At the start of the 1960s, Sudanese musicians began incorporating Western influences in their compositions. Brass instruments, accordions, electric guitars, violins, synths and pianos, accentuated by drum kits, produced a hybrid sound of jazz and blues that was widely loved.
Coinciding with the global youth movements of the time, ranging from the anti-colonial struggle to post-independence instability, the youth embraced the music and went on to influence the socio-political sphere.
Also referred to as the ‘Golden Era’, this period produced a number of legendary singers such as Mohammed Wardi. However, the imposition of sharia law in 1983 dealt a blow to the creative industry, but against all odds, another generation of young people started embracing the music of the time – hip hop .
This overview text explores the history and current state of hip hop music in Sudan.
Due to Sudan’s long history of political instability and Islamic censorship, limited hip hop activity took place until the late 1990s. Banned in 2004 by the authorities for being political, pioneering hip hop group, Nas Jota, fled the country. This would later help create a vibrant diasporic Sudanese hip hop community scattered across the world, mainly in the Middle East and the US .
Likewise, back in Sudan, there was a growing hip hop community with an active scene before the 2011 South Sudanese independence referendum. There was a weekly open mic show at Papa Costa Restaurant in the capital Khartoum between 2007 and 2009, with cultural organisations such as the British Council and Goethe-Institut also giving rappers like Abdulgader Yasir, aka Gadoora, a platform.
A British Council project titled Words and Pictures (WAPI), in partnership with the Ministry of Culture and Goethe-Institut, brought together several upcoming artists from across the country to stage small, weekly concerts in Khartoum . During that period, the country was at war, as the southern part, predominantly black and Christian, waged war against the Khartoum government, predominantly Arab and Muslim, over discrimination and segregation.
In 2010, as the country geared up for a referendum to determine the independence of the south, Nas Jota released an album titled Sudan Votes Music Hopes, which is arguably Sudan’s first major hip hop recording.
Nas Jota followed up the release with a song titled ‘La Dictatorship’, which was further amplified by United Arab Emirates-based rapper Moawia Ahmed Khalid. In response, the Omar al-Bashir government banned their songs and targeted their Sudan-based protégés .
In the southern part, rappers discovered by the WAPI project, such as Geng Dulwa and Emmanuel Jal, as well as several others who were dispersed by the war, found their creative abilities living in exile and in refugee camps .
The government’s high-handedness was only amplified following the secession of the south, which gave rappers like Emmanuel Jal a new nationality.
Impact of the Arab Spring
As a wave of youth-led protests swept across the Arab world in 2011, Arabic hip hop became a major driving force for political change. Young people in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Libya and Syria, among other Arab countries, capitalised on the sudden freedom to express their discontent towards authoritarian governments while highlighting social and political imbalances. The youth were now speaking bluntly and weaving revolutionary and intellectual content in their lyrics while speaking truth to power.
There was a proliferation of home-made music videos and songs from the Arab world, thanks to digital tools and social media, which greatly popularised hip hop as the voice of the youth .
In Sudan, the government maintained its decades-long control over the airwaves as rappers became critical voices, both locally and in the diaspora, after finding an audience on social media and streaming platforms like ReverbNation and Audiomack. US-based acts like Oddisee and Nas Jota as well as home talents TooDope and Flippter were increasingly leading the way in using social media to get their message across. In 2018, diasporic acts such as Nas Jota and Ayman Mao picked lessons from the Arab Spring and encouraged protesters to overwhelm the al-Bashir government. After the military overthrew the dictator in 2019, several artists in the diaspora returned home to hold concerts .
Hip hop today
Despite the growing acceptance of hip hop among the youth, the is still a negative public perception of the genre due to Sudan’s conservative leanings. However, this has presented an opportunity for artists to use their music to convey messages that address themes like peace, love, freedom, hope, unemployment and women’s rights.
Hip hop has also made a bigger appearance on Sudanese media, with a growing number TV and radio stations aligning themselves with younger demographics and incorporating hip hop as part of their programming. Radio stations such as Capital 91.6 FM, Vision 103 FM and Pro 106.6 FM are some of the leading supporters of hip hop in Sudan.
Sudan’s musical traditions have largely been informed by Arabic and Muslim traditions. As a country that has always subscribed to stricter interpretations of Islamic law, music in Sudan has generally served religious purposes, meaning that women’s contribution or participation in the art form was and is still discouraged, if not restricted altogether .
Couple this with post-independence civil wars and authoritarian military regimes that generally frown upon artistic expression, and one can get a sense of the complicated relationship the country has had with its musicians, both men and women .
