Getting international R&B artist Sobhhi into clear focus is a tricky thing to do. That’s intentional.
As the No. 1 streamed R&B artist in the UAE, one of the top artists generally in the Middle East, and someone dedicated to progressing the genre of alternative R&B around the world, the man prefers his headshots with a grainy filter. It’s for the art.
From his quarantine quarters in the Bay Area, California, Sobhhi has been dropping a steady stream of singles following on the spring release of his latest LP, Red III. Interestingly enough, the music is hitting different in Canada—the artist counts Montreal and Toronto as some of his most popular cities streaming-wise.
We booked a daytime slot to speak with the man who makes “music for late nights” about his interesting education and transition into music, dispelling a bit of the myth in search of presence, and why the alt-R&B scene in Toronto is so unreal. Check out the video for his latest single "Alone Somehow," premiering on Complex today, and read our chat with him.
OK, so who is Sobhhi? Your agent said you’d be “pulling back the curtain,” but how far? Are you finally giving us a name and a proper headshot today?!
Yeah man, I don't think we’re going to go ‘LinkedIn’ right now. [Laughs.] But I'm definitely trying to pull back the curtain this year a bit and get a little more personal, especially musically. I just want to feel more present in the simulation this year, if that makes sense. Sometimes you can be there, but you feel absent and you're somewhere else. I'm trying to really physically feel what's really going on musically and with my fan base and everything.
And why the mysterious persona in the first place?
So, this is my real persona, and I don't think I'm really hiding anything. Sobhhi isn’t just like a random, interesting name I thought of, you know? It's my grandfather's name; it's part of my name and it means “morning” in Arabic. It also contrasts with the record label Nuit Sans Fin, which in French means “night without end.”
And, actually, if you do scroll down my profile, you will find pictures of me. My goal is not to censor anything, but there’s this convention for an artist’s social media in 2020 to be very focused and based on their appearance, and I just don't believe in that for myself… I want it to be about the world that's being created. I want it to be something that when people see it, they don't necessarily feel like they're getting behind a single person. I want them to get behind the content and feel like they also fit into this world.
How do you describe your music?
It's music for late nights. There's a major nocturnal theme and nocturnal focus to what I do, because that's the time that I feel most at home—it's at night.
Is that when the creative magic happens for you?
Yeah, I create at night, I write at night, I do all the link-ups at night. The hustle, the grind happens all night. During the day, it's all administrative and procedural non-music related stuff that we have to do to make sure that music can happen at night.
You were born in Dubai but went to school in the U.S., right? Tell us a bit about where and how you were brought up.
That’s a really long conversation, but to keep it short, I grew up in many places. I spent time in Dubai and then in the Bay Area, studied at Berkeley and I also spent time in Chicago. So I carry a little bit of those places everywhere I go.
And I actually went straight to college at 16, which I was able to pull off by taking college night classes for a couple years before I dropped out. I would just go up to the local community college and take classes in statistics or law or whatever. And then I ended up just hopping into college at 16.
"And then recital day came and I got a chance to embrace my originality. The song was awful, but it was like really lit being able to choose my own path."
Casual… What were you studying at Berkeley?
I studied economics there and then went to Chicago to pursue a master's degree, but I took only PhD classes. And after getting my master's, I ended up back at Berkeley researching machine learning and artificial intelligence, pursuing a PhD in computational mathematics.
So, just a natural transition into R&B streaming sensation after that, eh?
Well, at Berkeley I met this guy named Fred. Fred was almost 40 years old, he had just finished his PhD and he was a postdoctoral student in the same laboratory as I was. He told me, “You know, your PhD is going to be there later, but now is your only chance to really do you before life catches up to you, like it did to me.” And he drilled that into me, because we were writing a research paper together and we’d meet at this coffee shop every morning and before we’d start he’d be like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” He saw that I was kind of miserable and noticed the bags under my eyes… I ended up taking his advice, hit the pause button on the whole thing and I was like, this is my chance. And I love computational math as much as I love music and it's still part of the plan, but I'm really trying to see what's good with music because, you know, I really believe what Fred said.
When did the music start for you?
Basically the very first song I wrote, I was seven years old. My parents had signed me up for a piano class and we had a recital. After they had given us the basics, they had us pick one of the three or four songs we’d learned from the book to play at the recital. I started, we did some practice rounds and I was like, 'Damn, this is really repetitive, I don't want to play these.'
So I went home that day and I ended up writing my own song. When I played it for [my teacher] after class he told me I could play my song. And then recital day came and I got a chance to embrace my originality. The song was awful, but it was like really lit being able to choose my own path. And then since then it’s just been like, this is what I want to do.
You’re a top pick for R&B fans online in the UAE, but you’ve also got quite a strong fan base in Toronto. What is it about your music you think resonates with Torontonians?
That's a good question. I understand that Toronto has a really big international influence. A lot of people now in Toronto are second-, third-generation Canadians coming from very, very diverse paths. To the outside world, Canada represents multiculturalism and coexistence, and I think these things lay down the foundation for something like an alternative form of a genre to happen, which is what happened to R&B. It's set up for rule breaking… it's set up for a new set of rules. And I'm not even just talking about genre—look at the kind of engineering, for example, the mixing that happens on Majid Jordan or PARTYNEXTDOOR records... if you talk to traditional mixers, they’d be like, “Don't ever do that.” But Toronto does it its own way, setting up this new concept, and I think that's just been the theme. I think that's why something like alternative R&B really happened there. And it's truly a huge honour for me to have love from that area and to feel like people welcome me. That's truly an honour.
Does the UAE have a similar music scene?
No, they’re nothing alike…. There are definitely people doing music and definitely underground scenes, but for various cultural reasons, it's not like the current Toronto underground scene where large groups of people gather and celebrate the music. It's still very, very quiet. And the biggest kind of events are when artists from offshore come in. So, you know, that's kind of what it's like over there right now.... There’s nobody to my knowledge who's really holding it down musically on the international scene for the UAE.
What are your hopes for the future of the music community over there?
Hip-hop and R&B started in New York decades ago and now it's a worldwide thing where people are injecting pieces of their culture and imbue their culture and their tradition onto this genre and create their own spinoff. That's a really beautiful thing to see, that something that started as a form of expression, but also a form of peaceful protest and so forth, has now become this culture that so many people want to be a part of and are so thrilled with.
My hope not just for the UAE but for all parts of the world is to see it participate in the movement and appreciate others' contributions. It’s such a beautiful thing to see such a multicultural world phenomenon with roots that are so important in history. My hope is that it really surfaces and that the community can contribute something to the larger picture.
You’ve been on lockdown like everybody else. Looks like you had some pleasant “company” for the filming of your "Quarantine and Chill" video, though…
I’m solo right now, dude. [Laughs.] But we love company! And, yeah, I’m on quarantine right now... Gotta stop eating so much. All I do is eat! Chinese food, Indian food, whatever. I’m getting out of hand, man. Uber Eats only makes it more accessible, which is a problem. I’m actually ordering a barbell and some dumbbells and just setting up the home gym because it doesn't look like they're going to open or even if they do, I don't know if I'm super comfortable touching up on all the gear.