—Worcester, to be exact.

Her career, meanwhile, has taken her to XP Music Futures in Riyadh, and Beirut’s Rap & Beyond festival, travels that have allowed her to uplift Afro-Arab storytelling on a global scale. Now, the artist—whose latest music video, “Wavy in Brooklyn,” with Felukah and Mo Stank, released earlier this month—is focused on the stories that feel most urgent. Like many artists from the SWANA region, she has recently channeled her energy into raising awareness for Sudan and Palestine on social media. At the same time, she’s rediscovering the joy of creating music for herself. “For me, storytelling has always been about self-exploration and giving myself permission to be myself in all its forms, and giving other people permission to feel okay doing the same thing,” she says.

Condé Nast Traveler spoke with El Roubi about the stories that inspire her, how her journeys deepen her connection to her roots, and what people get wrong about Arab storytellers.

What drew you into storytelling?

I grew up with stories. Reading was so important in my household. The earliest gifts I got were books. My mom would read to me, and I would read to my little sisters. We’d go to bookstores and [my mom] would make a whole day out of it. Stories have literally been my safe space, and even aside from reading, my mom would tell me stories about Sudan in the golden era, her childhood, and even stories of family drama. I think it’s only natural that, coming from that, [I have] a desire to tell stories—and understand that storytelling is not just about sharing an experience, but also about archiving history.

Do you have any favorite storytellers?

Safia Elhillio is my favorite writer of all time. She's a Sudanese-American poet, and her writing is gut-wrenching. It took me almost a year to finish Home Is Not a Country because I would cry every few pages. It’s about this girl named Nima, and she misses a country that she's from but she's never been to. She’s only heard about it through stories. If you’re from Sudan, you know it’s about Sudan, but Safia keeps it ambiguous enough that any diaspora person can relate. She also has a collection of poems called Girls That Never Die about womanhood, female friendships, being objectified as an Arab woman—and specifically for her, what it means to be a Black Arab woman navigating Islam and modesty but also wanting to be free. She has a new book coming out soon called Bright Red Fruit.

Are there any underrated storytellers that you think deserve more recognition?

Narcy is so slept on, it’s crazy. His wordplay is so clever. Hearing him bridge the gap musically between being Iraqi but also having lived in Canada and having gone through the [Iraq] war is so poignant. Every time I hear something, I have to listen to it multiple times so the bars don't go over my head.

Emaan Zadjali—she’s Omani-American, and she recently put out a song called “Smile.” So beautiful. It’s a letter to her Omani grandmother. She also has a cool song called “House.” The Eight Goddesses [on Instagram], she’s [Nour Ghoneim] a jeweler. Her pieces hold so much meaning. She handmakes gorgeous earrings and necklaces with these charms out of clay. I'm wearing a custom necklace of hers right now, and she made me these earrings that have a rose for Iran, a lotus for Egypt, and a hibiscus for Sudan. It's art on your body.

Have current events in the Arab world, like the situation in Palestine or the crisis in Sudan, impacted your approach to music at all?

One hundred percent. When everything happened in Palestine, I suddenly became very hyper-aware that the industry that we work within, the country that we live in, is not made to accommodate people like us with our viewpoints, our backgrounds, and our history. It’s been a time of focusing on how we can support each other and build laterally.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions or stereotypes you think exist about Arab storytellers?

That the only thing we have to offer is the fact that we're Arab. I'm so weary because representation is important, but on the flip side, I also don't want to be boxed in and tokenized, like, “Oh, let's invite this artist to perform because they're Arab.” No, I don't want to fill a quota. I want to be valued for my actual work and not just what I represent. Whenever you go hard for female representation, you’re seen as just a feminist rapper and people are like “let’s book her because she’s super vocal about these things.” That’s why I really, really, really want to start putting out music that has nothing to do with anything except my life, being hot, and my relationships, because those are also my lived experiences.

Speaking of your experiences, you travel quite a bit. What draws you to it?

The freedom of it. It's so freeing to be in a random city I don't live in and feel like I can do whatever I want there. Nobody knows me. Nobody knows who I am. I'm not tied to this place, but I could be if I wanted to. It’s a transient place to be in, and it doesn't feel permanent, which is good for people with commitment issues like myself.

Where’s a place, anywhere in the world, that inspires you?

Studio Kubbara in Egypt. I immediately go there, I take my shoes off. They have these dim lights, and it’s covered in carpets and designs of Arabic calligraphy. It’s gorgeous and so relaxing, I’m always so inspired when I’m there.

Any go-to spots in cities you've lived in?

If you’re going to go to Cairo, you have to go to Abou El Sid because it’s authentic Egyptian food like stuffed pigeon, lamb, and bamia (stews). What I love about the restaurant is that all of the walls are plastered with posters of old Egyptian cinema, so it’s a beautiful atmosphere as well. The Loft Gallery is also a cool antique store and cafe in Zamalek. In Boston, it's Shiraz Persian Cuisine. I'm really into Persian food. Beef Kubideh—that’s my thing—with basmati rice and saffron on top. Cucumber yogurt sauce on top. Done. That’s all I need.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler