/ 17 March 2010

Sudan’s capital sways to hip hop

It’s hip hop night in the Sudanese capital and the crowd is ready to boogie as the DJ spins his turntable and the rapper from the war-torn Western Darfur region belts out his lyrics.

The scene being played out in a Western cultural centre in the heart of Khartoum would have been unimaginable after the Islamist-backed coup that brought President Omar al-Beshir to power more than 20 years ago.

The Islamist resurgence that rose in the wake of the June 1989 military coup dealt a fatal blow to popular music, but once-banned gigs are now back and kicking, albeit discreetly.

Ever since the Khartoum government in the north signed a peace agreement with the mostly Christian south five years ago, musicians have been fine-tuning their acts.

“Hip hop is a novelty here, even if it is recognised around the world. But we’re starting to pick it up thanks to television and the Americans,” said Metwalli as he swayed to the music on a recent Thursday night.

“We’re trying to copy their gestures,” the tall young man added, flashing a big grin.

Metwalli was among around 100 men and women who thronged the once-a-month gathering organised by a Western cultural centre in Khartoum to listen to professional and amateur rappers with names such as Mc Mo.

“Here hip hop music is somewhat underground,” said Mc Mo, a dentist by day who becomes a rapper at night.

But the real star of the evening is undoubtedly Abbas Annoor, a young artist born in Darfur who now lives in Khartoum where he sings in Arabic and French about the devastating seven-year conflict plaguing his home town.

“Far from my country, I have lost all taste for life. I love you, my native land, I cry for you every night, but no one ever asks me a ‘su’al’,” he sings, using the Arabic word for “question”.

The young rapper, in a white NBA Denver Nuggets T-shirt and cap, may not yet be able to match the international fame of rappers such as former South Sudan child soldier Emmanuel Jal, but he does know how to inspire an audience.

Men and women who had been timidly sitting on Chinese-made plastic chairs rose and formed a circle around Annoor, clapping and dancing to the rhythm of the music blaring from loudspeakers.

‘Each time we attract a bigger crowd’
Some young men tried their hand at break-dancing as women wearing fashionable Western clothes shed their inhibitions to sway their hips and glide across the dance floor.

“We try to do our best to get people out and about, and to persuade young and old alike to come and see what we do,” said Annoor. “Each time we attract a bigger crowd.”

Annoor and rappers like him in Sudan have yet to make their mark on a local music scene that is dominated by more traditional trends, unlike some of their compatriots who have moved away and made a name for themselves abroad.

Jal is probably the best known of these. He spent his childhood fighting in his native southern Sudan before ending up in the care of a British aid worker who took him to Kenya when he was in his early teens.

Another compatriot who has embraced a career in music is Samy Deluxe, a German hip hop artist of Sudanese origin. And on a recent weekend, American hip hop artist K-Young played his first gig in Khartoum.

Young Sudanese rappers have a strong ally in Mamoun Mansour, head of programmes at the private Mango radio station in Khartoum which broadcasts Arab and international music and hip hop.

“We’re trying to promote these artists, to give them a platform,” Mansur said. “Hip hop is trendy. There is hip hop in Arabic and in English and many small, underground studios where artists can record.

“But the problem is not to record a track, the problem is to release it and find a market for it,” he added.

Sudan’s rappers sing of love, politics and everyday life, but unlike their brothers and sisters in New York, Dakar or other capitals around the globe they must be careful not to upset the authorities with their lyrics.

“If there are songs that speak the truth, I sing them in French” instead of Sudan’s native Arabic, Annoor said.

Last year popular artist Taha Suleiman made a hit with Mushkilat (“Problems” in Arabic), a song launched after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Beshir for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

The song was about Sudan under fire from the international justice system.

In the run-up to the country’s first presidential and legislative election in 24 years next month, however, rappers are currently keeping their tunes politics-free. — AFP