Salma Hagag, 51, learned to sing in Sudan as a child, before she moved to Egypt and, eventually, the United States. But nobody in her adopted country had heard her voice — until she performed at a sold-out concert in Oakland, California, in March.
“Notes Against the Ban,” performed by the Aswat Ensemble at the Northern California Islamic Culture Center, featured music from the seven countries targeted in President Trump’s initial travel ban. (A revised travel ban is now winding its way through the courts.) The showcase of music from Libya, Yemen, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Iraq was intended to serve as both ambassadorial outreach and a healing salve.
Hagag plans to perform again with the Arab music ensemble in May.
Raised amidst political tumult, Hagag is finding a new home in the Bay Area. Using the stage name Salma Al Aasal, she performed in March for a packed crowd, including Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. “The seven countries tonight are delivering a peaceful message to the world,” Hagag said. “Here in Oakland, California, people care about human rights and they’ll stand up for your rights.”
Hagag left her home country for Egypt in the early 1990s when Sudan was under the grip of military rule and Islamic Sharia law, which forbid women from participating in the public sphere. “If a woman wanted to sing, she would be shamed, beaten, whipped or killed,” she said.
After joining a band in Egypt, she toured Europe between raising four daughters. But with increasing political instability in Egypt, she sought asylum in the U.S. Hagag was granted citizenship almost three years ago, and her daughters were able to join her last fall. Working at a local Walmart store and separated from her husband, who awaits the outcome of his immigration case from Cairo, she’s now the sole provider for her girls.
She also struggles with the uncertainty of her family’s future, as the Trump administration defends its revised travel ban in the courts.
“I’m exhausted,” she says. “But I always say to myself, ‘Salma, tomorrow is going to be better.’”
As she prepares for another concert performance with Aswat Ensemble on May 13, 2017, at the Skyline College Theatre in San Bruno, California, Hagag says she is grateful to have found a community of artists who embrace her and her music. “Before that,” she says, “it was as if I was truly dead.”
Below, watch Hagag tell her story:
This report originally appeared on KQED Arts. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member and public radio stations around the nation.