Five years before the current crisis engulfing Sudan, what began as demonstrations in Sudan’s northeastern town of Atbara in December 2018 over rising bread prices quickly grew into a country-wide movement striving for social and political reform. Undeterred by lethal crackdowns on demonstrators, Sudanese citizens continued to peacefully mobilise and in April 2019, under popular pressure, the Sudanese military intervened to end the 30-year rule of the country’s authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir.
The civil movement and its aftermath – which sought to instate a civilian-elected government and exclude the military from political matters – triggered significant social change throughout Sudan, and opened the floodgates for a new generation of artists and musicians to address the social and political issues affecting their country.Loay Karim, a Saudi-based Sudanese rapper who goes by the stage name Flippter, was one of the earliest musicians to dominate Sudan’s nascent hip-hop scene, incorporating political elements in his songs as early as 2011. Born in Sudan and raised between Khartoum and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Flippter remembers the struggles of breaking into an emerging industry in two countries that, at the time, “despised the idea of rap.” In those early years, he recalled over the phone to VICE News from Riyadh, where he currently works as an audio producer, making music in Sudan required sending messages between the lines – using terms with different regional meanings in his songs to communicate a social message while avoiding repercussions from the authorities. Sudan’s history of political upheaval and religious censorship meant that musicians frequently became targets, including members of the pioneering group Nas Jota [Chaotic People], who fled the country in 2004 following a government crackdown on dissident artists. When we spoke to Flippter, it was in March, just weeks before Sudan would be thrown into further turmoil as rival government factions battled for control of the country in a fierce conflict that experts estimate could have created over 200,000 refugees.
As a teenager in the mid-2000s, Flippter found inspiration in bootleg Eminem and Busta Rhymes tapes he would walk miles to get hold of, later participating in outdoor rap battles in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, one of the few public platforms available to up-and-coming rappers at the time. He looks back on these years as “a period of intense creativity and experimentation,” during which, he added, he “learnt a lot about himself and his craft.”At the time, Flippter did not speak English, but would be inspired by the beat or flow of a song until he began reading through dictionaries to pick up the language and expand his vocabulary. These experiences, as well as his multicultural upbringing as part of the Sudanese diaspora community in Saudi Arabia, influenced the evolution of his unique style in which he switches between Arabic and English phrases in his songs. “I draw inspiration from the world around me, the people, the cultures I encounter, the experiences I have lived through,” Flippter said pensively. “Writing is a way to tell my story and share my message with others, whether in Arabic or in English, my goal is always to create something that is authentic. The early days of my music career were marked by a series of real-life events that deeply impacted me, from academic struggles to political rebellion and personal losses. These experiences forced me to confront the harsh realities of life and find a way to channel that pain into something positive.”
The eruption of the Sudanese revolution, which Flippter describes as the catalyst for the inevitable social change that Sudan would witness, offered a window for artists to creatively and intrepidly express their views on the events that were quickly unfolding across the country. Following the overthrow of al-Bashir, peaceful rallies in opposition to a military takeover persisted, and a sit-in continued in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum. In the early hours of the 3rd of June 2019, as the sit-in approached its two-month mark, Sudanese security forces orchestrated a violent dispersal, killing at least 120 people and leaving hundreds more wounded, detained or missing, in what became known as the Khartoum massacre. Flippter, at the time in Addis Ababa, was scrolling through Twitter when he came across the image of his close friend Mohammad Mattar on a thread listing the casualties of the dispersal. He describes it as one of the most difficult moments of his life, one that devastated him and eventually inspired the lyrics of his song “Blue”. The death of Mattar, a respected and admired member of his community whose favourite colour was blue, triggered an international social media campaign entitled “#BlueforSudan”, which drew widespread attention to the sacrifices made by Sudanese demonstrators in pursuit of democratic governance and a better future for their country.
