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Nadine El Roubi Defies Afro-Arab Taboos, One Freestyle At A Time 

Nadine El Roubi couldn’t care less about the haters. 

At 27, the Sudanese independent artist has learned to embrace her womanhood and confront Afro-Arab taboos head-on, dismissing critics without a second thought.

Take her feel-good anthem “New Era,” an electrifying declaration of her evolved mentality: “Let these bitches know I’m stepping in a new era/It’s a mindset/She’s a goal getter/Hating never made a bag/Honey do better/Over it like whatever.” 

The trap-infused track, and its fierce cover art, radiate confidence, empowerment, and a rebellious allure, generating a mix of support and critique online. El Roubi is glowing on the cover, donning a trendy green ensemble, with floor-length braids trailing behind, as she locks eyes with the camera against a ruby-red backdrop. “I guess we’re selling ass,” one person commented on the image on Instagram. “I don’t need to shut down my sexuality just because it’s going to be perceived by the male gaze,” El Roubi says. So instead, she reposted the cover art on her Instagram story, with what appeared to be a link to her new OnlyFans account — but was actually “New Era” on Spotify. “Six hundred and something people clicked on that link,” she says, still in disbelief. “I have never had so many people click on a link, ever.

Even when confronted with body shaming online and unsolicited criticism, the singer-songwriter and rapper finds a silver lining. Her 2022 debut EP, Triplicity, and sensual tracks like “Honey Butter” highlight her vocals, but it’s her freestyles on social media that have sparked conversations, as she raps about causes close to her heart — from shame culture to the ongoing conflict in Sudan. 

Last year, SZA reposted one of El Roubi’s freestyles on Instagram with the caption “Why did she eat this so crazy?” The lyrics were partly a reaction to yet another online comment from a man regarding how she dressed. El Roubi, who amusingly refers to herself as “a modest ho” in the freestyle, saved SZA’s repost on her profile as a highlight, captioning it: “Shaking. Crying. Hyperventilating uncontrollably. To think I have been playing SOS on repeat since it’s been out & this happens. God. I keep telling you. @sza thank you.”

El Roubi was born in Khartoum, Sudan, to an Egyptian Sudanese mother and an Iranian Sudanese father, and moved to Fairfax, Virginia, when she was a year old. When she was 10, her family moved back to Khartoum. After graduating high school, her path led her to Masstricht, Netherlands, where she studied liberal arts for three years — followed by a gap year in Sudan. She then ventured to Birmingham in the United Kingdom for a yearlong master’s program in creative writing. 

From there, she continued her nomadic lifestyle, moving to Amman, Jordan, for three months to work as a videographer for a marketing agency; living in Aswan, Egypt, for nearly four months to work on a movie as an assistant director; and residing in Cairo for about a year and a half, where she worked as a social media manager, and finally decided to pursue a career in music. 

El Roubi is now based just outside Boston. “I honestly didn’t choose Boston. I just knew I wanted to move to America. I thought it would bring me closer to opportunities, and it felt like taking a significant step and making music my full-time thing,” she says from her high school bestie’s apartment, where she’s been crashing on the futon for the past six months. “She was like, ‘You’ll just crash with me until you figure your life out.… So, that’s what I’m doing. And maybe I’ll be there for a while, maybe I’ll leave soon. Who knows?” 

As a child, she dreamed of being a fashion designer, a writer, and working in theater and film. But it was music that eventually struck a chord. “This feels like a way that I can combine all those forces into one medium,” she says. Her mother serenaded the household with songs by global pop icons like Céline Dion and Lebanese superstar Nancy Ajram. Her father, a DJ, drove her to school every morning, blasting hits like the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Eminem’s “Mockingbird” (the clean version), and “Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees. In awe of Lauryn Hill’s versatility, little El Roubi was motivated to believe she, too, could sing and rap.

El Roubi is also inspired by lyricists like Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, and Doja Cat. So, her music is a concoction of hip-hop, neo-soul and airy melodies, with elements of spoken-word poetry, a polyvalent sonic expedition that dances between sultriness and an invigorating in-your-face intensity. “Genres are kind of obsolete at this point,” she says. “Whatever box you’re thinking of putting me in, bro, remove it from your mind because it doesn’t exist. If you like my music, don’t ever expect the next song to sound like the old one, because it’s not realistic.”

