SINKANE’S AHMED GALLAB ON PROTEST, IDENTITY, AND ‘MADANIYA: A NIGHT FOR SUDAN’
September 6, 2019
What to do when changing your avi and retweeting aren’t enough? Earlier this year, as those of us in the States learned of the large, civilian-led peaceful protests against President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and the repressive violence that al-Bashir’s regime and the Sudanese military used to quell them, we watched the events unfold horrified by the state-sanctioned violence. But we were also in awe of the bravery of the women and men who stood up to that repression to save their country. We turned our avis blue in support of the protesters and their “Madaniya” movement that pushed for a democratic, civilian-led government instead of the dictatorship that al-Bashir presided over in his 30-year reign. We tweeted through it and shared articles in hopes of spreading awareness, but most of all, we wondered what more we could do to help our brothers and sisters on the continent.
All of this hit as close to home as it could get for Ahmed Gallab, the musician behind Sinkane. Born in London and raised in Sudan as a child and then U.S. (Ohio), watching his people’s struggle had a profound effect on Gallab. As part of a community of Sudanese Americans whose families fled the country for the same reasons people were protesting, he was inspired by his people’s resilience and courage and wondered how he could bring people together to not only celebrate this heroism but to also provide material support in the aftermath of the government’s repression. The answer he came up with Madaniya: A Night For Sudan, a celebration and charity event happening at Industry City in Brooklyn tonight that will feature performances from Sinkane and fellow children of Sudanese descent such as rapper Bas, Everyday People’s DJ mOma, rising star Dua Saleh, and rapper/producer Oddisee. Before tonight’s event, AFROPUNK spoke to Gallab about Sudan his community and how the inspired the event and his music own and identity.
What led you t0 organize Madaniya: A Night For Sudan?
At the beginning of the year, there was an uprising that happened in Sudan because of years and years of oppression, by a military dictator, Omar al-Bashir and all of the tyranny that he has inflicted upon the country of Sudan. It all came to a head at the beginning of 2019 and the people said, we don’t want to take your shit anymore. People came out on the streets and they were protesting and it was this big snowball effect where once some people started, other people caught on; once one city started protesting another city started protesting. One city was declared [to be in] a state of emergency, and then the entire country was declared to be in a state of emergency.
The people outside of Sudan, who were Sudanese like myself, caught onto this and were inspired by all of the resilience and power that the people in Sudan were showing the world. [This attitude] of, “we’re not taking this shit anymore.” The first thing I thought when I started seeing that happening was, “what can I do?” as a Sudanese person outside of Sudan? What can I do to show the people in Sudan that I’m with them, to show my brothers and sisters who are sacrificing themselves, who are dying, that I’m with them? I had this idea of doing this show a long time ago. I thought, what would be really amazing is if —in the spirit of the history of protest music — we got all of us Sudanese people outside of Sudan who have the privilege to show the world what’s going on Sudan together to do something for our people. So I hit up all of my friends and it was an instant “yes” from everybody. What this is for is to show people in Sudan that even though we’re not there, even though we weren’t with you guys when you were on the ground and sacrificing your life, [that] we respect you and we are here to show you that we support you. This is the least that we can do to show our people and our friends and family in Sudan that we’re with them.
What exactly does “madaniya” mean? It was a rallying cry during the protests but give us some context about its use.
The history of Sudan and the political situation in Sudan ever since the Sudanese people gained independence from the British in the late ’50s is that we have seen a back and forth from dictatorship, military rule, and then democracy. It’s never been a consistently a democratic country. But what has been consistent is that the people have always overthrown the tyrants, whether that tyrant is, the colonialist government and the British or dictators that were Sudanese. This isn’t the first time that there has been a people’s revolution in Sudan. There was one in the ‘80s, there was one in the ‘70s and what it shows is that the Sudanese people are what make this country [Sudan] work, they are the power of the country and they know this country more than anything.
The Madaniya movement is reinstating all of that stuff. The people of Sudan were the ones who said, enough is enough, we are going to do something about this terrible situation and we’re not going to back down until you negotiate with us something that we as a people feel is fair. And it’s good moving forward to, to have a prosperous country. The protest was peaceful. It was led by the people. The group of people that led the charge, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) were civilians, so that’s, that’s kind of what the whole concept of [madaniya] is about.
Talk about the talent on the bill and this Sudanese artist community you’re a part of.
Me and Amir—Oddisee– we’re really close friends. You know, I was seeing him every single day this month just to hang out. DJ mOma and Bas are brothers and we’re all friends. For Ramadan, I go to their house to break fast. Al-Sarah is one of the first people that I ever met in New York when I moved here. She was really good friends with my sister and was introduced to me through my sister. Dua Saleh and G-Salih, the two new ones, are ones that I know the least [on the bill for the event], but I just spoke at a conference and G-Salih was there. We, we got to know each other, which is amazing. Dua Saleh played here [in New York City] a couple of months ago, at Baby’s All Right and me, Amir [Oddisee], Adut Akech [Bior] — she’s a South Sudanese model — and a bunch of other Sudanese folks. We all came in droves as the support Dua. That’s just kinda how we roll. You know, it’s a tight-knit community.
Your family had to flee Sudan when al-Bashir came into power, do a lot of people in your artist community have a similar experience?
