Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Rapping for peace in Darfur

I’ve never been to a rap concert before, but I’m fairly sure they don’t look like this.

Thinking that it would be more interesting than watching a DVD, we took up the invite to go and hear Al-Nour and his friend rap for peace in Darfur. Arriving at a residential house in a smart part of town, we found the rap massive in a small garden politely sitting in neat lines of plastic chairs facing a high stage with a couple of enormous speakers.

As we came in, an old woman was swaying as she played a tune from her mobile phone into a megaphone. A few mildly interested people looked across at her, while the majority went on chatting. We were greeted and led to a couple of hastily vacated chairs near the front. Sneaking a look round while trying not to look as conspicuous as two khawajas in seats of honour usually do, the audience was mostly made up of middle-aged men in smart shirts and women in colourful topes – material doubling as a wrap and a headscarf – surrounded by large numbers of children.

The atmosphere was wedding-festive. But instead of a beaming bride and groom, two scowling young men in baggy jeans strut-danced their way onto the stage, breaking into a few rap-grunts before bigging up the crowd. After a couple of numbers in Arabic, they tried their hand in English and French, singing a little bit about ethnic tolerance and a lot about women. Their credibility was only slightly damaged by the huge un-rapper like smiles they burst into now and again. And the singing was impressive - if they hadn’t swiped some lyrics from MC Solaar, then they must be the most talented people involved in the peace process so far. Though that might not be saying much.

In case this started getting too hardcore (not a huge risk), every couple of songs the rappers disappeared to stock up on water and lurk coolly in a side garden, to be replaced by a string of unlikely comperes who obviously felt things would get nasty if the crowd wasn’t entertained.

One of them, an old man in a dazzling all-white get-up, recounted what seemed to be the conjoined histories of rap and colonialism in Arabic, with the occasional explanation in English and nod in our direction. The man to be was clearly James Brown. Jazz and rock and roll beforehand, and the progression through to modern RnB had only happened to frame Brown’s greatness. He emphasised this with boyish wide-eyed excitement and a couple of slick pirouettes at every mention of his name.

As the sweaty evening progressed, we were treated to a second act – Breakdancers with moves and kit right from the 70s. The only things missing were the afros. The Omdurman Dancers, for these were they, were a group of ethnically mixed (tall, thin Dinka from the south, ethnic Arabs from the north and many others), very serious young men who had clearly grown up on a diet of 70s TV shows and football. Football, because after half an hour of whirlwind stunts, we were treated to a whole session of Peter Crouch robot impressions.

Thankfully, our friendly rappers returned, rescuing us from the risk of any Robbie Fowler or Rio Ferdinand-style efforts. By now the crowd was properly warmed up, in particular a group of distinguished old men in the front row. Getting up every five minutes with youthful shouts, Grandad A swayed in an immaculate ankle-length yellow-green Jallabiya, shaking his beautiful silk turban to the choons. Grandad B, complete with Samuel Lee Jackson reverse flat cap and glasses, clutched his bottle of chemical cherryade as he boogied backwards and forwards, desperately trying to persuade us to join him. Grandad C went a little further, jumping on stage and grabbing the microphone before launching into a beat-perfect accompaniment to the performers. A group of young girls in veils also excitedly simpered to the front, only to be struck each time by shyness and stand at the side of the stage giggling at each other.

And so the time came to leave. Walking back through the sauna of downtown Khartoum, we figured mandatory rap concerts at all future peace talks might just do the trick.

No comments: