South Sudan's New Generation of Pop Stars Confront the Civil War in Their Music

Many of the biggest musicians in South Sudan have joined together to promote peaceful dialogue through their art.

Few South Sudanese celebrated their country’s fifth independence anniversary this July. Instead of hosting celebrations on independence weekend, Juba, South Sudan’s capital, turned into a war zone for the second time since civil war broke out in 2013. The shaky peace deal between the government and the opposition was effectively falling apart, as fighting raged throughout the city, killing hundreds.

Crazy Fox, aka “The Dancehall Monster,” was in his studio in Juba that weekend and on independence day, just before the fighting spread, he recorded a song that was to become a major hit in Juba during the coming months. Its title is “Ana Gaid,” which means “I am staying” in Arabic.

“I was like, you know, I am tired,” Crazy Fox says. “I am tired of running out of my country every single time and then coming back when the peace is back. So I just told these guys: ‘ana gaid, ana ma mashi’ [I am staying, I am not leaving]. I don’t care, if I am to die here at home, let me just die at home.”

“Ana Gaid” describes the deteriorating security and economic situation in South Sudan, expressing the hardships of the South Sudanese who struggle as the crisis goes on. The music video features Crazy Fox sitting in a typical lower class residential compound in Juba as its residents intend to leave the country. Unlike most South Sudanese music videos, it was not shot in a fancy club or a hotel with a swimming pool, and it does not feature expensive cars or clothes.

“I had to be in that community, poor community. I had to go into a ghetto…to show what is happening down there,” Fox says. “I had to make these things look real. Because the song itself is not an imagination, the song is based on a true story.”

The world is spoiled

The frustration expressed by Crazy Fox in “Ana Gaid” is part of a wider trend in South Sudanese popular music. In the last two years, some of South Sudan’s most celebrated musicians have increasingly been using their art to discuss the ongoing war and some of the ways in which it impacts the lives of ordinary citizens.

Within this trend, the economic crisis and the escalating rates of urban crime are re-occurring themes. As most of the fighting since the beginning of the war took place outside the capital, these are also some of the main issues that have been impacting Juba’s urban population as a consequence of the conflict.

In early 2015, Mr. Lengs released the song “Kalam Dollar” (which roughly translates to “the issue of the dollar” in Juba Arabic), discussing the worsening economic situation in South Sudan. Slightly later, Silver X, one of South Sudan’s most popular musicians, released “Dunia Karabu,” which in Juba Arabic means “the world is spoiled.” The song similarly deals with the rising costs of living and inflation.

Silver X and Mr Lengs have reportedly exchanged some accusations of plagiarism over the two songs, but both songs were eventually very popular.

Inflation has been rising in South Sudan since the beginning of the war, and prices continue to soar. Over the last year only, prices of food increased by more than 1000 percent.

In another song called “Tebiu Chapati” (“Selling Chapatti”), Crazy Fox calls on South Sudanese who complain about the rising costs of living and inflation to go out and work.

“South Sudanese go, sit under the tree, get a newspaper, taking tea…So I as an artist decided to compare Ugandans to our own South Sudanese economically,” Fox explains. “I’m like, you South Sudanese, if Ugandans are able to sell chapatti, and they are able to make a living, you go on the streets too and start small shops…The message was hard but it went down to some of the ghettos.”

Bad news: thieves and “unknown gunmen”

Active fighting was not taking place in Juba throughout most of the civil war, but insecurity in the capital worsened with time—a constant remainder of the turmoil and bloodshed ongoing in other parts of the country. Killings by “unknown gunmen” became widespread, as well as criminal attacks, rapes and thefts. Soon, these daily incidents found their way into popular music as well.

Mr. Lengs’s song “Juba Karabu” (“Juba is spoiled”) compares today’s Juba with that of 2006, which was peaceful and safe. The song’s music video follows men who steal a motorcycle and attack its owner, and then go on to break into a house and rape a woman.

Silver X’s “Times 10” similarly addresses the urban crime in Juba. Describing thefts, attacks and killings, Silver X argues Juba is “10 times more spoiled” than it previously was. Writing from Kampala, where he is currently recording a new album, Silver X explains that he wrote the songs because at the time “everything doubled by 10 times from the normal: too much killing on the roads…robbery at night or even daytime. 10ssp [South Sudanese Pounds] became like 1ssp. So everything went up by ten and even worse.”

People like songs dealing with these issues, Silver X notes, because they “hold a lot of reality. The truth.”

In a recent song titled “Kabara Kaab” (“bad news”), L.U.A.L, one of South Sudan’s most popular rappers, deals with the widespread crime as well, stating that Juba is already “500 times more spoiled.” The song features Crazy Fox as well, and its music video includes numerous criminal attacks.

Little patience for critical voices

Frustration may have replaced the celebrations and hope that characterized South Sudanese popular music at the time of independence, but L.U.A.L argues that despite these new voices, there is no fundamental change in the music industry. Most songs still deal with clubbing and romance, he says. “Things that are not really relevant,” in a country ravaged by civil war.

Raised in the U.S., L.U.A.L came to South Sudan in 2009, two years before the country’s independence. He has long been dealing with political subjects in his songs, and is known for his sharp and often highly critical lyrics in Juba Arabic. His stage name stands for “Lyrically Untouchable African Legend.”

L.U.A.L’s music is driven by a strong commitment to a peaceful and prosperous society society in South Sudan, but he also knows that in the current atmosphere, criticism can be risky. Earlier this year, he was harassed after releasing his song Dowla Jadit (“New Country”). The song, banned from being played on the radio, criticizes the chronic lack of public services and corruption in South Sudan, and the regular official excuse for these problems: “it’s a new country.”

L.U.A.L says that the main reason the song attracted significant attention was that it is in Juba Arabic, and not in English. “I said, this time, let me do something they will understand. So I did it in Arabic and it was too much…it was very very direct.”

“In hip hop you have to be straight forward and speak the reality,” he explains.

#Anataban: Art for peace

While the costs of living and urban crime are popular everyday issues that are easy to relate to, they hardly represent the worst of what many South Sudanese have been experiencing over the last three years.

As the war in South Sudan enters its fourth year, observers warn that the country may be on the verge of a “catastrophic collapse,” and possibly genocide. A UN commission recently said that “there is already a steady process of ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages.”

More than 1.3 million refugees have already left the country since the war started, a greater number is displaced within its borders, and no one was able to count how many people have lost their lives. The persistency of the violence has frustrated even the most hopeful of the optimists who witnessed the country gaining independence in 2011.

It is in this context that a group of young South Sudanese artists and activists, including Mr. Lengs, L.U.A.L, and Crazy Fox, recently launched a campaign titled “Ana Taban,” meaning “I am tired,” in Arabic. The group initially met in Kenya in July for a workshop, and in early August released a song, dedicated to “all those we have lost in this senseless war and to all those who are still here and are tired enough to make the changes we need.”

“South Sudanese, every day—death, death. Until when, brothers?” they ask in the song. “We are born in war, we grow up in war, and we will die in war as well?”

Nairobi-based South Sudanese singer Tutu Baibe is a member of Ana Taban, and was part of the initial group that met in Kenya. She explains that the idea was to form a group that will “fight for the peace in a peaceful way.”

By now, the group consists of more than 50 musicians, painters, poets and actors, who come from different backgrounds and ethnic communities. They are not affiliated with any political party or movement in South Sudan.

“I felt that it was an opportunity given to me to speak my heart out to my people to stop fighting and reconcile,” Baibe says. “We are all tired. Everyone, in every tribe, is really looking forward to a change in our country.”

Since launching the campaign, Ana Taban members have held several public performances in different neighborhoods in Juba, and collaborated to create street art. Taking their art to the people, they aim to promote peaceful dialogue, and combat the “tribalism” and ethnic hatred that is fueling the violence in South Sudan.

Crazy Fox joined the group after they came back from the initial workshop in Kenya. “I saw this as a good idea,” he explains. “I am not doing music for myself, I am doing the music for the people.”

Yotam Gidron is a master's student in African Studies, University of Oxford. 
Still from "Kasala!"

Meet The Nigerian New Wave Director Behind the Film 'Kasala!'

One of Naija cinema's new wave, Ema Edosio talks about what it took to film her exciting new film in the streets of Lagos.

