Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Rap Music in Sudan

The youth revolution that swept the world in the 1960s had a clear influence on Sudanese urban music, as evidenced by the considerable openness to the Western orchestra (through the musical instruments and rhythms used).

At the same time, that revolution reduced the influence of Arabic music in terms of composition, rhythms, orchestration and performance.

The bands that emerged in popular and poor neighbourhoods at the time and the musicians who chose to play brass instruments, pianos, accordions, electric guitars and drums were referred as singers and Jazz bands. Jazz bands such as the groups of Sharhabil Ahmad, Kamal Kila and the Scorpion Band, are some of the most famous of these, although they did not adhere to the traditional jazz conventions but rather developed a hybrid style that suited Sudanese tastes and identity.

The jazz bands were, however, unable to gain airtime on radio and television despite the general musical openness at the time. The residents of the capital Khartoum had been accustomed to al-Haqibah, a musical style derived from the neighbouring city of Omdurman that was prevalent until the late 1950s.

The style was named after a radio show called Haginat Alfan (‘arts bag’), which was known for playing this type of music. Prominent singers of al-Haqibah followed the Arab style, which was characterized by extended lyrics and complex compositions, unlike the jazz bands that used short poems and simple melodies, attracting new audiences in popular theatres and public squares.

As the music of the 1960s was influenced by the global youth revolution, so the music of the new millennium has been influenced by the emergence of digital technology, both in terms of composition and dissemination. Just like the jazz bands emerged in poor neighbourhoods and made their way to popular theatres, rap music was popularized by young people who had traditional and technical capabilities, enabling them to reach other young people via digital platforms.

If the rap music that emerged in poor American neighbourhoods can be considered an extension of the ideas of the civil rights movements in the 1960s, considers the state and its institutions to be gangs in all but name, and seeks to expose social contradictions by confronting them with the logic of power, then this can explain the spread of rap in the Arab world in the wake of the 2011 uprisings. Other factors include the ease of production, the use of simple language that can be widely understood, the power to communicate intellectual or revolutionary content and the prominence of words over music.

Music- Rap in Sudan
The Nightingales — Sudan’s best-loved girl band — perform at a concert in the capital, Khartoum, on April 29, 2016. Photo AFP

The emergence of rap in Sudan was accelerated by the political and social imbalances in the country following the secession of South Sudan in 2011, and seems to be more revolutionary and capable of addressing these imbalances than other prevailing music styles. As a result, rap has become popular among young people, particularly amid the intensifying civil action aimed at overthrowing the regime, which has responded with strict measures that could go as far as killing activists.

In light of these conditions, rap music has been enriched by many rappers who have relied on digital technology to publish scores of Sudanese songs in a short period of time, posting songs on YouTube, SoundCloud, Facebook, WhatsApp and other sites and media.

Among the more popular of these rappers are Nawawe, Ali G.x, Abu al-Niz, MAX, Mohab-Mo-3 and A.o.A. Although the majority is influenced by international rappers, the songs produced vary in quality, with most of them mixing local dialects with British and American accents.

However, these songs tend to address issues that are relevant to the Sudanese youth, such as political and economic corruption, education, health, drug proliferation, love and marriage.

One can feel the frenzied competition in the digital content and official festivals and contests that are sponsored by companies, such as the Hip Hop Night Sudan annual festival, the Jin Hip Hop Championship as well as unofficial festivals held at Sudanese universities and in public squares. This is in addition to regional competitions.

Despite the high output produced by rap music, rap continues to be played exclusively by young people and its reach is limited because it relies almost completely on websites and digital media in a country where less than 30 per cent of the population has internet access. Besides, like jazz music before it, rap music has not gained acceptance on television, radio and the media in general in a conservative society.

This is particularly because the cultural characteristics of hip hop, including the clothing and dance style, graffiti and often obscene language, clash with Sudanese customs and traditions. Similarly, rap has been linked with the Nega gangs, which have emerged in recent years to terrorize the residents of Khartoum, making rap music closer to gang songs.

Even the rappers themselves have varied positions about what they produce. Some of them believe that customs and traditions should be respected and that music should not represent a social clash. Others consider that true freedom of expression necessarily means a social clash. They also have mixed positions on the future of rap music. Some of them are optimistic while others are pessimistic.

Rapper Muhammad Imad believes that rap conveys messages and can reform society, and that most rap songs address the main issues and concerns of the society in which they are created. They also say that rap was not initially welcomed by society but that society has now changed its perception of rap music, and even Sudanese women now listen to it.

The main problem lies in the failure of the media to promote these creative people because the media focuses on all types of artistic expression except rap music.

Sudan has several musical associations, including the General Sudanese Union for Music Professions, the Association of Popular Singers and the Sudanese Association of Modern and Jazz Bands. However, there is no association for rap music.

Rappers have so far failed to find enough common ground to form an association, raising concerns among some that they have no body to represent their interests. Could a Sudanese Hip Hop Cultural Association play a role in this in the future?