His parents were killed in 2022 after he escaped from prison
This article was written by Mong Palatino and originally published on the Global Voices (GV) webpage on 7th of November 2023. It is republished here under the media agreement between GV and Shouts.
Myanmar activist Sann Minn Paing released a song on YouTube a year after his parents were killed by junta forces. His Facebook post announcing the song and his demand for justice went viral, reflecting the continuing resistance and online pushback against the military government.
The military grabbed power in February 2021, which was immediately fiercely resisted by pro-democracy forces. Sann Minn Paing, a member of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, was among those who challenged the junta and was arrested for being part of the civil disobedience movement. According to a report by The Irrawaddy, an exiled Burmese media group, he spent a year at three interrogation centers and four police stations in Yangon. Since he was only 17 at the time of his arrest, he was transferred to a juvenile facility.
Together with 13 other young prisoners, he escaped on September 23, 2022. Authorities killed his parents inside their house on September 29.
A year after the killing, Sann Minn Paing posted on his Facebook page that he has written a song to pay tribute to his parents. The Irrawaddy translated an excerpt of the post:
“I still suffer from mental trauma. But I try to keep going. I don’t know when I will die. So, I want to create a piece of art that will last and that demands justice for my parents, in case I die before the revolution succeeds. So, I created this song.”
In an interview with The Irrawaddy, he said he wanted to inspire other victims of the junta brutality to continue the fight for justice.
“I could never repay them. This is the first thing I have done for my parents. If we bow to every act of oppression, we won’t be able to stand up in this life. I hope my song will encourage families who have been affected by the fascist military to demand justice in the future.”
A report by the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar revealed that as of October 2023, junta forces have killed 4,000 civilians, destroyed 75,000 civilian homes and infrastructures, displaced over 2 million people, and driven 15 million into food insecurity over the past two years.
The title of the song is “The Day The Sun Disappears Before The Sunset.” A music video was uploaded on YouTube which depicts the artist’s anguish and guilt over the death of his parents.
Even after the death of his parents, he continues to be involved in the pro-democracy movement. In his song, he speculates about what might become of him due to his resistence.
Sann Minn Paing’s rap song is an example of the creative forms of resistance used by young activists and artists who joined the ‘Spring Revolution’ against the junta dictatorship. Other forms of resistance have included subversive pro-democracy messages through clothing and “silent strikes,” where citizens closed their businesses and stayed indoors on the same day as a method of resistance. In October 2021, a group of rap artists released a music album featuring anti-junta songs.
Listen and watch the song of Sann Minn Paing on YouTube:
TOPEKA (USA)— Marty Hillard has seen firsthand the ways systemic racism can destroy and consume lives, but the Topeka musician, who writes about resilience and advocacy as he holds a lyrical mirror to the Midwest, is determined to experience joy and help others do the same.
Hillard, director of community engagement at Kansas Children’s Discovery Center in Topeka, has worked in the community to combat police brutality and is a member and lyricist of the hardcore hip-hop trio Ebony Tusks, whose music often speaks on resilience and advocacy.
“Freedom is very important to me; joy is very important to me,” he said during an interview for the Kansas Reflector podcast. “These are things that I’m actively seeking out, despite what I might have experienced in the past, or what I may continue to experience as a Black man in America. I am resolute in finding joy, in as many experiences as possible for all of the years that I was sort of lost in my indignation.”
Through his work at the discovery center, he helps provide children and families learning opportunities through play. One partnership is with the Kansas Department of Corrections: Every few weeks, women who are incarcerated can spend the day and play with their children. Additionally, sensory friendly Sundays allow children on the autism spectrum to experience the center if they are unable to attend during regular hours.
“While the primary goal is for there to be an environment of play where learning can occur, it’s just really exciting to see people engaged in joyful experiences … and ones that they see themselves reflected in,” Hillard said.
Activism against violence
On Sept. 28, 2017, two Topeka police officers shot and killed Dominique White, a Black man. The officers were responding to a report of a disturbance in a park when they confronted White and noticed he had a gun in the pocket of his shorts. The officers shot White in the back as he ran away from them, and the district attorney cleared them of any wrongdoing.
Hillard, who knew members of White’s family, said the community was frustrated with not only White’s death but the level of violence in the city. In 2017, Topeka recorded 29 homicides, breaking the previous record from 1994, according to a Topeka Capital-Journal article.
The list includes homicides that were considered to be justified — such as police shootings.
“A big personal concern is knowing that as much as violence occurs in our society, at the hands of one citizen to another, I think it’s of the same importance that we recognize the violence that’s enacted by our local police department,” he said. “And so I think that’s a big part of why I wanted to get involved.”
From December 2017 through April 2018, Hillard helped organize No Confidence, a series of workshops allowing for members of the community to share their experiences with local law enforcement and give honest feedback.
Growing up in central Topeka, Hillard said he has a personal history of negative interactions with past iterations of the Topeka Police Department. He said being a part of a marginalized group can be all-consuming, but a lot of that has changed for him as he focuses on joy.
“There’s a point where you get exhausted being on fire all the time, being angry and feeling like you have to carry the weight of how you’re being perceived in the world around you,” Hillard said.