Ema Edosio is the director of "Kasala", a comedy set in present day Lagos and centers on the lives of four young men who go on a joyride to a party in a Honda Accord one of them has taken from his boss Taju without permission. Their evening is ruined when one of them crashes Taju's Honda breaking the windscreen and denting the car's body. With just four hours before Taju returns home, all four boys hustle around Lagos to raise money for the car repair.

Taju, who is a struggling butcher, is faced with a big problem of his own: his debtor has just given him an ultimatum to pay back money he's long owed. Bitter and frustrated, Taju's retribution will be double-fold, if he returns home to find his Honda is damaged. The four friends do not need more another reason to expect the worse from Taju if they're not able to fix his Honda before gets home in the next four hours.

"Kasala" is a vivid portrayal of contemporary Lagos and a riotous combination of physical comedy, inventive turns of phrases combined with fluid camera work and committed performances from some of the young and bright African acting talents.

Written by Temi Sodipo and directed by Ema Edosio—who is also the cinematographer and editor—"Kasala" was chosen for the closing gala of the 2018 edition of Film Africa in London this November, out of a total of 39 films from 15 countries.

Edosio flew into London for the film's UK premier at the Rich Mix cinema to a largely pan-African crowd who lapped up the rollicking comedy. Ahead of her trip to the UK, Okay Africa spoke to Edosio about her debut feature, the joys and challenges of shooting on location in Lagos and the rise of Nigeria's so called "Naija New Wave" cinema.

Photo courtesy of Ema Edosio

The fast pace and energy in Kasala is constant all through the film. Was this a deliberate injection or did it come as a result of the writing?

I worked as a video journalist for the BBC and I would go into the streets of Lagos to film, and I would see everything that made Lagos what it is: the traffic, the smell, the dirt, the vibe, the energy, the people. And I wanted to make a story that is authentic and that is the reason why I decided to make Kasala this way.

All the four friends and main characters jell naturally it would seem. How did you get them to work well together?

When I conceived of the film, I knew that I didn't want to work with any "known" faces. I knew that I wanted unknown actors. So I put out an audition call and these boys worked into the room and I told them to read together. And immediately it was like magic.

Why do you think they're largely unknown to the majority of Nigerian movie watching audience?

I think one of the reasons is there's not a lot of movies written about young people. Most of the scripts are for a certain kind of male character: the superhero who goes to save the damsel in distress, and the hunk and a lot of roles are not written for these amazing actors and that's why they're largely unknown.

Tomiwa Tegbe who plays "Effiong" is a good comic actor and has been in "On The Real (Ebony Life TV)" and "Shuga (MTV)". What does Kasala bring out in Tomiwa Tegbe that these other directors and film material that do not?

The thing that made Tomiwa Tegbe and the rest stand out in Kasala is that I gave them freedom to act and I wasn't micromanaging them. They became very comfortable in order to do their best to the film.

The cast as a whole is largely new and young with Jide Kosoko easily the most experienced. Why did you cast him for the role and not yet another "unknown" face?

The reason is I couldn't afford to hire known faces to work in the film and I honestly didn't have the budget. I [also] wanted to bring in a sense of familiarity and that is why I got Jide Kosoko. Even though they're guys are unknown, and they're are fantastic "here is someone you know who is in this movie playing with these amazing actors" which is why I worked with Jide Kosoko.

The different locations in the film are those of back corners, mechanic garages, meat market, communal flats most of which have the red and brown of rust and decay gives the cinematography a visual harmony. How much attention did you give to finding the right locations?

I think I made Kasala with a vengeance. I've had the privilege to work with Ebonylife tv which was beautiful but Kasala kept pulling me in: the people I met in the streets, the things I'd done on the streets of Lagos, the visual aesthetic kept pulling and I decided to make that. I wanted to see Lagos, I wanted to see barbwires. I wanted to see gutters, I wanted to see the people. I knew that the location was a character on its own. And I wanted to be able to find the right location that would be able to represent that boys and the lives they live in Lagos. I'm forever grateful for the people there who let us film there.

Your camera adopts the often frenetic pace of the film and is rarely still for long. Why this visual approach?

I'm very influenced by Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. And I would always say to myself that "these characters in their films can be Nigerians". I think that the camera should be fluid, breathe, move with the audience showing us "oh yeah this is a wide, oh yeah this is a close up". My influence by these directors was what I put into Kasala. And this is what made the film dynamic.

Are there any interesting, unplanned events during shooting which you could share with our readers?

