Sudanese artist Sammany Hajo talks to Doha News about his music, identity, and his viral COLORS performance.
When Sammany Hajo wrote his song “Matalib,” he had one thing in mind: the Sudanese revolution of 2019. The mass protest movement in the African country produced art of every kind that circulated much of the world.
Among the most prominent cultural iconography were the images of Alaa Salah protesting in the streets of Khartoum, as well as the shade of blue that honoured the memory of Mohamed Mattar, a protester killed while demanding his rights.
Months earlier in December 2018, President Omar Bashir’s government imposed stifling cuts to bread and fuel subsidies to stave off a collapsing economy, leaving people angered over poor standards of living. Within days, protests erupted across the capital and calls for bread quickly turned into demands for the fall of the government.
As authorities declared a state of emergency, security forces launched a brutal crackdown that left dozens of protesters dead on the streets of the capital. In April, the Sudanese military toppled Bashir in a coup that ended his 30-year rule.
At the time, Hajo was in his home in Qatar. Anxious and very much engaged in the minute by minute updates of his homeland, the young Sudanese grew restless while watching from abroad. But this all changed when his peers contacted him to requested a song they said would be played in the streets of Sudan.
“I was trying to find ways to support [the protesters] so I wasn’t in the right headspace to create. What’s music going to do? But when they reached out they reminded me that art and revolution often go hand in hand,” said Hajo of his friends.
Almost immediately, Hajo began to play with the words of a popular chant that echoed through Khartoum at the time. Soon enough, “I’m not going back, I still have demands, I’m not going back, I still have demands” became the staple of his song ‘Matalib‘.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Hajo moved to Qatar in 2006. At age 12, he started making beats using a computer program and was ecstatic to receive his first keyboard just two years later. At 18, he bought his first guitar, and five years after working endlessly on his craft, ‘Matalib’, his first take on vocals, went viral.
The song was completed and posted onto his Instagram account where at the time, he boasted a modest following. One day, Hajo was sat at home watching videos on COLORXSTUDIO – a popular music and performance outlet that promotes underground and overlooked talent from all around the world.
Just a day later, he received a message from the same studio who stumbled across his Matalib video online.
“As an independent musician, I take pride in all of my achievements. But the biggest highlight for me is my COLORS experience. It has always been one of my favourite platforms and I’m glad I got the chance to represent my country there,” said Hajo.
Hajo’s participation with COLORS was a part of an initiative to explore the relationship between music and visual arts, as well as democracy and human rights.
“Focusing on Sudan, the project showcases music from the north-east African nation and diaspora as a medium through which to raise awareness on the political situation there.”
To Hajo, being a part of that very diaspora is important to him, and ultimately, his music.
“My music is often a representation of my culture and my upbringing. I’m heavily influenced by West African and African American genres, so I try to reflect that in a lot of my releases,” he said.
When he returned to his homeland post-revolution, Hajo was invited to perform his popular track and was surprised to see the audience sing along to the lyrics of the song.
“It was a very special moment for me. I always say that people’s support is what keeps me going but to get that type of validation from my country meant a lot,” he said. But even before his visit, he would constantly be sent videos showing millions of protesters singing and dancing to his song.”That was emotional,” he said.
“To think that music won’t make a difference and then to see something like that, it gave me chills.”
On being a Black musician in the Middle East, Hajo says that it’s both a privilege and a responsibility.
“I have a deep appreciation for Black and African culture, so I love sharing that with my listeners through music. But sometimes I feel like it’s my responsibility to show how diverse these cultures are,” said the Sudanese musician.
For the future, Hajo is expecting to continue focusing on music that represents his personal experiences, especially his life here in Qatar, where over the years the young musician has found himself jamming with Doha-based talents such as the band ReJam and Aisha Al-Ziani – the latter of which recently represented Qatar on the world stage at a United Nations event.
With Qatar opening its doors to the world ahead of the much-anticipated FIFA World Cup 2022, sports and visual arts are naturally high on the agenda. However, Hajo says there has been a noticeable gravitation towards music in the country.
“I’m excited to see how this newfound support for musicians will manifest in Qatar’s music scene and hope to see large music events and concerts that will feature homegrown musicians and talents as the headlining acts,” he said.
“It’s a relatively new scene, but it’s growing rapidly”.