Amplifying women’s voices in Sudanese hip hop

Amplifying women’s voices in Sudanese hip hop

A new music production workshop for women rappers in Sudan is launching in June. Sudan Rap Lab 2022 will be a week-long, live-in residency programme for Sudanese women who want to develop their skills as songwriters and performers. Katamat Records owner Philip Bennett tells us why it’s important to create opportunities for women musicians in Sudan – particularly in hip hop. 

NADJA: What role does music play in Sudan?

Philip Bennett: Music is a huge part of social life in Sudan. Whether it’s aghani al-banat, which are songs traditionally sung at weddings by women (or just celebrations in general), military songs, local, tribal, traditional music or big artists producing records with an orchestra – music is deeply embedded in Sudanese culture. 

The coffee rituals in East Sudan for example, which traditionally take place among private gatherings of women, are also an occasion to make music: they beat the coffee beans rhythmically, and others will join in, clap and sing to the rhythms they’re creating, crushing the coffee beans and clinking cups together. 

NADJA: Why did you decide to launch a rap workshop for women?

PB: It’s particularly important to create opportunities for women artists because, like in many other countries, hip hop is a male dominated form of music. One of our main goals with this residency is to produce a record which we’ll promote abroad. When it comes to Sudan, I think that people outside the country have seldom heard much more than the Darfur crisis or the climate change crisis – maybe more recently the revolution. Sudan is hugely diverse and culturally rich, and very little is shared with the outside world.

Women’s voices are even less known and understood. A rap workshop focused on women is a great opportunity to get to the core of what’s happening in Sudan, and we are very excited to provide a platform to amplify the voice of Sudanese women, in a format that we can share with the world.

We feel that rap is the tool which young people have embraced as their way to express their identity, to transmit their feelings, emotions and thoughts about society, politics, and family life. It’s becoming a voice for the people, which has always been one of the roles of hip hop. 

NADJA: How did you come up with the idea for Sudan Rap Lab? 

PB: Back in 2017, we ran a small hip hop workshop as part of the programme for the Karmakol International Festival, which brings together artists for three weeks to showcase the country’s rich culture. We took four rappers from Khartoum, who were selected through an application process, to perform a song that would connect with the local Karmakol audience. Karmakol being a small village in the northern state, we were bringing quite a different style of music to the stage. It was a great success, however one thing we noticed  was that there were no women applicants at all. That got us thinking, and we agreed that the next time we did a workshop it would be for women rappers. 

We decided to launch this rap lab with the second edition of Karmakol International Festival, which was planned for December 2021. The team in Khartoum has been working for months and everything was set to take place. But the military coup happened on the 25th of October, and all activities in the country came to a halt, while everyone was trying to understand what was happening politically.

Things have slowly started picking up again since. Although there are cultural and artistic events happening throughout the country, there are signs that screws are tightening on people’s freedom of expression. There have been some cases which were reported across social media these past months of artists being arrested and questioned for supporting the revolution, and who were released after public outcry. We felt that this was a particularly important time to run this workshop, with which we hope to provide a platform for young people’s voices. 

sudan revolution
Photo: Ala Kheir, Sudan, 2018

NADJA: What do you think is the most striking thing about the Sudanese music scene? 

PB: Music in Sudan is hugely diverse, with every region offering different styles and rhythms, and using different instruments. What I think is interesting today about Sudanese music, is that you’ll find all of the elements of this rich, historical, musical background scene recycled and re-invigorated through the revolution.

When Sudanese people took to the streets in the 2018 uprising, music was the heartbeat of the revolution. Looking at the chants during the demonstrations, you can find references to a lot of different aspects of traditional Sudanese music. The lyrics of the chants, for example, were in many cases old poetry, which the youngsters have reimagined and rewritten in a modern context, to express their demands. They remixed lyrics of aghani al-banat, and were banging on water canisters or buckets in the streets, reproducing the daluka rhythm – a clay drum with a leather covering, historically played by women. 

Also reggae and hip hop have always been popular in Sudan: you still see Tupac graffiti on the city’s neighborhood walls, and Bob Marley is loved all over the country, just like he is all over the world. However, what is happening today is that these musical forms have been accepted not just as music from abroad, but they have been adopted and adapted to become Sudanese forms of expression in their own right. You have artists writing original music in the Sudanese language, speaking about local themes and local issues, incorporating Sudanese melodies and rhythms. 

Applications are now open until 16 May 2022. Successful applicants will have their expenses (travel, food and accommodation) covered for the duration of the residency. Learn more and apply here.

Sudan Lab 2022 is produced by Katamat Records (UK) in partnership with Open Media & Culture Agency (Sudan) and funded by the British Council SSA Arts Cultural Exchange fund.

Featured image: Karmakol Media Team, 2017

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