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Noisey

Alsarah Wrote a Song for the Sudanese Uprising

The Sudan-born Alsarah and the Nubatones singer has done the only thing an artist an ocean away from her people and their struggles can do.

by Zachary Lipez
May 1 2019, 7:12pm

Jack Vartoogian / Getty Images 

Like “iconic,” the word “solidarity” has, through overuse by empty-gesture right wing politicians and armchair leftists alike, been stripped of some of its potency. But, as social animals with at least the same capacity for empathy as other beasts, solidarity is still one of our great tools. It’s how we tell our brothers and sisters “I am with you.” And music, our species’ most valuable and universal language is the finest way to express solidarity short of lying one’s body on the picket line itself.

In the days leading up to the deposing of President Omar al-Bashir earlier this spring, the world’s attention was all too briefly focused on the thousands laying their lives and freedom on the line in Khartoum, Sudan, and the rest of the country. The Sudanese Uprising, which began in December and has, at the cost of much innocent life and hundreds arrested, managed against all odds to force the overthrow and arrest of Bashir, who had ruled the North-Eastern Africa country since 1989. The mass peaceful (at least on the protestors’ part) insurrection, led by the Sudan Professional’s Association (SPA), was a reminder for many of the too-short window of hope known as the Arab Spring. But, as happened with the Spring, the world, distracted by individual national interests and, in this case, the burning of the Notre Dame, moved on. The Western media, truth be told, prefers its African stories told as either aspirational fiction or true(ish) tales of horror and gore, if they are told at all. A peaceful mass uprising, spearheaded by largely by women, couldn’t compare to a French church burning or an American dullard president’s daily tweeted inanity.

For singer/activist/scholar, Alsarah (she prefers to not use her last name), of Alsarah and The Nubatones, there could be no such diversion of attention. Born in Northern Sudan and forced, by her parents being in political and bodily danger, to emigrate to the United States when she was eight years old, Alsarah has, as an adult, established herself as a singular, outspoken, and singularly gifted Sudanese-American musician. One part ethnomusicologist and nine parts good-as-hell frontperson, Alsarah writes and performs what she calls “East-African retro-pop.” It’s not an inaccurate description per se, but the term doesn’t encompass The Nubatones spectrum of influence and fully modern feel. Alsarah and her band engages with the world as it is, not as it was. As both artist and grudging representative of the Sudanese diaspora, Alsarah makes a music and tells a truth free of nostalgia.

In response to ongoing Sudanese Uprising, Alsarah has done the thing an artist, one an ocean away from her people and their struggles, can best do: she recorded a song in solidarity.

(It should be noted that Alsarah was very clear about requesting that other Sudanese artists doing work both in and out of Sudan be included in this article. She mentioned “Sudanese Revolts” by Sammany, DJ Rama, Ayman Mao “who lives here in the USA but has become the soundtrack of the revolution via WhatsApp and YouTube releases. He is performing on the stage that was set up at the military headquarters by the people over the last 2.5 weeks of the sit ins.”, the popular Sudanese indie (or the Sudanese equivalent) pop singer Nancy Ajaj, and this trap song by an unknown producer.)

“Men Ana” (or “Who Am I?”), sung in Arabic and released via WhatsApp, is Alsarah’s song for the Sudanese Uprising, the people directly involved, the activists and regular citizens facing the military and attempting to navigate to a just ending, and the diaspora watching and hoping from afar. The song is as lilting and gracefully swinging as any of The Nubatones catalogue, with verse and chorus equally catchy. And as always Alsarah combines traditional oud and percussion and contemporary instruments. Angelic backing vocals interweave with eerie synths in the service, as always but particularly this case, revolution.

Noisey: What was the impetus for “Men Ana”? Did you write/record it specifically for the uprising?
Alsarah: I was gearing up towards recording the next Nubatones album (which we are still working on slowly but surely) and this song had been cooking slowly for a few months prior to the beginning of the Sudan Uprisings on December 13, but the song didn't finish and take solid form until three weeks into the still ongoing events. From the beginning of this revolution I, along with every other Sudanese person I know both inside Sudan and along scatterings of the diaspora, went thru so many emotions ranging from pure elation to pure fear and trepidation and all landed at a place of wondering who as a people are we, and what do we stand for?

