Once A Symbol Of Freedom, Sudan's Pop Radio Station Has Fallen Almost Silent

Jul 10, 2019
Originally published on July 10, 2019 6:53 pm

When Omar al-Bashir was ousted from the Sudanese presidency in April of 2019, there was an explosion of new culture in Sudan. In a country under strict Islamic law, suddenly, graffiti appeared on walls. Music of all kinds blasted from speakers. Men and women commingled openly at a protest camp in front of military headquarters.

Standing as a stark example of these post-military crackdown changes is Capital FM — a popular music radio station that was at the center of the spring's cultural revolution.

"It was just so beautiful, and we were just so proud that we're soulful," Ahmad Hikmat, Capital FM's content director, says as he recalls the creativity that Capital exuded. "You'd wake up in the morning, and you'd hear a song on Capital Radio was D'Angelo. Who would play D'Angelo in the morning, you know? It's just 91.6 FM that would do that."

But the surge of cultural awakening ended when the military junta running the country violently broke up the protests in the capital city of Khartoum. Now, Capital FM, is fighting for survival.

Now, as Hikmat walks through the empty station, the walls are bare. The sound panels have been taken down. You can still see the dabs of glue that held up vinyl records of Keith Sweat, Kenny Burke, Ray Charles and The Roots that decorated the studio.

Pushing the envelop in a Islamist country, Capital FM had become a symbol for a modern Sudan. It started as a house music station and then became a cultural hub. They had even begun hosting parties with DJs and bands where young Sudanese could quite literally let their hair down. But since the militarization of Khartoum, government censors have been taking the station off the air for hours at a time. To Hikmat, this is a clear warning sign that soon, security forces will break down Capital FM's doors and confiscate everything — so he has started taking the place apart.

"It's a bit dark now at the moment, because we painted the walls black because of everything that is happening," Hikmat says.

Pushing the envelop in a Islamist country, Capital FM had become a symbol for a modern Sudan. Now, the station's airwaves have gone almost silent.
YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP/Getty Images

Hikmat says that one of his main jobs at Capital is to keep what it represents — a utopia of progressiveness — intact. Recently, that has been a particularly difficult task. One Capital FM staffer was killed at the protest camp, and many others question whether an enterprise like Capital is even possible in Sudan at this point. "I'm trying to keep hope because everyone is leaving," he says. "I am losing my team one by one."

To express what he feels in respect to the situation at Capital FM and in Khartoum, Hikmat says Marvin Gaye's "Make Me Wanna Holler" never leaves his mind.

"For me, this is the song that plays in my mind when I am driving in the streets, just looking at the leftovers," Hikmat says. "I see those guys, you know, sitting there, chilling with their big-a** guns, and this song just plays in my head."

Listen to the full aired story through the audio link.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When Omar al-Bashir was ousted back in April, there was an explosion of new culture in Sudan. In a country under Islamic law, suddenly, graffiti appeared on the walls, music of all kinds blasted from speakers and men and women commingled openly at a protest camp in front of military headquarters. But that ended when the military junta running the country violently broke up the protest.

NPR's Eyder Peralta brings us the story of a radio station that was at the center of this cultural revolution that is now fighting for survival.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

AHMAD HIKMAT: Second floor.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Ahmad Hikmat takes me up some stairs and into the center of Capital FM in Khartoum.

HIKMAT: It's a bit dark now at the moment because we've painted the walls black because of everything that is happening.

PERALTA: This used to be a place that was full of energy. Any musician, any artist who was experimenting in Sudan was welcome.

HIKMAT: So this is the main studio.

PERALTA: Hikmat, who is the content director here, looks around. The walls are bare. The sound panels are down. You can still see the dabs of glue that held up vinyl records that decorated the studios. They were of Keith Sweat, Keni Burke, Ray Charles, The Roots.

HIKMAT: It was just so beautiful. And we were just so proud that we're soulful. And you'd wake up in the morning, you hear a song on Capital Radio that was D'Angelo. Who would play D'Angelo in the morning, you know? It's just 91.6 FM that would do that.

PERALTA: Pushing the envelope in an Islamist country, Capital FM had become a symbol for a future, modern Sudan. It started as a house music station and then became a cultural hub. They had even begun hosting parties with DJs and bands where young Sudanese could quite literally let their hair down.

But ever since the government militarized Khartoum, the government's censors have been taking the station off the air for hours at a time. To Hikmat, that is a clear warning that, soon, security forces will break down doors and confiscate everything. So he has started taking this place apart.

HIKMAT: Equipments I had to hide, you know? I had my Mac, production PC - everything. Everything is just - it's not here.

PERALTA: Hikmat says one of his main jobs was to keep this utopia of progressiveness intact. But these past few weeks, it's been tough. One staffer was killed at the protest camp, and many others are questioning whether a place like Capital is even possible in Sudan.

HIKMAT: I'm trying to keep hope because everybody's leaving. Everybody - I'm losing my team one by one.

PERALTA: He looks down. His smile is gone. I ask him if there's a single song that could express what he's feeling right now. And Ahmad Hikmat doesn't hesitate.

HIKMAT: Yeah, I exactly know what - Marvin Gaye's "Make Me Wanna Holler."

PERALTA: He leaves the studio and walks fast to the control room.

Are you going to play it on air? Can you actually do that?

HIKMAT: I can actually do that.

PERALTA: On the only computer left in the place, he presses a few buttons, and, bam.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

HIKMAT: For me, this is the song that plays in my mind when I'm driving in the streets, just looking at the leftovers, and then I see those guys, you know, sitting there, chilling with their big-ass guns, and this song just plays in my head.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARVIN GAYE SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

PERALTA: Marvin Gaye released this song in 1971. It's about being misunderstood, about how hard, how hopeless simply living can be in an unjust system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) Make me wanna holler - the way they do my life. Make me wanna holler - the way they do my life. This ain't living. This ain't living.

PERALTA: Hikmat says he's trying not to lose hope. And as long as he can, he'll keep resisting, even if it's small, even if it's speaking truth through the soul of Marvin Gaye.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Khartoum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INNER CITY BLUES (MAKE ME WANNA HOLLER)")

GAYE: (Singing) Bills pile up sky-high. Send that boy off to die. Oh, make me wanna holler - the way they do my life. Yeah, make me wanna holler - the way they do my life. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.