Hillard said while he can’t withhold realities of being a Black man in America from his child, he is grateful to be able to raise an emotionally intelligent child who can draw their own conclusions based on observation.
“We are very determined that as much as it’s a priority to want to protect your child’s innocence,” he said, “we also have to equip our child in a way that they can navigate the world as it exists, and they can have a better understanding of not only the world around them, but the world that my wife and I were raised in and the experiences that we’ve had.”
Reflecting society through music
Hillard and his sister grew up singing songs on the radio and worship songs in church. When he was 11, Hillard and his brother started a rap group, and soon after, Hillard learned how to play guitar and began writing folk music and poetry.
In 2010, Hillard, Daniel Smith and Geese Giesecke formed Ebony Tusks. The hardcore hip-hop group often writes about resilience and activism through the lens of Kansas and Missouri, Hillard said.
Hillard said as a poet and rap writer, what he says is more than just words, so sometimes lyrics take years to write.
“I recognize a deep sense of responsibility to the words that I say,” he said. “And so I just want to make sure that I’m saying things that are really meaningful.”
Hillard said the words in Ebony Tusks songs are not only a reflection of the world around them but themselves, and he hopes that if there’s a message to be found in his lyrics, it’s that “our music becomes a vehicle for people to do that same analysis on themselves.”
In April, Hillard’s friend Jeff Ensley, 45, died by suicide. Ensley was an important factor in Hillard pursuing music and a huge positive force in Hillard’s life. Hillard is designing a tattoo for a lyric in the song “You are Invited” by The Dismemberment Plan, a band Ensley showed Hillard a few years before he died.
“The lyric is: ‘You are invited by anyone to do anything. You are invited for all time,’ ” Hillard said. “And as I reflect on his life and the permission that he gave me to be the person that I am today, that lyric has become really important.”
He has been described as a musician and activist. His story is one of overcoming adversity and beating the odds. Instead of letting his refugee status define him, Jaiksana Soro decided to become a voice for his people, highlighting their plight through his music and empowering them through grassroots projects. Music In Africa recently had the privilege of engaging this rising hip hop artist about music, his organisation Platform Africa and his vision for a peaceful, prosperous South Sudan.
MUSIC IN AFRICA: Tell us about yourself as a South Sudanese, as a refugee, as a musician and as a changemaker.
JAIKSANA: I was born in a refugee camp in northern Uganda on 2 August 1996. A brutal civil conflict had displaced countless people from Southern Sudan [now South Sudan], including my parents. In the refugee camps, we were faced with the challenge of trying to make a living in the absence of opportunities, deprived of everyday living necessities. So when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was reached in 2005 and we were able to return to South Sudan under the repatriation programme, we were not only relieved but also hopeful.
However, after a few years, things began to go wrong. Another conflict pitting South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar erupted between 2013 and 2016, causing us to return to the refugee camp. I was turning 20 in 2016, so I was more aware of things, and it was sad to have a home one day and then have everything taken away from you the next. That year, instead of despairing, I decided to co-found Platform Africa, a non-profit organisation dedicated to changing the narrative and empowering refugees. My music continues on that building block, telling stories and empowering others through it.
What does your music mean to you and what do you hope to achieve through it?
Writing songs and putting them out there can be really powerful. When you consider a song as a vehicle and what it can carry, music can be an important medium that helps put a mirror on society or help us find meaning in the face of difficult situations. Apart from my personal story and the issues I faced – such as conflict, being displaced to a refugee camp and dealing with my anxiety – things are really hard right now. The music project I am currently working on titled I Am Still Alive is about that: navigating my mental health and reflecting on subjects like family, displacement, dealing with loss and finding peace.
I hope that by being open about my experiences, I can create music that is rooted in real-life issues that people can relate to. When I released my song ‘Run’, which is about self-love and transcending the obstacles that hold us back in life, I received a lot of positive feedback and inspiring stories from people for whom my music played a therapeutic role in their lives and helped them overcome their struggles. When I wrote it, I didn’t know it was something that a lot of people would come to relate to. I wrote a song to heal and free myself, and for that to be meaningful to other people is very empowering. In addition, I hope that my music sets a precedent and emboldens people in the South Sudanese music space to be able to own and tell their stories no matter the shape or form of their native lens.
Why hip hop? How did you get introduced to the genre?
We didn‘t have a lot of music to listen to while growing up because my mother, like many other women in the refugee community, never owned a radio, let alone a TV. So all the music I interacted with came from video halls and bars with TVs. Video halls are like makeshift theatres because there‘s usually just one old 32-inch TV and a bunch of people, sometimes hundreds, gathered to experience music and the outside world. Since it was expensive to afford, we made sure to save and use our money for the most interesting programmes.
For me, a Sunday programme called SM, short for Special Music, was my favourite, and it was here that I got introduced to R&B and hip hop, and beyond just learning about new genres of music, I also experienced the use of words, rhythm and melodies to tell stories, and remind institutional power where true power lies.