But despite well-documented religious and political censorship, female musicians’ voices in the country’s social, political and cultural spaces has never been completely silenced .
Women have actively contributed to Sudanese musical heritage even before the country’s modern history. Their contribution took various roles such as singing, dancing, playing instruments, composing, reciting verses, and more.
One of the earliest known female musicians was Mihera Bint Abboud, a 19th century poet said to have led the charge against the 1820-24 Turco-Egyptian invasion of Sudan with a rousing performance that fired up demoralised troops.
Later on, women like Aisha Musa Ahmad, better known as Aisha al-Falatiya, would develop their own styles based on traditional musical forms. Al-Falatiya is regarded as one of the first modern Sudanese female singers, whose career began in the 1940s. Despite facing huge resistance in the early stages of her career, she went on to record more than 150 songs and achieved popularity as far as Egypt.
She, too, played the role of wartime musician in 1942 during the Second World War when she sang to uplift the morale in the camps of the Sudan Defence Forces , which were working together with the British against the German and Italian armies . Al-Falatiya died on 24 February 1974 aged 69.
Perhaps one of the most fondly remembered female Sudanese musical trailblazers is Hawa Jah al-Rasoul Mohammed, popularly known as Hawa al-Tagtaga. The singer, who died in 2012, cemented her reputation as not only an iconic female Sudanese singer but also as musical rebel who spoke truth to power. She was repeatedly arrested by British officials for agitating for Sudanese independence, which was achieved in 1956. Al-Tagtaga was a patriot who performed dressed in the colours of the old Sudanese flag . The singer, born in 1926 in Ar Rahad, North Kordofan, was honoured by the state on more than one occasion. She was also a popular figure at weddings and social gatherings across all social classes and was regarded as a true voice of the people .
Stars of the Golden (and ‘dark’) Era
The period between the early 1960s and the late 1980s saw the rise of Sudan’s biggest female musicians in popular music. Though few and far between, these women performers proved Sudan was not a musical desert landscape. They did not just entertain but acted as social mirrors by pointing out uncomfortable social truths. However, given the environment they were operating in, many faced backlash from the ruling elite and religious leadership.
As Sudan entered the 1960s, a few all-female groups emerged onto the scene, notably Sunai Kordofani, Sunai el Nagam and Sunai el Samar who borrowed traits from their Western counterparts . But it was not until the 1970s that a female group took Sudan by storm. Al Balabil (The Nightingales) was formed in 1971 by three Nubian sisters – Amal Talsam, Hadia Talsam and Hayat Talsam – who became the faces of Sudanese popular music for almost two decades. Known as the ‘Sudanese Supremes’, the trio immigrated to the US in 1988 as strict Sharia laws we being imposed in Sudan.
Another famous ‘80s female singer was Hanan Bulu Bulu, who was sometimes referred to as ‘Madonna’ or even ‘Marie Lloyd’ for her provocative stage performances that got her in the bad books of the Islamic fundamentalists. Despite the Madonna references, Hanan Bulu Bulu owes her notoriety to two of her forbearers, Gisma and Nasra, who pioneered a popular sensual wedding performance in the ‘70s known as kashif, which was accompanied by fast drumming and direct lyrics for which they were frequently arrested over.
Meanwhile, Hanan Elneel, a blind singer who was also prominent in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, is best known for her delicate, wistful songs sung to an electronic keyboard. She is considered more mild-mannered than most of her contemporaries.
Contemporary female Sudanese singers have continued in the same vein as their predecessors, finding ways to entertain and educate in a restricted environment. A number of current artists have found it easier to pursue their musical dreams away from home but still remain true to their roots.
A highly regarded artists of the new generation is Rasha Sheikh Eldin whose rendition of Sudanese music has earned her a global following. Rasha was born in 1971 and grew up in the capital Khartoum. She left the country for Cairo, Egypt, in 1991 to escape the Second Sudanese Civil War, and later immigrated to Spain where she released the critically acclaimed debut album Sudaniyat – rated by British musician Ian Anderson as one of the 10 best albums of 1997. The album boasts of a rich diversity, ranging from Arabic poetry, sufi music and even a touch of reggae .
Yalla! Khartoum, a project incubated by Goethe-Institut Sudan as a platform for developing the skills of female musicians, gave birth to the 11-member all-girl band Salute Yal Bannot in 2015. In Sudanese Arabic, salute yal bannot means “respect to the girls”. The band consists of seven vocalists and four instrumentalists who play guitar, bass guitar, piano and percussion. The group aims to inspire women to speak up about the issues that affect them .