Shooting in Lagos is one of the hardest thing to do. You have these agberos [louts] who come to you and literally want to take your equipment. I went with a very small crew and I'm very petite and they would see me and say "who is this small girl? She doesn't have money. Leave her alone, let her shoot". I started bringing them into the film to act and it was very beautiful seeing them react to it. One of the most interesting things is the children in the estates [on location] who act in the film, the joy and the playfulness. In some ways we brought back some joy and some fun into the neighbourhood.

Still from "Kasala!"

Did you worry much about what may be lost to foreign audiences who may not be clued up the pidgin English and "Nigerianisms" used in the film?

You can't come to Lagos and make a film about the slum in English. I felt like the pidgin English was as important as the location. My mind was not about where the foreign audience would accept it or whatever. My mind was "how do I make a film that is authentic to Nigeria? How do I make a film that would show of Lagos?" It would do no justice to use English.

Who are the other key players in Nigeria's "nu wave" film and tv you would like to highlight?

When you talk about new wave key players you're talking about Abba Makama whose film "Green White Green" inspired me to make "Kasala". CJ SeriObasi, ImoEmoren, Jade Sholat Siberi, Kemi Adetiba. So many new directors are springing out nollywood. And they're new directors making amazing stuff. I'm really really excited about the future.

How did you raise the funding needed to make "Kasala"?

When I wanted to make Kasala, it was not the kind of story people would fund. I decided in order to bring this story to live, to use the skills I'd gained over the years—to produce, direct, shoot and edit. Not because I wanted to be in control, because I didn't have the budget. That is the sport of new director coming in now. We're fighting against all odds and it is now beginning to be clear that it's way beyond nollywood. Kasala has been to over 20 international festivals and counting. And there an audience for our films, there's an audience for our voices.

What are you expectations for it at the festival?

I really don't know what to expect. I just hope that they love the film. For the Nigerians in the diaspora,I hope that it brings back memories of Lagos. For black people I hope it gives them a sense of how we are back home to help them connect with us as Africans. For the foreign audience I hope that they see a Nigeria of passion, of community, of tenacity, of brotherhood of love.

"Kasala" will be released worldwide on December 7th


Indomie: Unpacking a Nigerian Tradition

What does Nigeria's way of preparing this beloved brand of instant noodles say about the country as a whole?

Before I came to Lagos in September to begin a collaborative performance project, I imagined all the ways the place would challenge all I had read and heard about it, and all the ways it might remind me of my home, Trinidad and Tobago. Of all the kernels of similarities I've encountered so far, Indomie is perhaps the most intriguing.

Indomie, a brand of instant noodles originating in Indonesia, has become the household name for all instant ramen noodles in Nigeria.

As a child, I would make Top Ramen, but ours was far less intentionally adorned. I had never seen anyone add anything but Golden Ray. I would try to be fancy with my own and add eggs, but they never quite attained Naruto ramen standards.

Indomie was my first meal in Nigeria. I had arrived in Lagos about two hours earlier. In those two hours I had seen something of the character of the city. In the midst of the clouds of dust and engine exhaust fumes I saw a woman almost fall out the car she was getting into, I saw men sitting atop a truck, like wrinkles in the night sky fabric, I saw selling, so much selling and buying and haggling. It seemed to me that everything was happening here.

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Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' Is Coming Out On Limited Edition 8-Track

"Zombie" and "Mr. Follow Follow" are available in the nostalgic 8-track cartridge.

"Zombie," Fela Kuti's 1976 protest anthem and scathing attack on the Nigerian military, is getting an 8-track re-release.

Knitting Factory Records, Kalakuta Sunrise and Partisan Records have made 300 limited editions copies of Zombie/Mr. Follow Follow which you can pre-order now ahead of its December 7 release.

Fela Kuti's classic song uses zombies as a metaphor for soldiers mindlessly following orders. The song is thought to have triggered the Nigerian government's horrific assault on the Kalakuta Republic, in which the compound burned to the ground, Fela was brutally beaten and his mother, Nigerian feminist icon Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was murdered.

You can pre-order Zombie/Mister Follow Follow on 8-track now and read more about each song from Mabinuori Kayode Idowu's text accompanying the release below.

Purchase Fela Kuti's Zombie/Mr Follow Follow on 8-Track

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