Fast forward to the present date, I feel that hip hop has helped me find better alternatives to deal with issues in life. I dealt with anxiety, and still do wrestle with big questions around the meaning of life, and I built a relationship with music as a healing agent, using it as a crutch and a form of therapeutic relief or escape.
When I decided to work on my album, I naturally fell back on my favourite genre – hip hop. I wanted my music to be uplifting, but at the same time I wanted it to start conversations on issues that are often overlooked in our communities, like mental health or displacement, and rap is a form of expression that allows that kind of depth, and the ability to build lyrics with layered meanings that leave bread crumbs for people to follow and form their own interpretations of things.
What are the other genres you embrace?
Besides rap music, the other genre that I like is experimental music. My younger siblings are both rookie producers, and they sometimes make music that doesn’t use instruments in the conventional way, yet when you hear it, you go like, “Wow, this is aesthetically pleasing, in a melodic sense.” Because they’re not fluent in music theory, their creativity is not fenced in by the constraints of what professional or classical music should sound like, giving them the unique advantage of using surprise as an element of their compositional aesthetic.
I am always blown away by the creative sounds they come up with. My brother Taylor Beats once sat in a room with a musician called Franko jamming on the piano and they ended up making a record about local South Sudanese food. They talked about food in a comedic way and the song topped the charts in South Sudan. Do we call that an experimental music theme?
Another genre that I love is Afrobeats, which I prefer to describe as African sounds because I don’t want to use the word ‘Afrobeats’ as a blanket term that portrays the continent/African music as a monolith. African music is finally assuming its position on the world stage – songs like ‘Ameno’, ‘Love Nwantiti’, ‘Jerusalema’, or musicians like Diamond Platnumz and Burna Boy.
Others are enjoying record numbers of streaming, viral challenges and dance videos on short-form video platforms like TikTok, Reels and YouTube Shorts. But the standout point is that African sounds and the genres or styles evolving from the continents are fresh. Because they’re uniquely tied to our identity and cultures and it’s something that only we can bring to the table, so there’s a responsibility on the part of African creators to document our sounds and patterns.
Finally, R&B and EDM are among the other genres on my list. The album I am currently working on is a musical palette that blends many of these genres and incorporates sound samples that push the boundaries of sound design and integration of themes to strengthen both message and meaning.
Who are your greatest influences musically, and what role do your Sudanese roots play in your music? What is the role of traditional music?
Witt Lowry, Ivan B, and NF are my biggest influences but I also listened to a lot of Emmanuel Jal’s music in the past. His War Child album was ground-breaking in terms of how he presented the stories of former child soldiers like himself.
To answer your second question on the role of my South Sudanese roots in my music, I was basically raised in times of civil conflict, lived as a refugee and witnessed domestic violence. Because of that, I am constantly working to bring about change in my life and community through my activism and music, so my roots and story are like a map or guide of where I came from, where I am now and where I want to go. In a few words, it helps me become authentic and I want for my music to mean something. In terms of sound, I am also exploring our local South Sudanese sounds and incorporating some of them into my music to create something that is holistically different and unique.
Traditional music, in my view, promotes the creation of identity and community. Each community has its own collection of instruments, structures or rhythms and vocabulary, which serves as a powerful tool for people to not only celebrate who they are but also to recreate what has gone before and to establish who they want to be in the future.
In an age where technology is revolutionising how we listen to music, a focus on developing digital libraries of our traditional music is essential not only to preserve it but also to allow people to sample and improve it. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but the amapiano genre from South Africa, for example, sounds just like my traditional music from the Pojulu tribe. Who knows, if we are able to create a collection of our sound and incorporate amapiano, we could be the next global fad.How can you describe your journey as a musician so far?
How can you describe your journey as a musician so far?
This is usually where we list all of our trophies and accolades and brag about our vast wealth, but for me this is a chapter that has yet to be written. However, I was nominated for the Best New and Promising Artist at the South Sudan Musician Awards in my first year as a musician, and despite not winning, that went a long way in proving we have the right foot in the door. Our message of self-positivity has quickly earned us a large following and listeners across South Sudan, Uganda the US, Germany and beyond.
What are your future goals?
Setting up a music studio in the refugee camp is one of them. I want to offer everyone in the refugee camp a voice and a platform to express themselves. We recently began a podcasting and media production programme for refugees in the Rhino Camp refugee settlement through our organisation Platform Africa. We secured a project called #ASKnet, short for Access to Skills and Knowledge network, and in parts of the workshops I was able to bring my producer DJ Poppa to record some tracks for the refugees, and the experience is still one of the best I’ve had this year.
We are currently working on a mobile lab project in partnership with Global Innovation Gathering where we took a truck and converted it into a mobile workshop and workspace to deliver workshops to remote villages in the refugee camp. So we’re hoping to set up a mini studio in the lab project to produce music as well.
In addition to that, I want to establish South Sudan’s first professional label and assist in the development of the future generation of storytellers.
Your vision for South Sudan?
My vision for South Sudan is simple. I want to see a country that can put its tumultuous past behind it and build a just, peaceful and affluent future that is led by its youth. This has to start with a political will to make it happen, meaning the implementation of the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan.