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Image courtesy of Ostinato Records.

The Story of Mohammed Wardi, 'The Last King of Nubia'

The legendary Sudanese singer's son, Abdulwahab, speaks in-depth about the life and times of his father, detailing his artistic and political impact on so many across the continent.

It's often confounding how someone of Mohammed Wardi's stature is not remembered in the same vein or celebrated worldwide as Fela Kuti. Wardi was a legendary Sudanese singer and activist akin to Fela in stature and impact in his music and politics. In fact, Wardi was, in many ways, the single most adored singer across Africa. The Wire magazine in the UK calls him a "cross between Fela Kuti and Lebanon's Feiruz."

Mohammed Wardi once performed at a sold-out 60,000 stadium in Yaoundé, Cameroon to a largely Francophone crowd who did not understand his Arabic lyrics but remained infatuated. A man from Mali once walked on foot for three months to Sudan to meet Wardi because the father of the woman he wanted to marry would only allow it if he got an autographed cassette and photo from Wardi himself.

In 1994, Wardi won a prize that anointed him the best singer in Africa. Politically, he fought for the ideas of his day: social justice, decolonization, redistribution of wealth, pan-Africanism. His relentless activism resulted in detention and eventually exile. His passing in 2012 was mourned from Mauritania to Djibouti.

His son, Abdulwahab, spoke to us in depth about the life and times of his father, detailing his artistic and political impact on the lives of so many across the continent.

This is Mohammed Wardi's story, as told by Abdulwahab.


(Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity)

Mohammed Wardi was a fighter. I call him the "Last King of Nubia." He is as ancient as civilization, the pharaohs, and the palm trees. The Nubian region is very rich with its beautiful scenery and views. It's a very old civilization with a very strong culture. It's the gate that leads from the north of Sudan to Egypt.

My father was born in the northern Nubian area on July 19, 1932. July 19 is a very particular day in his life because it comes back and back as we go. The first time he recorded a song on the radio was July 19, 1957. When the military coup of July 19, 1971, occurred, he spent his longest time in detention. So it's always [the number] 19 for him.

[My father] has a massive legacy with all the meaning of a legendary character. Sometimes I feel like he's a character straight out of a novel by Marquis.

When he sang to Ibrahim Abboud, a former president of Sudan, it was during a military coup. He thought the military loved their country because they didn't have political parties, they didn't just talk a lot and not do much. They were military—they had order, they had discipline. So he sang for these people, but the first political clash that came with them was when they drowned Halfa—when Sudan let Egypt build the dam that drowned the city we come from.

After that, [my father] became more conscious, and more aligned with the political left. To be more specific, he was in the Sudanese Communist Party (the largest in Africa during the Cold War). That was in the '60s, he was part of the opposition to remove colonization. They were very close to the youth and their voice was the loudest.

Mohamed Wardi in Khartoum, early 1970s. Photo: ©Fouad Hamza Tibin / Elnour.

There were religious parties, but he was a singer, an artist, and rebellious. You know how politics can get you into some slippery areas... but no matter what, he got into politics as an artist. There's no party in the world that could tell him what to do or what to sing. They used to say that if you wanted the Communist Party to win the student vote, you just had to bring Mohammed Wardi to sing at the University of Khartoum, and that's it, everyone was going to vote for the left because he was the singer of the people.

When the May coup [which brought Gaafar Nimeiry to power] in 1969 happened, everybody supported it. Wardi came and sang because he agreed with them. It was a leftist coup that came with the same slogans that we agree with. Everybody was in the streets.

During the coup of 1971 on July 19—again we come back to July 19—he was about to be executed, but he was detained. When he was released, he didn't change his opinions and remained the same person.

In 1983 came the September Laws of Islamic Sharia. It was a very difficult year for him. The personal freedoms, being valued as people, were gone. It was an oppressive regime. He left and he sent songs for the revolution from the outside. When the intifada of 1985 came, two years after his exile, he was the singer for that revolution—because he was the singer of the people. He had zero tolerance for oppression and victimization. He fought authority, he fought the president, he fought the oppressive regime.

He left for a long time. When he was outside, in 1994, he got a prize for being the best singer in Africa. He went to America, then to Egypt, and stayed out of the country until 2001.

When he returned to Sudan, the way that people welcomed him at the airport was fabulous. It was unbelievable and unusual. He came as an artist, he came as a celebrity, he came to see his audience.

