Sabrina Bellaouel: Present Continuous
As the world ushers in a fresh start, Sabrina Bellaouel is already one step ahead.
The French-Algerian musician has already done the work of letting go of the things and people that no longer serve her – a choice governed not by a calendar but by her own intuition – choosing to move forward with a completely clean slate. It’s an act of renewal that is reflected in her debut album, Al Hadr: a collection of songs, written across her decade-long journey through her artistic practice, ready to be set free.
“Right now, it’s divine timing,” Bellaouel says, warmly, from her home in Bagneux, a commune in the southern suburbs of Paris. “[These songs] really represent me right now – that’s why it’s called Al Hadr, which means ‘the present time’ [in Arabic].”
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As is so often the case, a lot of preparation has led up to this moment. After cutting her teeth on early collaborations with artists like Parisian hip-hop duo The Hop and French rapper Jazzy Bazz, Bellaouel graduated to releasing her own singles – from the smooth soul of J’essaie to the airy R&B of Until We Have It All – and signed with respected French label InFiné in 2020. Since then, she’s shared two beguiling EPs in 2020’s We Don’t Need to Be Enemies and Libra, projects that showcase her ability to bring sultry R&B warmth to experimental electronics.
Now, the 34-year-old feels like she’s “on the verge of something big that I cannot control”. What exactly that means is still a mystery, even to her, but she’s been preparing for the moment by doing an emotional spring clean. “I’ve decided to close all these doors, in terms of emotions, which are crystallised in this album,” she explains gently, as she mimes pushing those unwanted feelings out of her body. “A lot of the work has been [done], so now I’m attracting new opportunities and people that are refreshing my being.”
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Bellaouel might not be in control of whatever comes her way, but using Al Hadr as a reset was an intentional move post-pandemic. Although she caveats that it has nothing to do with the passage of time, Bellaouel cites having “grown as a woman” as her motivation for taking stock of her life. What she concluded from that exercise, she explains, was that “whether it was material [things] or people, all the energy needed to be fresh”.
So Al Hadr became a mantra. It functioned to energise her creative practice, but also helped her move through feelings of isolation as everyone returned to work or school as restrictions eased. “Because I’m making music in my own home, I don’t have a nine-to-five schedule,” she explains. “I was feeling left out in the cold – I had to be an adult and re-parent myself.” That parental inner voice implored her to live her life to the fullest, to stop comparing herself to others, and to not let herself get weighed down by nostalgia or the unknowable future. “Al Hadr is a magic world, it’s like ‘hakuna matata’,” she says. “It’s a healing mantra that really helped me to reconnect with my body and the world.”
Whenever Bellaouel works on a song, she puts faith in her body to guide her, feeling for how it responds and moves to the sounds she is creating. “It could be when I’m in my car listening to [my music], at the beach, or with bae in bed,” she laughs. “But how I want my body to move to the music influences [my writing process] a lot.”
“We are responsible for creating our society and I want to be part of building a new way of thinking”
This intentional physicality is felt in the chest-rattling bass of album highlight Rapture or the waist-winding trap of Shop. But at the centre of Al Hadr lies Kesh, a gentle, drifting track that incorporates a poem recited by Parisian DJ and producer Crystallmess. It feels like an extension of the album title’s statement, as Crystallmess’ determined voice reminds us that it’s “time for the knowledge of self […] to speak your wish, to no longer erase yourself”. When Bellaouel first heard the words – via a video of Crystallmess performing the poem on her Instagram story – she was struck by how it summed up the emotional core of her own record. “It has this very humble message that I found super powerful,” she says. “It reminds us to look within, find your magic, find your power, and how you can be wiser.”
Crystallmess is the focal point of Kesh, but beneath her motivating words that nod to Allah and allowing self-love, choral whispers collide with discordant synths and drones. It’s a striking portrait of liberation – from self-doubt, uncertainty and the limitations of genre. But despite the poem urging listeners to “find your power”, it took Bellaouel a minute to reach out to Crystallmess. “I just didn’t believe in myself at that time,” she says, sheepishly. Once she got over her fear, however, she sent over an atmospheric, twinkling backing track and, to her delight, it won Crystallmess’ heart. “She felt connected to all the textures and vocals, and it was magic,” Bellaouel beams. “[Crystallmess] came to the studio and did it on the first take – she interpreted it with so much power and confidence.”
