In January of 2020, things looked bright for singer Snoh Nowrozi, better known as Snoh Aalegra. She was in the studio with the Neptunes working on the follow up to her critically-acclaimed sophomore album Ugh, Those Feels Again. The silky, emotive collection of soulful R&B earned praise from Pitchfork, Variety, and a headlining North American tour. This year she started working with her heroes, “that was one of my biggest dreams coming true, working with Chad and Pharrell. It was like everything I ever imagined,” she told Billboard. “Then lockdown happened. I felt really uninspired for a few months. Didn’t make any music. I tried to write from home, but I just didn’t feel it.” Searching for the right environment for her emotions to grow and thrive in has been a lifelong mission.
Born Shahrzad Fooladi in Enköping, Sweden, Aalegra’s childhood was quiet, but not without significant heartbreaks. Her father left Iran to study and look for work just before the Iranian revolution. Her mother joined him shortly after along with the rest of her family including aunts, uncles and cousins — one of whom, Izabelle Pourreza Wilson, is Aalegra’s current manager. Aalegra’s father, who taught math and science, was hesitant when she decided to pursue music seriously. “He was more conservative-minded,” she explains, “while my mom’s always been very liberal and free in her way of thinking.” Aalegra’s parents split when she was 2 years old, her mother worked hard to support her kids, writing poetry on the side and encouraging her artistic pursuits from a very young age. In 2009, Aaelgra’s father became ill and died shortly thereafter, a tragic loss she grappled with openly on her debut album Feels. “I wasn’t so close with my dad growing up … I think by the time that we did establish more of a healthy, normal relationship … I didn’t have much time left with him. That’s what made me write the song ‘Time,’” she explains. “Because I wish time never mattered. I wish I spent it more wisely with him.” To heal, and to process her feelings Aalegra has always turned to music.
She was a shy, introverted kid — a stark personality in the context of a large, boisterous Persian family. Her cousin Pourreza Wilson recalls childhood family gatherings, “it would always start with her being shy with the uncles and aunties, even though she saw them last weekend … And then as the night would proceed, she would start performing and entertaining,” she laughs. Aalegra says she knew she wanted to be an artist from a very young age, asking her mother for support and writing her own songs by the time she was nine. Mimicking her heroes — Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, Michael and Janet Jackson, a young Snoh Aalegra tried to write about love. “Growing up with Swedish and Farsi as my first languages, and then kind of learning English at the same time through TV and subtitles and school, I don’t know what the hell I was writing about.” A self-described day dreamer, she liked to disappear into her own imagination.
Enköping is a small town and in elementary school Aalegra’s Iranian features distinguished her from her peers, “I didn’t always feel like I fit in. I was probably one of the only immigrant kids in kindergarten,” she recalls. “As a kid, I was very self-conscious, I was uncomfortable in my own skin … As I grew older, I experienced a lot of bullying. I felt like music was kind of an escape for me,” she says. “It was like a friend.” So she held onto it, asking her mother to help her pursue her dream. At 13, she signed a development deal with Sony ATV in Sweden after her mother cold called record labels. She started high school in Stockholm and took the train to and from there to record on the weekends. They were some of the happiest memories of her early years with lots of time for daydreaming on the subway. She stayed in that contract until Sony and BMI merged, at which point the team she had signed with was fired and she took that as a sign to move on as well. She began modeling on the side through an agency run by a woman who befriended her mother, another immigrant who grew close to the family quickly. The woman expressed a desire to help Aalegra get back to music in a real way and started introducing her to producers and setting up recording sessions.
“I feel like I’ve always been a people-pleaser,” Aalegra laments. “I’ve always kind of been scared and naïve. If I could go back in time, there are a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done.” When Aalegra went to meet this family friend for coffee one day, she was surprised with a contract. She asked to have a lawyer review it on her behalf and the friend was offended, “she was like, ‘What do you need a lawyer for … you don’t trust me?’” Aalegra signed the contracts reluctantly, and quickly realized the error. Her team placed strict limitations on the creative control Snoh had, the connections she made and who she spoke to about her work. Her general disposition deteriorated. She felt trapped and unsure of how to move forward. “They were telling me they basically owned me, owned my life, for all eternity,” she explains. In her despair, she reached out to her cousin who had since moved to Los Angeles, and by that time was engaged to her now-husband Dion Wilson, better known as renowned producer No I.D.