When he died, I called him the Nile. Because as long as the Nile is running, the singing of Wardi exists. Nobody can take the Nile away from the Sudanese people. It's for every Sudanese person. The other Nile is Mohammed Wardi. He will continue to be there as long as life continues to be there. Because he sings very deep songs to his people, and this is a gift from God.

Mohammed Wardi was a representative of the people. He was their voice; their civilization. He summarizes the spirit of the Sudanese people when he sings.

Cassette tape cover of Wardi's "Al Mursal" album, the highest selling Sudanese album, ever. Photo courtesy of Ostinato Records.

In West Africa, he sang in the stadium of Yaoundé to 60,000 people. They only spoke French, they didn't even speak Arabic, [so] they didn't even know what was he singing. They came to his concert because they loved Wardi. It's like when I hear Shammi Kapoor, the Indian singer, I don't know what he's singing, but I just love the songs and love the singer.

One time a guy from Mali came to me on foot because he didn't have enough money. He told me that he wanted to see Mohammed Wardi. I said, "Ok, Mohammed Wardi is not here, he's in Egypt, why do you want to meet him?"

He said, "I want to take a picture with him, and I want him to give me a cassette because I want to marry a girl, and the girl's father didn't want me, and he gave me very, very hard conditions: that if I go and meet Mohammed Wardi and bring his signature and his voice and a picture, then I will give you my daughter."

I gave him my father's number in Cairo. He took the train 'til Halfa, then the boat 'til Egypt and he found my father and took a picture with him. My father then gave him a plane ticket, and he went back home and got married. This is a person who doesn't even know Arabic. He came from Mali, traveling for three months on foot. [It shows how] my father was loved in West Africa, East Africa, and the middle of Africa.

In 1997, in exile, Wardi released a cassette called Al Mursal (The Messenger). It was a song that he sang first in 1974. Sudan went crazy. This was the highest selling Sudanese album ever, until now, because he was the singer of the Sudanese people—the left and the right, the educated and the illiterate, the laborer, the farmer, everybody [loved it].

Photo courtesy of Old Sudanese Photos Facebook Group.

There are two personalities, two characters, two people: one in Lebanon, one in Sudan. In Lebanon, during the civil war, when the two parties were fighting, they listened to Feiruz and didn't talk. They listened.

Mohammed Wardi was my friend. If you ask me what I miss the most, since his songs are for everybody, [I would say] I miss having a conversation with him. He was the kindest, most interesting person. He knew how to chat. I had this craving to listen to him. He could tell me stories in Nubian, in Arabic. Everywhere he sat and started talking, people listened to him.

He died the 18th of February, 2012 from kidney failure. Death is difficult. I just thank God that he did not suffer a lot.

He didn't like to give advice. The only [advice that he gave] was a verse from a poem: "the sticks that stay together are hard to break." He wanted us to be one. He did not want to die outside. He wanted to die among us.

He was very calm when facing death. He waved with a smile and said goodbye. After that, the reaction was big, it was huge. To tell you the truth, I used to avoid remembering that. I could not even handle listening to his voice all this time. Just few months ago, I started to normalize that, but I was forced to stand up in front of people and to listen to his music, and to lead the orchestra, and to smile. This little courage that I have, I got it from him. God bless his soul.

Mohammed Wardi is featured in Ostinato Records' new release Two Niles to Sing a Melody: The Violins & Synths of Sudan.

Photos

This Is What Rotimi's 'Walk With Me' EP Listening Party Looked Like

The Nigerian singer held an intimate listening party on the eve of the release of his new EP, 'Walk With Me,' at Brooklyn's Okay Space.

Walk With Me, Rotimi's new and highly anticipated EP, dropped Friday—giving us a seven-track peek into who the singer and actor truly is sonically.

The night before, the Nigerian-American crooner gathered over 100 tastemakers and day-one supporters to Brooklyn's Okay Space—the shared gallery space between Okayplayer and OkayAfrica—for an intimate listening party celebrating the release, as well as his music video for "Love Riddim" which also dropped this week.

The night was simply a vibe—folks enjoyed libations and bites from The Suya Guy, with sounds by DJ Tunez. Rotimi opened the gathering up with a thoughtful prayer, with the music video reveal to follow. The singer then walked the audience through each track from Walk With Me, opening up about the creative process of how each track came to life.

Following, Rotimi engaged in an even more in-depth Q+A session with OkayAfrica's arts and culture editor, Antoinette Isama, where he touched on his experience touring with Wizkid back in 2011, his thoughts on the continued rise in popularity afrobeats is having in mainstream music, his hopes for the future and more. Tunez then ran the EP back when the party ensued, as the project is full of tracks that are worthy of being on repeat.

