Sudanese musician and producer MaMan talks music making and African-Arabic history with South African writer and photographer Toka Hlongwane.

In a religiously and ethnically divided country that has been plagued with political unrest since its 1956 independence, 28-year-old Sudanese rapper Mahdi Nouri MaMan is hill-crest and shouting at the top of his lungs for a united Sudan that sees itself beyond ethnic, religious and political barriers.

“We have to go back to Africa. Sudan refused to become an African king and instead chose to be an Arab slave. As harsh as it sounds, that is one of the main reasons why Sudan finds itself where it is today…”

This statement forms the theme of MaMan’s sophomore album Shammasi – a common Sudanese term to describe a person living under the sun yet lost in their ways. The album highlights the narrative of a nation’s identity crisis that later became the nation’s actual identity. In 1956 the modern Republic of Sudan became independent after decades of fighting for separation from Ottoman Egyptian administration, as well as joint British and Egyptian rule.

It was a new dawn for Sudan and its people, but quickly dawn became dusk as the newly found independence was threatened by military coups and ethnic civil wars that went on until 1983. This was the point at which the then-president Jaafar Muhammad an-Nimeiry imposed Sharia Islamic law, ignoring the ethnic tribes like the Nuba, Beja, and Nilotic nations as well as the Christian population that shared the country.

Nimeiry didn’t last, as a change was on the horizon. By 1989, General Omar al Bashir’s National Salvation Revolution took over, with the new leader staying in power for the next 30 years. Under Bashir’s rule the Sharia Laws remained, with the black population of Sudan seen to be inferior to their Arab counterparts. This became reminiscent of the first Islamization of Sudan in the 8th century through military conquest and enslavement of most black Sudanese of the Dinka, Nuer and Nuba tribes.

“The irony of Sudan is that the colonizer never left” says MaMan. “Instead, he grew his population within the borders of Sudan, hence Islam is the biggest religion and Arabs and their decedents are the now the majority.”

Half Arabic himself, MaMan’s opinion is that Sudan is in Africa – and that those roots should be embraced and upheld beyond anything else.  

“Religion cannot unite us, tribal identities too cannot unite us, but acknowledging and embracing the fact that we are all Sudanese is the only thing that will unite us,” he says.

Growing up in Khartoum under Al Bashir’s government, he was essentially born into a specific way of thinking.

MaMan image (Credit Amin Salah)

“I honestly didn’t know better” he says. “My family was ok financially, so we didn’t really face socioeconomic issues that other people experienced, but I would hear that [Bashir] was a dictator and my parents would talk about life before he came to power. It was only when I grew older that I began to see limits in freedom of speech and that directly affected me. I began to see the regime for what it was.

MaMan’s father Ali Mahdi Nouri, is a Sudanese actor and activist, so he became aware of the political atmosphere in the country through his work. “Naturally, I was drawn to acting as a kid and after high school, I wanted to study drama, but my father always encouraged me to get a degree in a different career to secure a better future for myself.”

So, he studied Business Economics at University, which ironically, is where his love for music began.

“I started off as a DJ in my freshmen year and was introduced to music production software by Ahmed “Slizzy” Abdalla” he recalls. “In the same year I met musician Tamir ‘Rotation’ Siddig. We toyed around with the idea of making music. Tamir later introduced me to Saji Ali a producer who taught me all I needed to know about music production.”

By 2016, another friend – UK based producer Abraham “Abe” Moughrabi invited MaMan over to his place in Brighton for a week, where they worked on his first EP titled Eyes of a Gemini.

“In Sudan there was no market or industry for the music we were making, so we just threw caution to the wind and figured we should make the project regardless and stick our necks out as the forerunners of our generation’s sound.”

The Eyes of a Gemini EP took off, with MaMan getting traction from his peers and a level of internet distribution that helped promote his music to a bigger fan base that grew even beyond the borders of Sudan.

Once he was back in Khartoum, Saji Ali called him to say that some artists from Doha wanted studio time. That’s when he met musician Eltayeb Hajo. They had immediate synergy and shortly worked on a song called Alright produced by Omar Majid.

“That track put us on” he says of the hit it became in Sudan. “It’s currently sitting at over 1.5 million views on Youtube. We catalyzed the creation of a market for our music and opened a window in the Sudanese music industry.”

From there, they decided to create a label – YoungJUSTUS – which saw the launch of MaMan’s 2018 released album, titled 1991. This carried the hit single, Grow so Fast, which was inspired by both the love and suffering of his generation and what he expresses as “the struggle to find a place in the current political and socioeconomic disparities.”

The theme of the second album, Shammasi, is not too far off from the narrative of Grow so Fast. He describes it as a snapshot of living under the sun that set on the Kandakas and Kings of Sudan’s uprising on that fatal 3rd of June in 2019. Yet it also projects his hopes for a united Sudan with one Sudanese identity.

“In sub-Saharan Africa, the sun is the main driver of the ecosystem, a source of energy and scourging heat. As the sun’s responsible for both life and death, Shammasi conveys my dreams and nightmares.” MaMan explains. “Originally titled No Justice: How to Survive a Revolution, the album speaks volumes about the process in which Sudan finds itself on a societal and individual level.”

With the release of Shammasi, MaMan understands that he only has a small window to say what he wants to say to address the social ills that plague his country. With an unstable government and a restless society, one can only imagine how freedom of speech is a commodity for a revolutionary artist whose album is punctuated by poignant quotes by iconic activists Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. MaMan’s Shammasi articulates the notions of hope, fear, depression, isolation, escapism, and the renewal of hope and love for one’s homeland — as one particular album track, Sudan, suggests.