Kesh also touches on another vital topic in Bellaouel’s life: religion, faith and spirituality. At home, she says God is spoken about frequently with her Muslim family, but to do so anywhere else in France is considered “weird”. That’s why, on the trilingual Al Hadr (recorded in Arabic, French and English), the slinky, hushed avant-R&B of Jah “had” to be sung in French. “Its hook means ‘I’m never scared to be alone’ and it felt like a big statement to make in the French language because I’m talking about my relationship to God,” she reasons. “I hope it’s going to be played in the clubs, because we don’t really talk about God [there].” For Bellaouel, faith is a “compass” guiding her through life’s complicated web of decisions and actions. “When I think about [my faith], I’m just full of gratitude,” she smiles. “It keeps my heart beating, legs running and brain working.”
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The divine creations of the natural world also bear great influence on Al Hadr. On the club-ready, hypnotic stutter of Eclipse, she sings, “never be the same when the eclipse is gone”, a line inspired by a lifetime spent stargazing. This past April, Bellaouel was in The Hague, Netherlands, when a “crazy lunar eclipse” took over the sky. “I believe this lunar eclipse was in Scorpio, and Scorpio rules death, so it was really powerful,” she recalls, eyes illuminating. “I decided to go on a ride to the beach, start a fire and do something to relieve my emotions.” She wrote a letter to an old version of herself and burned it on the sand as the moon shone down on her. “I was speechless. Endings are beginnings, so really, it was a rebirth.”
The concept of new beginnings is fundamental to Bellaouel’s art. She uses the phrase “build a bridge” often in our conversation, whether talking about merging the French and Berber cultures she grew up with, teaming up with the collaborators on her record, or bringing together seemingly disparate musical styles. The latter, in particular, propelled her to study ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths University in London in 2013 – a discipline she discovered through the work of French musical theorist Gilbert Rouget.
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“He wrote a book called Music and Trance that inspired me to study ethnomusicology – I discovered that book before I knew it was even a subject,” she says, her voice fizzing with passion. “He studies different cultures and traditions and writes about the relationship between music and possession. It’s about body rhythms and the repetition of those rhythms that put you into an outer state of consciousness.” Studying Rouget’s work helped push her into creating more of her own rhythmic repetitions, with the aim to create her own trances. “[It taught me that] you can make music and it be sacred, or talk about God and still be vibing.” The course also helped her realise that there are differing cultures, traditions and religions that could be brought together through music. “I feel like there are more bridges to be built – sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not.”
Trust, the clubby, chopped-up R&B track that appears towards the end of Al Hadr, reflects this embrace of cultures. Inspired by the character of Princess Jasmine from Aladdin and her own mother’s free-thinking attitude, Bellaouel felt seen in her struggle with fitting into traditions. In her family, custom has always informed the way everyone moves through the world – whether Bellaouel agreed with it or not. “[My mother] couldn’t choose a lot of things in her life and I believe that I’m here to bring [about] a new way of seeing Arabic and Berber women,” she asserts. “It’s very important for me to respect Muslim traditions and the way [Muslim] people are seen, but to also live in the new age. We are responsible for creating our society and I want to be part of building a new way of thinking.” That sense of freedom is emphasised in Trust’s life-affirming lyrics, where Bellaouel defiantly declares: “I believe it’s me who’s rising/ I do it for the mission now.”
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A “mission” is exactly what the musician believes her music is part of. But not everyone around her is onside. She notes that she often has a lot of “misunderstandings” with her older sister about the way she chooses to lead her life. “We’re complex human beings,” she shrugs. “I value your point of view and I also value mine. But I keep on searching for truth. That’s created a lot of conflicts, but has also created lots of beautiful things.” When doubters ask her how she’s “allowed” to do something they think Muslim women aren’t permitted to, she has one response: “We are allowed to do everything. Just don’t disrespect anyone.”
Al Hadr, then, is a work of art that pays no mind to the constraints the world imposes on women. Here, Bellaouel is at liberty to explore the nuances of her heritage, her relationships and sexuality, her rich inner world that is bursting to be seen and heard. “Representation is important, but I think I’m representing a whole new character in the music industry,” Bellaouel grins, her hand gestures growing more animated. “Algerian, French, multilingual, producer, curly [haired], loving, lashes, bitches. I want to congregate all the values I’ve been taught and the lessons I’ve learned to create a new way of being.”
Al Hadr is out on 3 March via InFiné