Rap Is the Next Chapter of Sudan’s Sonic Story

Young artists are capturing the pain of displacement and the joy of their culture as the diaspora gives the genre a boost

Rap Is the Next Chapter of Sudan’s Sonic Story
Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, also known as Oddisee, performs at the Sasquatch! Music Festival in George, Washington, in 2016. (Suzi Pratt/WireImage)

In 1924, the Sudanese educator and poet Obeid Abdul Nur wrote a poem titled “Umm Dhafayir” (“The Lady With the Pleated Hair”). A robustly anti-colonial call to action, the lyrics urged young Sudanese to stand up against the British, because “keeping quiet is not right” and the occupation had brought nothing but “shame and humiliation” to Sudanese people.

Although not strictly music, the poem “Umm Dhafayir” was likely shared orally, recited like a ballad, repeated as if song. It is an early example of Sudanese protest canonized into lyrics, of art capturing a moment like a sonic image. The poem became a kind of ur-ballad, inspiring other renowned protest songs including Mohammed Wardi’s “Green October,” commemorating the October 1964 revolution and the country’s transition from military to civilian rule.

Today, the embers of yet another revolution smolder amid the war raging against civilians. Over 8 million people in Sudan have been displaced from their homes since April 2023, when the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces began an assault on the Sudanese Armed Forces. Cities and towns have been destroyed and residents scattered, abused and violated. Some 14,000 people are reported to have been killed, although the real number is estimated to be much higher.

Survival remains the primary objective for those on the ground, who find themselves escaping unfathomable sexual violence, fatal hunger and a myriad of fates worse than death. Some 70% of the nation’s hospitals are out of service, and more than half the population — 25 million — are in dire need of aid. The scale is almost incomprehensible, yet one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world remains elusive, largely ignored by the world’s media.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the trauma and wrenching transformation of fortune — a mere five years ago, Sudan’s successful uprising was seen as a beacon of hope — music has reemerged as a primary vehicle for communion, from furious protest to nostalgic salve, soothing the wounds of loss and tragedy. “Ma rajie, ana laya matalib,” the Sudanese singer Sammany peals in his viral song, “Matalib.” (“I’m not going back, I have demands.’”) More than a sum of its parts, music is the sound of a people, and right now, one of the most compelling sounds emerging from Sudan and its diaspora is rap.

Sudanese people embody the ethos that rap is so famous for, Amir Mohamed el Khalifa, also known as Oddisee, told New Lines. Raised in Washington, D.C., the Sudanese-American rapper and record producer has been making music for over a decade and is known as one of the earliest Sudanese diaspora artists to record in English. Primarily influenced by Black American musical traditions, for Oddisee the story of Sudan fits right into the themes and narratives of the genre. While Sudanese rappers may not have accumulated the wealth of their American counterparts, Oddissee said, “We really are from the bottom, we really are from the struggle, and we really are still a beautiful people, regardless of what we’ve experienced.”

Liberated from decades of state social control, the generation making work in the aftermath of the 2018-19 revolution that deposed the dictator Omar Al Bashir brought forth a renaissance of film, art and music. Murals mushroomed across the walls of Khartoum, galleries burst with provocative paintings and sculptures, young curators made their debuts on the international scene. New music, now uncensored, circulated on the airwaves and in WhatsApp groups.

“It had never happened before,” political rapper A.G. Nimeri told New Lines, because “we’d never had a voice.” After the uprising, things looked different. “What these new Sudanese rappers are doing? It’s creative. It’s diverse people and languages. It’s cool. It’s us.”

A.G.’s own song “Sudan Bidoon Keizan” (“Sudan Without Keizan” — Islamist supporters of Al Bashir) was one of the rallying cries of the revolution: “No racism, no tribalism / our backward traditions / abandon them,” he rapped. The fierce piece took the bold step of calling out individual military leaders, like Salah Gosh, the former head of the notorious Sudanese intelligence services, and linking each to the atrocities they supposedly committed — “Sudan without sons of Gosh / who raped and invaded homes.”

During the old regime, such speech was met with deadly consequences, but “when the revolution came,” Nimeri said, “I was like, it’s our time. We need to speak up. Go home, or die. There’s nothing else.” This fearlessness caught on, emboldening Sudanese artists to speak truth to power through verse in Sudan and in the diaspora.

“My father was killed by the National Congress Party regime before I was born, so I have always had a passion for making songs about the revolution against the government,” Sudanese-born rapper Blak-Ram told New Lines. Raised in the U.K. by his single mother, Blak-Ram had been writing antiregime songs for years before the successful uprising. Still, it was A.G. Nimeri’s song that inspired him to “name-drop war criminals” in his song “Green for Darfur,” with lines like “Armed by the center Musa Hilal was sent ta / render death to dissenters as he entered,” referencing one of the militia leaders responsible for the Darfur genocide in the early 2000s.

As the counterrevolutionary war enters its second year, the optimism of 2019 has all but evaporated. The explosion of musical talent, however, shows little sign of abating. New avenues for artists to reach audiences have developed, evolving as fluidly as the political situation they are now escaping. One such arena is that of “Rap Shar3,” an innovative street rap platform founded by Egyptian artist and curator Nour el Din, also known as Black B.

Along with co-owner Omar Mado, at each session el Din brings together a select group of largely undiscovered artists and hands them the mic. Rap Shar3’s popular Sudanese edition featured 13 rappers, mostly in their early 20s, whose cyphers reflect the potent mix of the political and the personal.