Also active on the international music scene is Alsarah, a singer, songwriter, bandleader and ethnomusicologist. Born in Khartoum, she relocated to Yemen with her family before moving to the US, finally settling in Brooklyn, New York, where she has been residing since 2004. Alsarah formed the group Alsarah & The Nubatones in 2010 with her sister Nahid and released two full-length albums titled Silt and Manara. In between albums, Alsarah has also worked with Sudanese artist collective Refugee Club Productions on a variety of projects, including the critically acclaimed 2014 Sudanese Civil War documentary Beats of the Antonov  .
Following the emergence of the popular female-led music genre zanig in Sudan’s urban areas in the 2010s, a new crop of female performers have become stars in their own right. Often criticised for being too raucous, zanig music employs zar chants, a ritual that summons the spirits, and involves drumming, dancing and giving offerings, with the performer sometimes entering a trance-like state.
Some of the genre’s biggest names are Aisha Aljabal and Marwa Alduwaliya. A collaboration between DJ Teddy Jam, a Sudanese rapper based in the UAE, and Aisha Al Jabal brought hip hop, Afrobeats and zanig together on the song ‘Malu’.
While zanig uses a range of instruments such as keyboards, saxophones, drums and those of a percussive variety, the more stripped-down version, featuring only vocals and percussion, is arguably the most popular. It is called aghani banat, aghani dalooka, which translates to ‘girls’ songs, drum songs’. Here, a catchy tumtum rhythm accompanies the singing. The dalooka is one of the main percussive instruments used in the genre but other instruments like the dinger (water calabash) and tar (single-headed frame drum) are sometimes also employed. The dalooka is a small goblet-shaped hand drum made from mud.
Aghani banat discusses topics such as marriage, beauty, love and flirtation. Most of the songs are from Sudan’s Golden Era and are often accompanied by a special bridal dance. New lyrics using old rhythms are constantly being recreated tackling current social issues. Regardless of the topic, they are a powerful expressive tool for many women across Sudan. Aghani banat is also played at weddings and during family gatherings and special ceremonies. For a long time, the genre was viewed as inconsequential due to its originators being women, but the songs have now gained popularity and male musicians have built entire careers out of them, such as singer Taha Suleiman. The most popular female singers in aghani banat include Insaf Madani, Nada Algalaa, Mahdiya, Sulafa Elyas and Hiba Elgizouli.
Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has experienced its fair share of civil wars and coups, with six leaders professing different political ideologies serving as heads of state . Amid political instability and the Islamic patriarchy, female artists have endured through instability to showcase Sudan’s rich modern and traditional music traditions.
In 1983, President Jaafar Nimeiry imposed hardline Sharia laws that greatly affected musicians, including female artists. Hanan Bulu Bulu, for example, was physically assaulted by the authorities and thrown out of the Khartoum International Fair in 1986, with her music banned for immoral behaviour. The Sharia law also frustrated Al Balabil, as their provocative undertones landed them in conflict with the authorities .
More recently, in 2018, Sudanese police arrested singer Mona Magdi Salim on charges of indecency after she wore tight trousers and a white, long-sleeved top during an event .
Not surprisingly, following the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Rasha and several musicians returned from exile to celebrate his ousting, and held a New Year’s Eve and Independence Day concert .
The collapse of al-Bashir’s hardline government had offered a glimmer of hope for a more free and vibrant music industry. But this was quickly quashed in October 2021 when army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a coup that removed the country’s transitional government .
On 15 April 2023, Sudan descended into another civil war in a conflict between rival factions of the military government, once more bringing the country’s cultural activities to a halt .
Disclaimer:Music In Africa’s Overviews provide broad information about the music scenes in African countries. Music In Africa acknowledges that the information in some of these texts could become outdated with time. If you would like to provide updated information or corrections to any of our Overview texts, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These series were written by Cedric McCoy and republished here with the author’s and publisher’s consent. The 3-part series were originally published on The Michigan Daily webpage on Feb. 8, 21 and 23.
For Black History Month 2023, I will be publishing a mini-series of short music reviews under the title “Protest Music Retrospects.” The aim of this series is to both revisit some of the most pivotal moments in Black protest music history and to shed light on overlooked Black figures and musics, specifically those of Black women, that have contributed to socially-conscious popular culture. The reviews will be a mix of musical critique as well as historical and historiographical analysis of the works and their responses in media. I first highlighted Sister Souljah’s 360 Degrees of Power, and then Tracy Chapman’s debut album; for the final entry, I will finish the series with Elaine Brown’s 1969 album,Seize the Time.
