Turning Their Lives Around

Two men from Guinea meet on the subway and form an unbreakable musical bond

 

 It could have been fate or it could have been blind luck — regardless, Abdul Diallo and Salif Soumah found each other.

The two grew up merely blocks apart in Conakry, Guinea, but they did not meet until a year and half ago in the Bronx. Both men were heading home on the 6 train. Soumah overheard Diallo speaking in Su Su, the dialect they share. They immediately struck up a conversation and became fast friends.

The bond has grown over music. Soumah and Diallo share the same goal: improve their lives through song. They feel they have to make it, be successful, although their version of success is predicated to making a name for themselves in their native land.

“We’ve got to conquer home first before working outside,” Diallo said.

Since November 2012, the two have partnered to form Guilty Innocent. They conduct the same daily routine in Soumah’s small garage apartment. I was recently invited to such a session. Before they started rehearsing, the singers sat down on opposite sides of the room, separated by Soumah’s bed. They listened to songs they had already recorded. They’ve already recorded 41 tracks, enough for four albums.

Their sound is a mixture of hip-hop, reggae, R&B, and modern West African music like influences Alpha Blondie, Salif Keita, and Youssou N’Dour– it combines components of each format with the unifier of a consistent reggae hop and a driving baseline. Then their voices flashed onto the song. Soumah sings with a soft, innocent tone. That’s before he started to rap. Soumah’s flow was rapid but smooth, whether spitting in Su Su or French.

Diallo provided the metronome for the group, coursing in well-timed choruses that hummed in the heavy bass, getting lost. His voice carried a more gravely tone, complementing Soumah well.

“I haven’t heard anybody do what we do,” Diallo said.

The duo played a couple more songs, before Soumah switched to instrumental tracks. They started to perform right in front of me in perfect harmony. They worked together so well, that I forgot I was not listening to a recording until Soumah dropped my name in a shout out at the end of the record.

Diallo said Guilty Innocent will “vibe” for hours putting together songs. Like American influences Lil Wayne and Jay Z, Soumah and Diallo refuse to write anything down because it stifles their creativity.  Repetition is the key to their fluid delivery.

Guilty Innocent performs predominantly in French and Su Su, with some English sprinkled in. I don’t speak French or Su Su. The duo told me about what a few of their songs were about.

One of their songs is about an orphan being overworked and mistreated by an adopted parent, an event both Soumah and Diallo said they witnessed in Guinea. The chorus is “forgive, forgive” which would be a beautiful message in English, but is heartbreaking in Su Su.

“You’re the ambassador of the quiet ones,” DiAllo said of the reason for the song’s message.

One of the group’s favorite songs is a direct note to Soumah’s lost love in Conakry, telling her he is thinking of her.

“I loved her and she loved me, a lot, but her family, they don’t like me,” he said.

In Guinea, family is important, making familial permission equally important. The couple would be unable to elope, the stigma of disobedience inescapable.

The group’s most autobiographical song is about loving your homeland but being unable to return. This is the dynamic that makes their music compelling. At one time, music is way for both men to connect with their spiritual homeland. Yet, the music is also uniquely American, being more hip-hop than anything else. A glance at Diallo’s CD collection, which includes every Nas and Jay Z album with a few West African favorites mixed in, illuminates this dichotomy.

This paradox is especially conflicting to Diallo. Diallo has lived in New York City since 1999. He came to “the land of opportunity” as he calls it chasing college admission. Then he ran out of money. Since, he has been living week-to-week working 12 hours a day, five days a week, at a fast food restaurant in Manhattan. He worked his way up from dishwasher and porter. When he first came to America he could not speak any English.

“I used to order chicken by flapping my arms,” he said.

A similarity between Diallo and Soumah is that they come from middle class families. Diallo’s father is a retired police officer in Guinea. His sisters are cops. He has many nephews and cousins who are cops. Diallo could have easily joined the police force. His father’s original vision was for Diallo to practice law, “because I talk too much,” he said. His father hates the idea of DiAllo doing music. Soumah’s father actually talked to the elder Diallo to get him to ease up on his son.

Soumah’s father is an Imam, the leader of the Islamic faith for his Mosque. The elder Soumah is not particularly fond of his son dedicating himself to music either. Both Soumah and Diallo are going against a family establishment.

“I did not want to follow his foot steps, “Diallo said. “I wanted something outside of the box.”

Soumah has lived in New York for the past five years. He also came to the United States for college, attending for two years before his finances were depleted. Now, he is the bouncer at a Manhattan strip club. He was not specific about his job duties. He put it like this:

“You have to be strong to do those things and then overcome them.”

Music is a release, it is a passion, and it is the ticket to something better. Guilty Innocent having been playing shows about once every three weeks, including a festival Oct. 6 in Crotona Park. Diallo is looking to set up a recording session in the recent future.

Because both men have waited this long, they are not in a rush. They are willing to slowly get better, the confidence they have built in each other fueling them to continue grinding out their days in anticipation of nights where music is waiting.

“To get what you want you have to be strong,” Soumah said. 

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