In tribute and solidarity, thousands of social media users worldwide turned their profile pictures blue, while the Sudanese people contended with near-total internet shutdowns. According to Flippter, a few local radio stations in Sudan that helped him to shape the burgeoning hip-hop scene continued to play his music in the face of crackdowns and government censorship.Flippter’s track “Blue”, which was performed in July 2019 as part of a COLORS Studios show dedicated to Sudan’s revolution, features the lyrics, “They’re killing our kids, the world knows now / After the martyr bled, poured blue on the red” in reference to Mattar. The first verse of the song opens with a disturbing account of the intimidation tactics used by security forces: “The Janjaweed is gonna shoot me indeed / Right after this beat finishes / They’re raping villages / Intelligence used to arrest innocent revolutionaries.”While the events in Sudan were hitting international headlines, the COLORS Studios, a Berlin-based music platform, showcased performances by some of the country’s emerging talents, including those from diaspora communities, who were tackling topics of equality, human rights and democracy in their songs. Flippter says that the show felt like “a safe haven, a place where I could express myself freely.” The end of his track includes part of a popular Sudanese revolutionary chant, “Our martyrs didn’t die, they are living amongst the revolutionaries,” followed by his addition, “we promised each other we’d live free.” Prior to this, Flippter had also recorded the song “Empiya of Rebels” with five other Sudanese musicians, including reggae artist Ayman Mao, whose track “Dum” [Blood] became one of the most prominent anthems of the uprising and was performed at the April 2019 sit-in.
In recent history, a wave of heady protest songs have played a crucial role in uplifting the revolutionary movements against dictatorships and corrupt governance that have swept across the region. Among these popular anthems were “Irhal” [Leave] performed by Ramy Essam in front of jubilant crowds in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Khaled al-Zaher’s “Hurriya” [Freedom], which was chanted through the streets during Yemen’s 2011 revolution, and “Rais Lebled” [President of the Country], in which Tunisian rapper El Général depicts the social and economic ills that ignited the flames of the Arab Spring protests. Until recently, a new generation of talented creatives were putting forward their music in support of the resistance movements against military rule, following a coup on the transitional civilian government in October 2021. Sudanese rappers in particular have used their lyrics to convey the wins and losses of the revolution even after Sudan’s political crisis fell out of the international spotlight.
The hip-hop scenes of both Sudan and Saudi Arabia are coming to the forefront and gaining momentum, according to Flippter, who founded the creative agency and collective Dogar Entertainment in 2015. Beyond politically-influenced music, his hit track “Gorasa”, released in 2017, offers a satirical play on Saudi misconceptions and stereotypes about Sudanese people, featuring a cameo with Saudi actor-comedian Mohammed Alhamdan. Having grown up navigating between two different cultures and finding ways to reconcile them, Flippter’s tracks that approach topics in witty and parodic ways have struck a chord with audiences in both Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Reminiscing about the earliest memories of his developing an interest in music, including his father playing the songs of iconic Sudanese artists such as Hanan al-Neel and Mahmoud Abdelaziz throughout his childhood, Flippter says that he now takes inspiration from a variety of different musicians and genres, but that “they all share a common thread of authenticity and passion, these artists have taught me the importance of staying true to myself and my message even in the face of adversity.”In March, Flippter said that despite the obstacles, “the Sudanese people are working to overcome the challenges of poverty, political instability and conflict” that have afflicted the country for decades, and “[he] is hopeful that we will be able to create a brighter and more prosperous future for our people.” Four years after the fall of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan is now in the throes of a conflict that has upended the lives of millions of people and shattered hopes for civilian rule in the near future.Having established himself as one of the pillars of Sudan’s now-thriving hip-hop scene, Flippter recognises the vital role that art in its many forms plays in effectuating social and political change. “Music sparks creativity, it fuels people’s brains with inspiration,” he says with vigour.“If my lyrics light a spark within somebody, it makes me very proud and honoured. I’m happy that my message has reached and impacted, but at the same time I’m concerned because I know what the consequences for them can be.”