Bilal Salaam: In His Own Universe


Bilal Salaam Interview
Interview by Winston Ford
Photography by Tamar Nussbacher

Bilal Salaam isn’t your usual R&B artist.

With a musical palate inspired by the likes of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Beethoven, and Radiohead, the DC R&B singer might sound out of place in a world of cookie-cutter pop radio singers.

“I don’t really relate to the world in the same way that others do,” Bilal says as he lists his influences.

His start in music all began with piano lessons from his mom. “I didn’t really stick with it that long,” he admits, but those lesions did open up his world to a new musical dimension and he eventually joined the choir in both high school and at Morgan State University in Bowie, Maryland. The tall singer admits, “I sang bass not because I could sing actual bass, but because I looked like a bass [singer].” The experience in choir gave Bilal the foundation to work with such names as Eric Roberson, W. Ellington Felton, Little Brother, Muhsinah, Sy Smith, and most notably, soul crooner Raheem DeVaughn.

Bilal’s newest release, Langue De Rasoir (Razor Tongue), might be classified as soul, but in reality, his sound is hard to pin down. “In hindsight, I don’t have a particular sound when I’m making the music,” a sound which can combine the sounds of DC go-go and East Coast boom-bap in the same song. “I throw in lot of stuff that doesn’t seem to go together, but it does [in the end].”

rq3l4056One thing that is rare in Black music is humility, however Bilal is a different case. “If it were up to me I would go up on stage and put a mask over my face, because that would make me more comfortable in doing what I do. I try to attach the honesty of myself and the lack of ego that I put into my music.” The music itself is a product of this attitude, with Salaam’s quiet voice layered over his off beat production. The resulting songs, like “Razorhead,” and “Know,” sound more like soulful versions of Radiohead’s Kid A. This “left of centre” approach may not get him radio spins, but Bilal is completely comfortable in his own universe. “In this world, you have to be something. You have to be pro this or pro that. What if you didn’t have a purpose? What if that freedom was allowed for Black music?”

The lack of creative expression for Black artists is nothing new, but Salaam’s track, “Modern Day Slavery,” which compares the industry to field hands and its artists as subservient idiots picking cotton for their masters, is one of the most poignant tracks that addresses this station. “Just seeing the indirectness of the music industry is daunting man, it just made me not want to be part of it at all.”

Bilal’s newest side project has a UK connection. The band OP Swamp 81 takes after the overreaching police stop and search program which led to the 1981 Brixton riots in London. The band, a combination of Bilal, producer Slimkat 78, and vocalist Schmanedra combine a sound that infuses R&B and jazz, over lyrics that are exceedingly blunt about race, identity, and culture, combined with imagery drawn from the turbulent times for Blacks in the US and the UK. . The origin of the name has a deeper meaning: “The police were trying to impose order and the result was chaos, so my concept was to preach hate and expose the love within.”

Bilal is not a DC native by birth, but in his words, “I love DC. The rhythms of this city are the rhythms of Black music.” Bilal’s music has been intertwined with the rhythms of DC for years. Check out his latest projects for a different taste of Chocolate City.