“I’m trying my hardest to be smooth-brained,” Dua Saleh says, chuckling over Zoom. They are outside in Los Angeles, on a patio of sorts, wearing an apricot-colored oversized hoodie with a ruffle collar peeking out of the top. They look at ease, even though they are just back from a bout of traveling that left them slightly out of it. “I accidentally sound rugged-brained because I’m Sudani and I’m trans and I care about the state of the world.”

If you’re unaware, the term “smooth-brained” is essentially online code for “no thoughts, just vibes” — it follows the idea that the amount of brain wrinkles one has is caused by all the hard thinking going on in there. The 29-year-old, Kassala, Sudan-born singer and actor, who is best known for portraying the often-vocal Cal Bowman on Netflix’s internationally successful show Sex Education, is hoping to move into an era of their life where they are doing a little less brain-wrinkle-causing hard analyzing and a lot more creating. In that spirit, two years ago they relocated from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Los Angeles, the global center of vibes, creativity, and, one could argue, smooth-brainedness.

Dua wears all clothing and shoes LOEWE

Saleh’s role as Cal came about through an already-established notoriety as a genre-bending musician. The show’s team found them online while looking for a nonbinary person to step into the role of a nonbinary rabble-rouser who would hold school administrators to account. Saleh fit the part to a T having spent some of their years in high school and university organizing walkouts and actions—they once staged a walkout over St Paul’s Central High School’s school-to-prison pipeline. Cal is also from Minneapolis, the place where Saleh grew up. But don’t define the performer by their character.

“I have noticed myself getting more feminine in the way I describe myself or act in real life because everybody who sees me out sees Cal,” they say. “I find myself trying to differentiate.” Saleh often finds themself seeking to defy definition or escape a box, especially in the music world where they make extremely lyrical, genre-defying records, like 2020’s Rosetta, a dark project that draws heavily on Saleh’s beginnings as a poet. They refuse the label of activist, even though they create projects that will benefit those impacted by the ongoing third civil war in Sudan. That need to avoid easy categorization does beg the question: How do they feel about being in VMAN, a men’s magazine?

Dua wears all clothing DIOR / Durag stylist’s own / Earrings MONDO MONDO / Rings PAUMÉ LOS ANGELES, O.P.P. JEWELRY

“Because I am transmasculine, it does feel more comfortable,” they say. “Being understood for my core masculinity is something that is really helpful and healing for the younger version of myself and even me currently where I’m in environments where people don’t quite understand what being nonbinary and being trans is. They don’t understand that trans masculinity can be something different than the Western portrayal of someone who is post-op.”

They continue, speaking eloquently and in a measured, but clearly studied tone about how these notions of masculinity connect with a longer history of gender fluidity on the continent of Africa that people are “often surprised by,” as the artist puts it —particularly within Sudan. “Let me not go too dark,” they say as the conversation segues into how Arab imperialism impacted gender-neutral body modification in that country. Right. Smooth brain. Just vibes.

Dua’s new single “unruly” featuring serpentwithfee is out now—take a listen to the new track, below!

This story appears in the pages of VMAN 52: now available for purchase!

Photography Daniel Sachon

Fashion Soki Mak

Grooming Michelle Harvey (Opus Beauty)

Executive producer Dan Cingari

Photo assistant Ryan Hacket

Stylist assistant Jack Wilson

Location Smashbox Studios 

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