Can you give a summation of what led to the situation in Sudan and where it stands currently?
It all started in 1989...this guy named Omar Al Bashir took over power in a military coup. He initiated a state of emergency and started rounding up people and killing anyone who opposed him from the previous regime or were known to be powerful intellectual voices in the country. Then he started killing people that didn't represent acceptable branches of his regime's vision of Sudan as a Muslim Arab state, a vision that was instilled in school education systems nationwide, and carried on going brutal civil wars first with what is today South Sudan, then Darfur, the Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains and any other "unacceptable" branches of Sudan's varied ethnic groups that he deemed too African. After the separation between the North and the South in 2011, Sudan's economy began taking a nosedive, coming to a full on free fall and crash by December 2018. The 30 years of the brutal regime that was a lethal combination of civil war, economic hardship, and ethnic and intellectual oppression came to a boiling point on Dec 19, 2018 in Atbara and swept thru the whole nation like wildfire.

Since then the people have been in four months of non-stop protests with the numbers being estimated at 1.3 million people as of this weekend sitting-in outside the Military Headquarters. On April 11, 2019 the military announces that they have taken over power and that Omar Al Bashir has been removed from power. They declared a state of emergency and placed another member of the same cabinet, Burhan, as the head of the military council. The people see through this charade and refuse to back down until a civil transition government has taken over.

What are your feelings about not being there? As an artist in the diaspora?
It shook me to my core!! I never thought I would see this man fall. I genuinely thought he was a vampire who just kept feeding off the blood and energy of the people, granting himself everlasting immortality and depleting us of everything, including our memories of who we are. For me to witness the wildfire of revolution take over my people and not be on the ground to feel it and be a part of it was extremely difficult! It forced me to step back and ask myself who do I want to be inside of this change? Especially that being on the outside in the diaspora I can also get a bird’s eye view of all the problematic things being said and exchanged between us even during the time of this revolution. We have so much work to do on ourself and our personal healing. I want the radical power of joy for us at a time like this. We deserve to be happy, we deserve love songs and twinkling stars and wild dreams. this started a revolution inside of me and it's made me want to be brave enough to be soft again.

What's the rationale behind making the song available on WhatsApp?
It's Sudan's number one media platform as far as I am concerned. So naturally I want it available there since for me this song is being sent specifically to all my Sudanis. It just defeats the western music business structure that's based on monitoring since you can't really keep track of it once you put it out (you can't really count the hits...just hope it makes it to a few popular groups and the more you get it back the more you know its working).

What, if anything, can the reader do to help?
At the moment not much besides tell your government (along with the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and the EU) to stop getting involved and let us handle this without them propping up these military goons with their money.

For further information on the situation in Sudan, Alsarah suggests reading and/or following: Sudan's Revolution Isn't a Fluke, It's Tradition (Okay Africa); An Uprising in Sudan (The Nib); The Facebook page of Sudanese cartoonish Khalid Albaih; and Vulture Funds Seek Profit from Sudan Debt Campaign (Jubilee Debt Campaign)

Alsarah adds, “This revolution is also an opportunity to see the tremendous level of digital media activism and citizen journalism that was carried out by the Sudanese people. Some important accounts to follow are: @associationSd , this one is the official account of the SPA who are handling negotiations on behalf of the people. @yousraelbagir , is a UK based freelance journalist original from sudan who had been covering the events on the ground for channel 4 news in the UK. @bsonblast is an activist and writer based in the USA who had been sending out daily updates in both English and Arabic of what's happening in sudan (hers is the most up to date, succinct, and reliable account in both languages). The following are important hashtags to follow: #sudanuprising, #sudan_revolts, or #sudanrevolts."