“She wanted to quit right then,” recalls Pourreza Wilson. “She was coming to a point where she was not happy as a person. Forget about the career, she was feeling boxed-in, cornered.” She flew to Sweden to meet with the team that signed Aalegra. It became clear to her that Aalegra needed someone to advocate for her. For her older cousin, that instinct had been present since childhood. ““I always felt a strong calling to protect her, even as kids I would literally chase bullies away when we were out playing,” she laughs. She brought Aalegra to L.A. to take her mind off of things, and very naturally started introducing her to contacts in the industry, setting up sessions as a way to ease the anxiety and depression Aalegra was battling.
Talking with her husband, Pourreza Wilson was determined to find a manager who could help her cousin continue to grow. The pair have always shared a vision. Having such an intimate understanding of her personality and unique childhood, Pourreza Wilson helped Aalegra find the mental space to express her full self. No I.D. made the recommendation that seemed obvious to him, that his wife take on the management role herself. They started working together, and never looked back.
The management relationship was a key turning point in Nowrozi’s career, but the years that followed made her the artist she is today. She spent years traveling back and forth between London and Los Angeles, and continued to study the music she loved. She dove into the artists that influenced her heroes, “I got really into Aretha Franklin, because I knew Whitney was listening to her. I got into James Brown, because I knew Michael [Jackson] and Prince were into him. Sly and the Family Stone, it just all evolved,” she notes. Over time, she learned more about her own preferences and how to ask for what she needed, eventually settling in Los Angeles where she lives currently.
“It’s about creating a safe play pen for the creative,” says No I.D., who produced for Aalegra on her debut album Feels, and helped introduce her to collaborators including Vince Staples, Boi-1da and DJ Dahi. “That was my main goal with Snoh,” he continues. “It was to give her space, let her know it’s her space, and let her know she can do anything in her space that she wants to do. When you’re doing music, you mature over time and that space is very important for growth. You can be great and you can be talented. That doesn’t mean you will necessarily grow.”
Aalegra is a hard worker, and a self-described perfectionist. When she released Ugh, Those Feels Again, the fans, and the media started to recognize the vision she had worked to share since she was a girl. “When I was making [that album] I was in a really good head space,” Aalegra explains. “I was single, doing my own thing, becoming even more one with myself. Even when I was reflecting on the past, writing about things that were hurtful I was laughing making those songs in the studio.” She admits she had been working her way out of a kind of depression when she made Don’t Explain and Feels. Making Ugh was like a reprieve. One of the things that helped her find the space to let go was a relationship with her friend and mentor Prince.
He discovered her around three years before he died. “We had kind of a student-mentor relationship … I got to travel with him to certain places to see him perform very up close, really study him,” she recalls. “He taught me a lot, and he always told me that I should be myself all the way and not let anybody change me. He taught me that I’m good the way I am. And as cliche as that sounds, it was the best piece of advice that he could give me.”
In such a challenging and unique year, Aalegra has continued to nurture the relationships that make her feel light. Due to travel restrictions, she hasn’t been touring and has not been able to see her family, most of whom still live in Sweden. She doesn’t have a green card yet and wouldn’t be able to get back into the U.S. if she made the trip to Europe. So in her down time she returns to the thing that helped her through difficult times in her childhood, daydreaming. When asked what she dreams about lately, she laughs, “I daydream about having a family soon. Finding true love. I’m single, and that’s the missing puzzle piece.” With a cheeky grin, and knowing ode to her hard-earned optimism she adds, “maybe not by the time this interview is out. I don’t know. You never know.”