Brown is best known for her activism in Black Liberatory politics. She served as the leader of the Black Panther Party after Huey P. Newton fled to Cuba in the mid-70s, before leaving the party due to sexist leadership; she was the first and only woman to lead the party, and shifted the standard operations and the philosophies of the BPP towards inclusivity and local advocacy. In addition to her activism, Brown was trained as a musician from an early age and wrote poetry and songs in high school. In 1968, David Hilliard, then-BPP chief of staff commissioned Brown to record some of her politicized songs for the BPP after he heard her perform for some other Panthers — Seize The Time was the result.
Seize The Time exists as a recording (in more ways than one) of the motivations, goals and activism of the BPP. The album contains the party’s unofficial theme, “The Meeting,” as well as various other revolutionary tracks that were often played at BPP social events. Additionally, its cover art was created by Emory Douglas, BPP Minister of Culture. While it is not the only output of music from the BPP (the party also had a funk band composed of active members called “The Lumpen”), it is the only audio album produced by the party that featured exclusively music.
Brown’s Seize The Time is largely unrecognized by scholars and music fans alike; in researching the album for this article, I only found one comprehensive record of it by Michael Lupo of Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale on Smithsonian. From my knowledge of public history projects documenting music of the era, only PBS’sFight the Power seems to have recognized it (and only in a passing montage of relevant albums). There is no official set of transcribed lyrics either; the original record did not include any with it, and open-source databases like Genius have not tackled the 10 tracks. Fortunately, the album (and its remaster) are available on the major streaming platforms and have not been lost to time just yet.
When I first envisioned this BHM mini-series, Seize The Time was the album I had in mind and most desired to write about. It represents a key shift in the canon of Black protest music in many ways. First, the songs are all composed and performed by a Black woman, one who was often ostracized by her fellow revolutionaries. Second, it predates the move towards overtly political music found in the `70s. Lastly, it demonstrates a unique application of protest music wherein the music serves in a direct-action/political praxis role, beyond “calls to action” or indictments.
Brown was classically trained in both music and dance in her youth, producing a certain restricted philosophy of praxis demonstrated in Seize The Time. Her music leans away from the powerful and raucous funk and soul of the `60s in favor of a more refined, authoritative tone. Though some of her contemporaries resisted this style, higher-ups in the party (namely Huey P. Newton) were fans of her music and supported her songwriting. The arrangements and orchestration were done by Horace Tapscott, pianist and jazz band leader, further solidifying the sound of Brown’s music into existing tradition.
Despite her western-influenced training, the lyricism of Seize The Time consists of a wide range of critiques. In the tracks, Brown addresses systemic racism and oppression, but also engages with the often violent, male aesthetic of the BPP. In “The End of Silence,” Brown includes these lines:
And you can’t go on
With this time-worn song
That just won’t change the way you feel
Well then, believe it my friend
That this silence will end
We’ll just have to get guns
And be men
Though Brown was known for her ardent anti-sexism stance with the BPP (which often abused and overworked her and other women despite their majority and important contributions), the gendered language of her music leaves much to be desired. See also this excerpt from “The Panther,” which aimed to paint the BPP in a strong, revolutionary light: “He is a hero, he walks with night / His spirit’s beauty, his soul is right … His face is black and he would die for you / To get your freedom back.”
I find that contextualizing Brown’s classical training as well as her high ranking in the party is central in understanding her portrayal of the Black revolutionary. History has often looked upon resistances through the lens of individuals, such as that of Great Man Theory; even today, names like Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Eldridge Cleaver and those of other Black men are used almost metonymically to reference the Black Power movement of the era. Brown met the BPP where it was, both politically and musically, but consistently challenged the party and its leaders to do better and to approach the Black experience with more intersectionality than its founders had originally intended.
Brown’s leadership in the party, and also her musical contributions to the soundscape of Black liberatory politics are key components in the construction of an accurate and holistic narrative of the BPP and protest music. Though Seize The Time never received airplay, charted or earned Brown much compensation, her work as a musician has recently begun to be recognized for its impact on her contemporaries as well as Black protest music as a whole. Records of her activism now often mention her musicianship alongside her politics. Beyond her direct successors, artists such as Alicia Keys have also memorialized her impact on Black music.
In publishing this mini-series, I hope to recognize and reframe our memory and understanding of Black women artists who have approached, engaged and shaped protest music over the last half-century. It is on their backs that we are able to celebrate the male figures that have come to dominate contemporary narratives of protest music. Through continued efforts such as these, music scholars, fans, archivists and the general public can begin to have a complete understanding of the history of Black protest music.
MiC Assistant Editor Cedric Preston McCoy can be reached at email@example.com.