While her songs encompass a range of sounds, the underlying themes remain consistent: self-love, self-discovery, and human connection — all through the lens of a third-culture Afro-Arab woman. She doesn’t sing in Arabic, but her identity permeates her work. Lyrics like “Put some masAllah on it” and “Middle Eastern bitches looking pretty” proudly celebrate her heritage. She also opens up about personal experiences in songs like “Say So,” where she reflects on times when basic utilities like electricity and water shut off at home: “And there’s mud dripping from the faucet/City in dust like it’s been forgotten/Me and my crew brought brooms/We on it.”

Her freestyle “FEMALE” (172,000 views on Instagram) addresses her frustrations of being labeled a “female rapper,” while “THE WORLD JUST FELL APART,” which boasts more than 376,000 views, captures the weight of daily horrific news — “from Lebanon to Palestine to Haiti to Afghanistan”: “It’s way too much to deal with/I’m way too goddamned privileged/While I’m living/Senseless killing/Women stoned/Children pillaged/War’s a business/Globally in pain/The world just fell apart/And it’s only half past eight.” 

El Roubi has compiled these posts into a mixtape, Freestyles Pt. 1, where her impromptu verses serve as personal diaries, allowing her to connect with her fans and make sense of the world. 

A month after our conversation, on April 15, political violence broke out in Khartoum. Armed conflict ignited between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, leaving innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. As of June 16, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project recorded nearly 2,800 reported fatalities across Sudan. “Since we last spoke, my country is now at war. My family had to flee by land — like a 48-hour journey to Egypt,” she shares when we reconnect on Zoom three months later. “Our house has been destroyed. I hadn’t heard my mom sob like that in years. Everything she worked for [is] gone.” 

Her mother, who faced the loss of her job, cherished belongings (like her wardrobe and jewelry), and irreplaceable family pictures, found refuge in Alexandria alongside El Roubi’s youngest sister and grandmother. Her father, fortunately, moved to Jordan just two weeks before the conflict broke out in April. (Her parents are divorced.)

“Thank God our family is safe, alive, and healthy,” she adds. “Many people had their homes destroyed, everything stolen, and on top of that, family members were killed.” 

The ongoing conflict in Sudan has amplified her determination to use her art as a catalyst for change and for sustainable income, especially as the eldest of three daughters living far away from home. “It’s a huge driving force and why something needs to happen with music now — like now now — because I want to be able to help and not add to this disappointment. You know, like, ‘Our country is at war, and also my eldest daughter is working at a restaurant.’” 

Last May, she performed at Princeton University in New Jersey for a tribute concert dedicated to Sudan and raising funds for emergency relief. She also took to social media, posting a freestyle, “#EYESONSUDAN,” to raise awareness and urge people to donate to the Sudanese American Physicians Association. The rap has garnered more than 205,000 Instagram views, and her lyrics are potent: “All we’ve ever known is violence/What’s louder than a gunshot/Silence.” 

Her father has also been a constant source of support. From creating custom T-shirts for her school talent show at eight years old to flying from Khartoum to London to see her show 19 years later. “What I love and appreciate about my dad is he gives me so much autonomy as a woman,” she says. “As Arab women, I don’t think that we necessarily always have a space where we’re supported by our fathers in that way. I know I’m very blessed and privileged to have that relationship with my dad.” 


El Roubi’s mother plays a complex role in her musical journey, offering both encouragement and reservations. “I think she didn’t see it being a viable career, and that’s because of what kind of world she saw my dad live in through his DJ’ing, so it wasn’t always a great association for her,” El Roubi says. While her mother encouraged her to learn to play the piano and adores her voice, there are aspects of her work that she questions. “She’s like, ‘OK, well if you’re gonna sing, why do you have to curse?’” El Roubi says. “She’s chosen to turn a blind eye to it because I think she’s choosing having a good relationship with me over being right, and that takes a lot of strength, so I respect her for it, and I appreciate it.”  

As the anniversary of Freestyles Pt. 1 approaches, El Roubi is excited to release Freestyles Pt. 2 in August. In the near future, she wants to venture into acting. She’d also love to get signed to a label, but she’s not actively searching, placing her trust in divine timing. In the meantime, she’s relishing the current control she holds over her art. “InshAllah, help me manifest a SZA collab because there’s just too many signs,” she says. When asked about her experience in hip-hop, she responds without hesitation: “There was a time where I went in wanting to be accepted and respected, and then when I wasn’t getting that, I was like, ‘Bet.’ I mean — I’m not gonna stop.”

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