Listen to Walk With Me below, and be sure to take a look at photos from the listening party by Nerdscarf Photography.

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Film
CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 16: Director Ladj Ly and Almamy Kanoute attend the photocall for "Les Miserables" during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

How To Survive Cannes Film Festival As a Black Filmmaker

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind.

Cannes Film Festival is one of the world's most prestigious gatherings bringing celebrities, filmmakers and actors claiming to celebrate the world's best film. Although the festival is way behind Sundance or the London Film Festival regarding diversity efforts, it remains the place to be if you're a filmmaker—especially a Black one.

I, myself, am a Black French filmmaker who was invited to Cannes as part of their scheme for young film lovers—3 Days in Cannes—open to anyone between the ages of 18 and 28. The scheme, which launched in 2018, requires young hopefuls to write a cover letter showing their passion for film. It ultimately gives young people the opportunity to discover the international selection of films showed at Cannes.

READ: Black Women Are the Future of French Cinema—When Will Cannes Catch Up?

Being in Cannes for the first time was a wonderful experience, but it can be tough to navigate as a Black filmmaker if you're not prepared for it. So, here are top tips.

1) Don't be a person of color—especially if you're Black (Just kidding. But still.)

Cannes is a beautiful, posh city in the south of France. It is part of the Provence Alpes Côte d'Azur, an administrative region where the far right party Rassemblement National (formally known as the National Front) hits record-breaking highs. Despite the fact that the festival is incredibly international, at times it can feel pretty racist, like a sunny, idyllic version of 1960s Alabama, where a party of more than one Black person gets routinely rejected from some clubs/bars/restaurants. On top of that, the staff and some of the security working at the festival can be incredibly aggressive and rude to you and in French. If you don't understand it, it's even more confusing.

To avoid it, try to stick to the official Cannes parties, or hang out in international hotels like the Miramar or the Radisson Blu Hotel—which are used to an international crowd. You can also stick to parties at the various country pavilions near the Film Market.

2) Stick to the African Pavilion

At the festival, most countries have their own pavilion. But because the festival believes Africa is a country, all 54 countries are gathered in one pavilion. This pavilion also includes the Caribbean, since Jamaica, as life would have it, is also an African country. In the African Pavilion, there was even talk on how to submit films if you're a filmmaker of Indian descent (despite the fact that India had its own pavilion).

You're not African? That's okay, no one cares. Pan-Africanism is still alive, I guess? Thankfully, out of the many pavilions, I did find the African Pavilion was the best one the most welcoming and whose schedule was the most open and clear. Because Cannes is such an exclusive festival, most of the parties and talks won't be communicated outside of those who are supposed to attend.

The African Pavilion, however, requires you to sign up to their newsletter. You then access their app where you can see the schedule, the talks to attend and the party they planned. The only downside is that they were understaffed, so some talks and events were cancelled last minute and with limited communication.

If you're a Black French filmmaker, speaking English is a must to get the most out of the pavilion. If you're an English-speaking filmmaker, try to make friends or meet people who speak French, as some of the talks/discussions might not have professional interpreters.

Also, go to the events organized by diversity in Cannes. Now, if you're a Black filmmaker who would rather not stay in the community for fear of being pigeonholed? Unless you're part of a talent scheme run by the festival...good luck getting others to support you.

3) Be ready to WAIT to see films and to party

On average, I waited 1 hour 40 minutes for each film I wanted to see in the official selection program. And I purposely chose not to see the famous ones like the Pedro Almodóvar or Quintin Tarantino's films. I also waited almost two hours to see a film from the Un certain regard selection and didn't get in—despite my pass. Now, Un certain regard has the most highly sought after films, even more so than the Competition, because they tend to select the best among indie international films. To get in for sure, you need a "Un certain regard" pass, so they need to invite you themselves. Even if you have a ticket at the counter, you might not get in unless you wait two hours (standing) or choose to attend the early screening or the late ones (and still, you should be ready to wait 1 hour for these).

You need a pass AND a ticket to see the films from the official selection and walk the red carpet up to the Grand Théatre Debussy. For the ACID, Director's fortnight, Semaine de la critique, and the Official selection's films not shown on the red carpet, you just need a pass—and to be ready to queue for at least 45 minutes.

I wouldn't recommend getting the Cannes cinephile pass as it has a low priority. I saw people waiting 2 hours to see a film and not getting in, while people with professional Black passes arriving 10 minutes before the screening walking past them. Because the Cannes festival is for professionals, they have, unfortunately, priority over members of the public.