My dad was a politician, he was a part of the government that was overthrown. Not only did we flee the country. But we came here [to the U.S.] on asylum because had we gone back, who knows what would have happened to my dad? Amir’s Dad came earlier. He was a part of the generation that came to the United States in the ’70s. A lot of us, like mOma and his family, [had the] same situation as me. [He] comes from a political family, they fled the country. Four to 7 million people fled Sudan in 1989. We are a part of that diaspora. We’re a part of that huge migration. An interesting side note [to that] is because of 4 to 7 million people who fled, it was predominantly the older generation [who left], now, in Sudan, 75% of the population is 25 years old and younger [the CIA puts this number at just over 60%]. This revolution that took place this year was led by kids and that’s a really inspiring thing for me. It gives me the chills just to think about it. These kids have done something phenomenal, what can I do to help the situation? So that’s where we’re at.
On your latest record, Dépaysé there’s a lot on it that deals with identity and being a part of that Sudanese diaspora. How does your Sudanese identity blends with or conflict with your African American or American identity?
Growing up in the United States and in Sudan what ended up happening was that I ended with a huge identity complex. I would live in the United States and people here in the United States would say, well, you’re not really American, you know? And then the African American, the Black community would say, “well, you’re not really Black,” and I’m like what does that even mean? And the Sudanese community would say, “well, you’re not really Sudanese know you. You got out, you don’t live here, you don’t, you don’t deal with the things that we deal with, you’re not really Sudanese, you know, you’re more American. And then I’m talking to American and be like, no, you’re not really American. So I’m like, what, “what the fuck am I? “Am I this or that?” I’ll go to a mosque and people will say, “You’re weird. You’re not really like us, not like a Muslim like us.” In my twenties, I just was so confused and I didn’t know who I was and I was always chasing after this or that like these myths were going to be what was going to define me.
The only thing that I found to be welcoming of my curiosity and really challenging me in a, in a very amazing way to understand my identity was music. I started Sinkane as a vehicle to really understand my identity. The name “Sinkane” is a made-up word. I started fresh. [I said to myself] I’m going to create this whole world that is defined by just me and the things that I want to do and I’m going to learn who I am through this. And that kind of came to its full realization on this new album where I was able to understand that no one could tell me who I am and no one could tell me what I am. I can be all of these things all at once. This understanding of duality doesn’t have to be a difficult one. It could be a fun journey and an exciting one, you know? A lot of things came along the way that really challenged all of that: Trump being elected was a big one, the Muslim ban was another big one. So all of these things really allowed me to think about this in a very honest way, in a very serious way, in a way where I didn’t have to answer to anybody other than to myself.
Listening to your latest album, Dépaysé, I feel like you wear your heritage on your sleeve, in terms of like how it influences the way you sing on the songs and instrumentation and even the phrasing. Your earlier music, like the self-titled project from ’09 was more electronic and less referential, tell me about that evolution from there to where you are now.
The more that I work on my music, the more, the more I peel away layers and the more certain things kind of come out. And in the last couple of years I realized that my Sudanese identity was something that I never really thought about, you know, very serious way, you know, it was, it was a, it was a part of who I was, but I didn’t really go there with it then. And I also realized when I make my own music, when I’m starting from the beginning and I’m like creating my demos, I sing in Arabic. I started asking myself, well, why do I do this? And I realized, Oh, it’s because I can emote better this way. I can create this feeling that I know very well with Arabic that I can’t do with English. And then when I go to finish the project and I finished the song I sing in English and sometimes I’m like, wow, that doesn’t quite work. There are things about me that can only be honestly represented in Arabic or with Sudanese sounding rhythms or with Sudanese sounding, melodies. I realized that these songs that I wrote that had to be there and I have to very blatantly represent [my Sudanese heritage] because otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get the point across in the way that I wanted to. So it was a breakthrough for me. I don’t know if I’ll make another album like this, but it was something that I needed to do more for myself than anybody else.
I’m sure it’ll be very special tonight at Industry City to perform these songs in front of an audience where I’m sure there’ll be a lot of Sudanese American people there. What are you anticipating about tonight?
Well, it’s not about me, man. The whole, the whole night is about all of us. This is a dream come true for me to be performing with not only my friends but the people that I look up to the most in the industry. Al-Sarah, Bas, Oddisee, Dua Saleh, and G-Salih and Afaq and Safia Elhillo, the poets that are going to be performing as well. We set this up is like the sit-ins during the revolution [in Sudan] where if you went to any of these peaceful protests, you’d see music and poetry and art all over the place. [You would see] people talking about what’s going on and inspiring each other. That’s what the Madaniya is and that’s what I’m more excited about. For me, to perform as Sinkane is great—there’s no doubt about that — but collectively for all of us to perform and get together to do this, that’s what I’m most excited about. This is all for the love of our country and for our people. And the fact that we’re able to partner with the Sudanese American Medical Association to donate all of the proceeds that we make from the show to them so that they can send it to people in Sudan who are dealing with all of the PTSD and all of the injuries and the fatalities that have happened in Sudan that to us is amazing. So what I’m anticipating is there’s going to be a lot of love between all of us. We’re going to have a really good time together.
Get last-minute tickets for Madaniya: A Night For Sudan here.