The enigmatic artist sobhhï speaks to Atwood Magazine about his craft, artistic inspiration, and the intersection between music and maths.
Is it rather difficult to make out sobhhï’s face in the header picture? All the better. He’s an artist who likes to keep his personal and physical identity a secret, and he’s embraced the theme of darkness in many ways beyond these dimly-lit portraits. Sobhhï has also founded a record label called NUIT SANS FIN (which means “endless night” in French) and operates in a self-proclaimed style known as Trapsoul Nocturnal (which has been defined as a combination of “dreamy R&B, bedroom soul and hip-hop.”
Sobhhï has spent a decent amount of time in the United States– he’s studied at both UC Berkeley and UChicago– but is currently based in Dubai, where he has established himself as “one of the top R&B/hip-hop artists in the Middle East.” He earned that title on the strength of two series of EPs known as RED and BLACK, which have included such intriguing numbers as “imagine that,” “abu / dhabi,” and “4am in riyadh”— the capital of the country where sobhhï plans to move to soon after wrapping up his time in the UAE. He’s also done his part to make this rough social distancing period go down for easily for his listeners with the brand new release, “quarantine and chill.”
Sobhhï may be protective about his real name and facial features, but he’s far more open when it comes to talking about his craft and artistic inspiration, as Atwood was lucky to discover.
Listen: RED III – sobhhï
:: A Conversation with sobhhï ::
Atwood Magazine: We’ve now reached the third part of the RED trilogy. How has this series evolved with each record? What are your thoughts now that you're finally capping off the trilogy?
sobhhï: The first three RED EPs close off a chapter in my personal life. The music feels to have evolved in synchrony with changes in my own perspectives. The first RED project felt very raw. Perhaps I felt confused and bashful. The story that is sequenced and narrated across the five tracks of the project is much more complicated and involved than it may seem from the music. There was a lot of aftermath following that release.
On the other hand, RED III is a polished effort. I took more time to let experiences marinate before popping my shit. When I say “marinate,” I mean months and months. I feel more comfort with vulnerabilities and less hesitant; less remorseful, to be blunt, but also more selective.
Is there a trade-off when moving towards a more polished body of work? Yes, I believe there is a trade-off. Poeticizing a story can make it deeper and more proverbial; can make it last forever. But perhaps something lacks as a result; something that feels more visceral and gripping. That’s my intention behind the BLACK series of EPs—which I see as a counterpart to RED. The plan is to be excellently polished on RED and excellently raw on BLACK and make no compromises.
What do you make of your title as “the #1 streamed R&B artist currently based in Dubai?” What is the R&B community in Dubai like and how has it managed to inform your identity as an artist?
sobhhï: In the grand scheme of things, there’s still so much more that needs to be done to make an impact and a title is just a title. I hope my listeners and friends can look past all titles and judge art solely by its quality. With that said, holding this title is something I’ll always be grateful for and won’t take for granted given how hard I’ve worked.
According to my data sources on different streaming platforms, social media, and live events, the music scene here is still quite nascent. Looking at other artists’ numbers, I don’t think anyone has managed to make an impact globally or even locally. That presents a valuable opportunity to play a role in defining the sound and music culture of this region. That’s one of the main objectives of NUIT SANS FIN, a label and streetwear brand we established in 2019.
There’s a lot of talent all over the world that hasn’t gotten a fair chance. One day—through NUIT SANS FIN and my own accomplishments—I hope to play a part in cultivating this talent and bringing it to the world stage.
You said that one of your goals for a previous album was to “amalgamate urban contemporary music and Arabic in a way that felt natural.” Does that remain a goal for you in RED III? What are some of the challenges you face in achieving this goal and how do you ultimately manage to overcome them?
sobhhï: No, that’s not the goal with RED III, but it is a broader goal of mine. I have plans to go into other languages, too.
The greatest challenge is that it is artistically risky. For “Arabic meets English meets R&B,” there are very few blueprints as far as I know for how to do this tastefully, in a way that pays homage to both cultures. I think that also applies outside of just “Arabic meets English.” I’m trying to take the process slowly and study the success cases. Music is a broad field and there’s much to be learned.
How did the narrative structure of RED III come to be? How are these themes embodied in the album's lead single and video, “red bottoms?”
sobhhï: Just like any of my projects, sequence is very intentional. Narrative structure follows naturally when each song is about an event in time: The tracks can be ordered chronologically, reversed, or in other interesting ways that unpack the story as the album plays out. In this sense, it feels a lot like directing or sequencing a film. I often plan things out intentionally like “this piece will be missing until the last track” and “the role of this person will be contradicted here to create confusion” and so forth.
When “red bottoms” was released as a single, it could be interpreted as a cycle in a romance. But, when it is played in context with the preceding tracks, it’s clear that it’s about fatigue and relapse. Something like beating a dead horse.
Watch: “red bottoms” – sobhhï
In addition to performing music, you’ve also been doing a PhD in applied mathematics at UChicago. How do your balance your interests in both music and math? Anything you learn in the classroom come into play within the studio?
sobhhï: My forays into mathematics and other related fields are not so straightforward. It was actually UC Berkeley where I was en route to pursuing a PhD. But I was talked out of it just in time by a postdoctoral researcher in the same laboratory, Fred. What he told me that day will always stay with me. And I will resume my plan for PhD soon, but for now, music is the focus. Shout outs to Fred.
It’s hard to balance the two as they’re both extremely demanding and extremely opposites in the lifestyle sense. But when I can, I take breaks and look back at some of the research problems I was trying to solve. Often I find that being outside the laboratory and classroom for this long blessed me with a new perspective on problems that seemed impossible before.
Statistics, data science, machine learning… there are countless applications in music and streaming because of the plethora of data. And yes, many things I’ve learned in these fields have given my digital marketing strategy a noticeable edge.
Earlier this year, you said that you still hadn’t performed an official concert yet but were hoping to do so eventually. Any updates in that department? What are your hopes for when you finally take to the stage?
sobhhï: Plans for a tour are in the works as we speak. Alluding to your previous question: Thanks to data, I have good visibility on where in the world my music has gained momentum. Slowed down a bit by COVID, but we’re going to make it happen soon.
My greatest hope for when I reach the stage is that people see that every small detail of a large plan matters and timing is everything.