Hyper249’s viral Rap Shar3 hit “Kanet Ayam Ya Watany” (“Those Were Days, My Country”) encapsulates this heady combination. “They slayed our country, split her inheritance, swore to protect her with their dirty hands,” he spits over a familiar beat, before taking aim at the belligerents behind the war. “F— Hemedti, f— the khaki, f— the day that brought you here.” Such profanity is uncommon in Sudanese rap, and the use of English swear words is a new trend, emphasizing the anger and frustration felt by many. Given the scale of destruction, “a lot of us don’t care that much anymore and have no problem saying anything,” said Blak-Ram. Curiously, any swearing that does appear tends to be in English rather than Arabic, suggesting that Arabic profanity is still considered somewhat taboo.

On the second verse, Hyper begins with sweet nostalgia referencing songs of old — “I wanna sleep on the porch, I wanna drink from the well / I wanna eat bosh, agashe on Nile street” — before switching to directly address those listening: “Stay strong / like a hanger on the bus / here you won’t die alone / we will die along with you.”

Like that of Obeid Abdul Nur a century ago, Hyper’s poetry is evocative, rousing and powerful, and while the enemy might be different, the desire for liberation is a constant refrain. His music builds on the work of diaspora emcees like Bas and Ayman Mao and joins a raft of sharp contemporaries like Flippter, Soulja, Tageel and Dafencii.

Twenty-two-year-old Dafencii, born Omar Bin Mohammed Alfadel, is a key one to watch, blending observational lyricism with witty wordplay, cleverly combining Arabic, English and the Sudanese youth dialect, randok. His 2021 song “RKSHA” laid out people’s prewar economic challenges with trademark Sudanese irreverence: “Doctor with his certificate / working driving raksha [tuk tuk] / bringing in income / more than the hospital.” Rapping about the price of bread (“Bread’s at 10 and you can’t find it easy / forget it”) and the widespread poverty (“Everybody in this country / dead beat broke”), Dafencii eventually sighs, “Oh, Sudan we want you, but you’re the one to refuse.”

More recently, his short single “Tarat al-Tayara” (“The Plane Flew”) spoke directly to the reality of war (“You blew up our house / stole our oil / God help us now”) between distorted audio clips from news reports. The effect is of a live archive, capturing the surreal loop of war through rhyme and repetition (“The plane flew / it flew / it flew / the plane flew / it blew”).

The use of Sudanese dialect makes these tracks distinctly nostalgic, say listeners. Randok is the argot of schools, universities and the streets, music one of the few forums able to capture its spry character. ‘“I primarily listen to Sudanese rap now,” said Mai Abusalih, who grew up in Sudan and recently relocated to the U.S. “I can’t seem to stop because it’s the only thing that seems to soothe my homesickness.” Mai told New Lines that songs like Soulja’s “Ayam” (“Days”) give her solace. Lyrics like “The path of parting / the path of tears / the one shot path / without return” help her deal with the keen sense of loss.

Soulja raps about the mass displacement Sudanese people have faced since the outbreak of the war (“You tell me go start from zero somewhere else”) while lamenting at the choices that brought them here: “We oppress those who love us and we want those who oppress us.” While it presents no clear solution, Mai appreciates the honesty in Soulja’s lyrics. ‘There is some comfort in hearing about how he’s dealing with his grief that helps with mine,” she said.

It is telling that since the war began, some rappers are choosing to focus on internal emotions rather than politics. A.G. Nimeri regards this as intentional. He noticed that people were beginning to side with different factions, and wanting to speak to all, he released “Khalia Be Niya” (“Leave It With Intention”). A.G. told New Lines he wanted to say that this song is “more about you, not them” — “them” being the battling belligerents.

“It’s saying don’t worry; we will work it out.” (“Tomorrow we’ll rebuild / don’t worry yourself.”)

A.G. is strident in his love for Sudan, but his assessment of the revolutionary musical landscape is sobering. Much of the audience who responded to such music is either “dead, unaware [of new music], or unable to get online.” Further, A.G. said, those whom he is singing for — in Sudan — want to forget their struggles. “They want to laugh; they want to have fun” and are less interested in being put through the same traumas again.

That being said, Nimeri is confident that “Sudanese rap is here to stay.” This was a genre that Sudanese audiences made fun of less than a decade ago, but now “they can’t live without it.” A glance through Spotify’s popular “Sudan Sounds” playlist confirms this, highlighting the plethora of Sudanese rappers continuing to write and record tracks, speaking to themselves, each other, and those outside Sudan, writing the sonic history of Sudan into existence.

I asked Alsarah, a Sudanese-American singer-songwriter who has researched Sudanese music over the years, what she thinks the future of Sudanese music might be like, given the massive change, the unprecedented displacement of people, within Sudan and around the world. Is it rap? Or something else?

“I think it’s still up for grabs,” she said. “We’re watching strong centers of diaspora get created right now in East Africa, Uganda and Nairobi, versus older diaspora who went to the Emirates and stayed there.” And within Sudan, the change might create an entirely new face for the country.

“Because Khartoum has completely fallen apart, we are now going to move towards an era where the internally displaced in Sudan are creating centers in places we didn’t have infrastructure before, which automatically means exposure to communities we didn’t meet. I want a future for us where we know so much about each other’s tribes. Everyone should know at least 10 songs from 10 different regions. That should just be a part of your like, cultural canon. Maybe one of the great things that will come out of this is that we finally start to meet each other.”

To paraphrase Hyper, “Those would be the days, my country.”

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