BEIRUT: Sara Elmessiry is a woman passionate about being in charge of her own destiny. “People are awakening — we can build alliances, we can push forward. We are all aggravated, agitated, and we’re waking up,” the Cairo-born poet and singer/rapper who goes by the artist name Felukah, says. “Rather than look away, I want to stare it right in the face and say, ‘How are we going to change this?’”
Based in New York since 2017, where she is studying for a degree in creative writing, the talented rhyme slinger is not only talking about the civil rights protests that have engulfed the US in recent weeks, but also about the mindset of her generation in general.
“I’m nothing but optimistic, but I’m also realistic,” says the 22-year-old, who has also published three poetry collections under the pseudonym Kahirati. “Anything that requires massive change and upheaval starts with demonstrations and conversations that cater to justice, to mental health, to collective consciousness.”
Felukah’s thoughtful, quick-witted and zeitgeist-minded demeanor is just as prevalent in her captivating approach to hip-hop and R&B. She recently released two singles from her upcoming album “Dream 23,” and both “22+1” and “Lookin’ at Me” are a testament to her zeal for her craft, as well as progress as a songwriter.
“I don’t have much to my discography; I started doing this only about two years ago,” she explains. “I had my brother’s studio equipment, I was messing around, and I had this strong impulse to share my art.
“I dropped a mix tape (her first EP, “Battery Acid”) on Soundcloud that wasn’t even mixed properly; the sound quality was terrible, but it put me on the map,” she says, with a hint of proud defiance in her voice. “People started hitting me up saying ‘Your flow and your lyrical quality are insane, but yeah, the music is miles apart and you have to do something about that.’”
And sure enough, she’s followed that advice. Following up her 2019, neo-soul-charged debut album, “Citadel,” she’s releasing “Dream 23” with Abu Recordings, a London- and New York-based independent record label. “They helped me enhance the quality of the sound so much; sonically, it actually pops.”
Her sound is described by her label as “a gorgeous ode to the Golden Age of hip-hop,” culminating in a record that “tackles a wide range of concepts, including time, age, cultural identity, ambition and the rap game.”
In fact, “22+1” stands out both for its infectious hooks and Felukah’s skillful mastery of rhyme that effortlessly transitions between English and Arabic — a method of showcasing the connection between her heritage and influences that she frequently employs in her work. Thematically, the song is an ode to “circling around the sun 23 times and paying homage to both my Egyptian roots and New York culture with each turn around the sun,” Elmessiry explains. “I didn't only turn 22... I turned 22+1 just by taking into account the goals I've set for myself for this next year on earth.”
Like the relationship between the two languages and cultures, there’s a lot of duality in Felukah’s music. “I like to think artistically in fluid terms; I like to resist binaries, and so, sometimes a way to highlight that resistance is to showcase a binary,” she says. “In this case I’m dealing with the split between New York and Cairo, between the Middle Eastern aspect of myself and the Western, more open, publicly sharing side myself, which is what gives that duality to the music I’m making.
“So, when I explore binaries, it liberates me as an artist; I join them, and they become one to me, so I end up overcoming that distinction,” she continues. “Sonically, this album is about Western beats, but I’m also talking about issues that pertain to our culture.”
Despite her energy and curiosity, Elmessiry is mindful of the obstacles facing artists in the Middle East. “It’s not easy to express yourself in the way that Western songwriters are able to, but I see that struggle as an opportunity,” she says. “I grew up in Egypt and I do intend to return home, just to relearn my culture. Now that I’m away, I get this urge to go back to the motherland. I want to be in the Arab world. The only way to really experience it is to be there.”
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic means a tour of the Arab world is off the table for now, but Elmessiry says that is her goal one day. Until live performances are possible again, though, she’s typically innovative about her approach to keeping in contact with her audience.
“I want to send merch to people so they can, like, rock out in their Felukah gear while they’re watching me on the computer,” she says. “Why not? I’ll adapt. I’ll try to make it a new experience in terms of listening to and consuming music and art.”