Now, with the parties at Cannes, word on the street is that they are not as legendary as they used to be. Even if you get invited to one, you still need to wait an hour. It's not because they are over capacity, but rather they feel the need to pretend that they are. Unless you're a VVIP. And if you're one, why are you reading my article?

Anyway, despite not being as glamorous as they used to be, they remain so exclusive that if your name is not on the list, you might need to sell your first born to attend.

Thankfully, you can avoid it by being smart. When I arrived in Cannes, I was dead set on going to parties to network. Since almost all of them are invite only, I went to the parties at the pavilions, like the UK one, the American one (which costs 20 euros because Americans are always about their money) and the African Pavilion—that were kind enough to facilitate networking by introducing me to fellow filmmakers. God knows how talking to strangers and building new relationships can be difficult, and they made it easier.

4) Make friends with distributors or people working for the Mayor's office

The whole point of the festival is to sell films. Tickets are sparse for most people, so some badge holders wear their Sunday Best and stand outside the grand theater, holding signs asking for tickets. It makes sense that distributors are incredibly powerful, since they have the power to buy and sell films internationally. They are given way too many tickets that should be given to people waiting for hours outside.

So, if you make friends with distributors, they will always have a handful of spare tickets, even for the big ones that everyone wants to see. They also have tickets for the big parties as well. Press badge holders also have priority since they are responsible for a film good or bad media coverage. So they have a handful of tickets too.

People working for the Mayor's office also have tickets because they work closely together since the festival brings so much revenue to the city. Make friends with them, as well as film students and you'll get tickets. Don't know where to find them? Social media is your friend.

There is also another way to get tickets to films: the staff. For example, I couldn't get tickets to see Mati Diop's Atlantiques. I walked to the ticket counter and saw a Black woman with a great hairstyle. My instinct KNEW I had to tag along. I asked her if she needed help. She was looking for the same tickets. We asked someone at the ticket office if they could help. They said they had nothing. But one of the staff members saw us and said she could try to help us. She came back with two tickets and that's how I got to see the film. I got lucky and was cunning. So be nice with the staff, they can help.

5) Be ready for anything

A film festival is intense by nature, but Cannes is a whirlwind. Since you're spending so much time waiting and walking from venues to venues, you won't have time to eat unless you bring food you've made before hand. You're not allowed to eat inside the theaters and if you walk the red carpet, you food is thrown out beforehand. You can try buying food and drinks in the morning and finish it by the time you walk the red carpet. I'd advise buying it at a supermarket like the pricey Monoprix. Or the nearby McDonald's. It's cheap, warm, almost always open and a great way to socialize! Young filmmakers, as well as those from Britain and the States will come to McDonald's to eat since it's one of the places they know best. Why not strike up a convo there?

Also, don't forget your power bank. Your phone will get out of battery for sure, especially if you post content on social media.

Finally, despite its reputation, the festival is incredibly badly organized. You will be told that your badge is not allowed to watch films at other selections, or you would be given the wrong directions and will be lost in the croisette on your way to see an obscure film.

Chill, be ready to walk and use Google Maps. And enjoy!

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Julie Adenuga: "There Are Young Artists In Nigeria Who Are Changing the World"

In an exclusive interview, the Beats 1 radio presenter opens up about her Nigerian heritage, documenting Homecoming in Lagos, and London being an important hub for afro-fusion sounds.

Julie Adenuga sits at the intersection of two continents.

As an affable tastemaker who transforms banal interviews into engaging conversations with some of the most famous artists in the world, Julie is leading the global dialogue on new music from her daily radio show, which broadcasts to over 100 countries.

The North London native of Nigerian descent hails from a musical family, her brothers are artists Skepta and JME, and has risen from the underground as a self-taught presenter on former pirate radio station Rinse FM to being one of three lead DJ's with her Beats 1 show on Apple Music.

A champion of homegrown talent in the UK and across the African diaspora, Julie is a purveyor of the afro-fusion genre, as is evident in her recent Homecoming documentary, which captured the fresh innovators from the Lagos music scene, and her DON't @ ME club nights, which has featured Ghetts, Lady Leshurr and The Compozers as residents.

Chosen as one of OkayAfrica's 100 Women celebrating extraordinary women from Africa and the diaspora, we speak with the presenter and broadcaster on owning her Nigerian identity, the responsibility of spreading afrobeats and why London is a key location for the genre.

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