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Sudanese American rapper Bas on using music to cope with the brutal conflict in Sudan

Sudanese American rapper Bas in Khartoum during more peaceful times.
Kgotso Aphane/The Fiends
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Bas
Sudanese American rapper Bas in Khartoum during more peaceful times.

Updated November 14, 2023 at 2:27 PM ET

"These are real people that were just living their lives," says Bas, describing what the war in Sudan has deprived millions of people of. "They have hopes, dreams, families, lovers, careers, all these things that everyone in the world wants. And it was stripped from them."

"Khartoum," a new song by the Sudanese American rapper, features Nigerian singer Adekunle Gold and points attention to the ongoing war that erupted in April. The song is wistful and nostalgic, titled after Sudan's capital, now the epicenter of the war. On breezy, percussive tones it reflects on the devastation the conflict has caused and the lack of international urgency to end it.

"Emergency on planet Earth I'll tell you how it feels, when your family displaced and your countrymen are killed," he raps early on.

"It wasn't something that was strategic or anything," says Bas, 36, originally known as Abbas Hamad, on a call from Los Angeles. "I think it was just born out of just raw emotion."

This video grab taken from AFPTV video footage on April 19 shows an aerial view of black smoke covering the sky above the capital Khartoum.
Abdelmoneim Sayed / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
This video grab taken from AFPTV video footage on April 19 shows an aerial view of black smoke covering the sky above the capital Khartoum.

Fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has killed many thousands of people, with the true death toll unknown. Six million people have been displaced within the country and or have fled Sudan, according to United Nations figures.

Those who fled include some of Bas' own family and friends, as revealed in the song. "With friends or family that were making that journey, I just kept hearing stories of people not making it and having to bury them on the side of the road," he tells NPR.

After thousands of foreign citizens were evacuated from Sudan in the month after the war began, international attention quickly faded from the millions still left in the country. Periodic talks between the warring sides — efforts led by the United States and Saudi Arabia — have routinely failed to secure temporary cease-fires or to create lasting safe routes for humanitarian aid to reach millions in need. The global response to Sudan does not compare to the outpouring of support for refugees from Ukraine after Russia's invasion, Bas says.

"The world rose up and came to its feet. Ukrainian refugees were showing up in train stations all over Europe, with lines of people outside with food, blankets, offering them places to stay as it should be, you know, as human beings should treat each other," he says.

He points out that except for a few neighboring countries, many nations have not welcomed Sudan's refugees. "Sadly, history has shown us that when these things happen to, you know, Black and brown and minority populations of the world, it's completely different."

Picture of Sudanese American rapper Bas, with family in Khartoum, during happier times.
Kgotso Aphane/The Fiends / Bas
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Bas
Picture of Sudanese American rapper Bas, with family in Khartoum, during happier times.

While the song chronicles what Sudan has become, the video offers a glimpse of what the war has taken away. It weaves intimate footage Bas took in Khartoum while visiting his family last December, showing vignettes of ordinary life and scenic snapshots of the city.

Editor's note: This video contains profanity.

He took a team to document his family and their life in Sudan, initially without plans for it to be released.

"They spent the whole day just with my mom, like going to my great uncle's crib and walking around my neighborhood. My dad [was] giving an oral history of their neighborhood and the local tribes," Bas says.

And the video captures what he misses most about Sudan. "Just the unyielding hospitality. It's almost an aggressive hospitality. Any house, any room you enter, you're just flooded with food, drinks. It's almost an insult if you don't accept it," he says.

Sudanese American rapper Bas and a relative in Khartoum.
Kgotso Aphane/The Fiends / Bas
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Bas
Sudanese American rapper Bas and a relative in Khartoum.

Four years ago, a revolution in Sudan toppled the government of Omar al-Bashir, a dictator who was in power for 29 years. It led to renewed hopeabout Sudan's future, and a period where open expression and freedoms were no longer as repressed.

"You saw liberation in women, liberation in the youth, the proliferation of the arts of music, all these things that come with a free society that we had never seen in Sudan," says Bas.

Yet after two years, the transition government was deposed in a military coup, led by the army and the RSF, who are now at war for control of the country. "And that's what makes this so tragic," he says. "We felt like we were on the cusp."

"Khartoum" is a single from Bas' forthcoming, fourth studio album We Only Talk About Real S*** When We're F***** Up — out in December.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.