Denmark 2024: Saba
Photo: William Green

Saba from Denmark: "I love being the underdog"

INTERVIEW Growing up as a black queer girl from Ethiopia in a small town in Denmark certainly wasn't easy for Saba. Despite mental illness and stressful preparations, Saba feels strong and is ready to represent Denmark at Eurovision 2024 with the song "Sand"

Anna Saba Lykke Oehlenschlæger, or simply Saba, was born in 1997 in Ethiopia. When she was only 8-months-old, she and her twin sister, Andrea, were adopted by a Danish couple.

Growing up as two black girls in the small town Ringkøbing in Denmark wasn't easy. As soon as they moved to Copenhagen, Andrea pursued a singing career that became rather successful, whereas Saba started off as a model.

A few years later, Saba decided to start investing in her singing career as well, and even replaced her sister in the musical "Hair" when she became pregnant. That was certainly one of the triggers that opened the doors to where she is now: representing Denmark in the Eurovision Song Contest 2024.

– Watching the Eurovision Song Contest has always been a tradition in my family. I've watched it since I was a little child, and it has always been a dream of mine to be on such a massive stage, Saba says.

– But I work with a lot of different projects so I wouldn't say I've worked towards this exact moment. It was only when I heard "Sand" that I knew it was time.

Denmark 2024: Saba – "Sand"

"Sand" was written by the two Eurovision "experts," Jonas Thander and Melanie Wehbe, as well as the singer-songwriter Pil (Pil Kalinka Nygaard Jeppesen). It was through mutual connections that Saba was offered the song:

– When I heard it the first time, I was smiling. I knew it was a good option and I knew my voice would fit in it. I remember thinking it was nice, different and I just had a good feeling about it.

She goes on to share there was a second song that they considered, but in the end they decided that "Sand" would be the best option:

– I also recorded one other song that was also great, but not for now... Who knows, maybe for another year?

Was it tough to relate to the song?

– I didn't write it and therefore it was important for me to feel connected to it. I have dealt a lot with mental illness in my life. That was the key element. For me, the song is about losing control and feeling like the thing you try to hold on to the most slips through your fingers, she says.

– I know that Melanie wrote it about an ex-partner, but for me it was about losing control over a situation and trying to rebuild it with sand. That was the picture for me and how I could find that desperation in it.

Saba's first music project

Eurovision is Saba's first real project as a music artist and it's not an easy one. With it comes a lot of attention, a lot of responsibility, a lack of sleep, and no time for other things.

Why did it feel like the right moment to invest in your singing career?

– It has always been a huge part of my life so it was kind of natural and not planned, but I love to perform and to be on stage maybe because I am a Leo, she jokes.

– I think it was just a matter of time. Replacing my sister in the musical "Hair" was also important.

Eurovision is a bit different...

– Definitely. In Eurovision, you have one shot to do it right, but in a musical you get to do it everyday. You have more time to get better, more people to support you, and I feel like in Eurovision it all depends on what I do on that stage. But luckily I have a great team behind me and people who have done this before, so I feel safe.

Melanie Wehbe, for example, has attempted to do Eurovison before and managed to get a few songs in the contest such as "Love Is Forever":

– It was so nice having her in the green room with me in MGP and she'll be in Malmö as my backing vocalist, so it's good to have someone who knows how this works. That will calm me down.

Having a sister who is also a musician is another positive aspect:

– She has been performing for so many years so she knows a lot about it. Not only things related with music such as vocals or performances but also about life stress which sometimes is hard to manage.

– Because we are twins, we deal with stress in a similar way so she knows me very well. She can almost prepare me for how I will feel because she has already felt it. It's nice to have someone who knows you that well.

Besides the good advice from her songwriters and her sister, Saba sees a psychologist often who she talks with and meditates with a lot. Staying fit, eating well, and sleeping are her main priorities:

– It's hard to prepare mentally for what's to come, maybe impossible, because it's way more than I actually expected it to be... in a good way.

– But you also have to deal with a lot of stress.

It was Saba's idea to do Eurovision:

– I remember I was at a hotel's lobby in Denmark watching last year's Eurovision and it just hit me that my turn could be coming and I felt like I wanted to do it.

From Melodi Grand Prix to Eurovision

From that moment on she worked to get where she is right now. She recorded the song, eventually got shortlisted for the show, but admits she didn't expect to win regardless of the reassurance from the polls or from the bookmakers:

– It wasn't easy coping with the expectations, I love being the underdog, she says.

– Being the favorite to win makes people look at you in a different way because they're literally expecting something from you, so it was tough dealing with the nerves but I truly didn't expect to win, I was shocked.

The performance of "Sand" in the Danish Melodi Grand Prix was simple. Saba was standing on a podium, wearing a white outfit and remained there for the entire show. For Eurovision, things will change:

– There'll be a significant amount of changes. It will still be based on what you have already seen but I will be moving a little bit more and we'll have a bigger podium because, of course, it's a bigger stage. Everything will be scaled up.

– I will continue to be by myself on stage.

Being the favorite to win makes people look at you in a different waySaba

Is it intimidating?

– A little, but I will be fine. I hope I get to deliver a good vocal and that people look at it as a nice performance and maybe even look at me as courageous for being alone up there like, "Wow, she did that alone!"

Are you nervous about the possibility of not qualifying for the Final?

– I am actually not that nervous right now because I feel like if I do what I expect myself to do, I will be fine, but we'll see. I will do the best I can and I obviously want to qualify, not only for myself but also for my team, she explains.

– I don't exactly have a goal with my participation. This was just an idea and an intuition. I felt like I was ready for this and that I wanted to represent Denmark. I want to do it for the people who share a similar background as me so they can feel mirrored.

A story to inspire others

Her story is one of a kind. Besides being born in Ethiopia and moving to Denmark when she was a baby, Saba is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and identifies as queer. A few factors society still has a hard time accepting:

– Eurovision is about getting together as nations, people, families, friends, and a place where you can be yourself. It's nice to be a part of a community where people appreciate differences.

– It'd be weird for me to not talk about such causes coming into this. I feel like it's very important to be open about things and when I share my struggles, I hope I can help others battle their own fights but bringing those topics isn't something I decided to do, it's something I just naturally do, she says.

We're reaching the end of our conversation, and to wrap up we speak about the songs at this year's Eurovision. We agree that it's quite a competitive year:

– It really is... I love France's "Mon Amour" and the vibe of the Greek song, its ethnic elements are so cool. I also love the Belgian song and Ukraine.

Saba will represent Denmark in Eurovision 2024 with the song "Sand." She'll take the stage in the second Semi-final held on 9 May.

About the author: Pedro Santos (Portugal)

authorPedro comes from Lisbon, Portugal. He's 30 years old and graduated in journalism. He has attended Eurovision Song Contest three times live - 2018, 2019 and 2022 - and covered the show twice more (2021, 2023) but his first Eurovision memory takes him back to 2007 when Sarbel delivered his catchy "Yassou Maria" performance. Pedro's favorite Eurovision song is Albania's 2015 "I'm Alive" by Elhaida Dani which is also his favorite Eurovision edition.

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