Bullets to Books



Johnson Mike and Lushy Kay walk through Lologo slum in Juba, South Sudan on May 25, 2021. The rapper returned to the country in 2018: “I want to fight for the people who don’t have wings to fly, ”he said. “I want to be a voice for the voiceless because I know what it feels like, because I’m from there.”

(Juba) South Sudan said yes to its independence on July 9, 2011, after two deadly civil wars. Ten years later, the situation remains difficult. Violence has created a generational gap … which musicians in their twenties are trying to bridge. In studios, rehearsal rooms and concert halls, they are preparing an unarmed revolution, by dint of words, rhymes and guitar chords. Portraits.

Posted on July 24, 2021 at 6:00 a.m.


Sing despite taboos


Yanas sings at an open mic party at the Nyakuron Cultural Center in Juba, South Sudan on May 20, 2021. This young Celine Dion admirer uses music “to teach young people to be safe, to take care from them and to avoid dangerous areas .

Against all odds, Yanas has turned his back on a career mapped out in administration to sing. Raised in exile between Uganda and Malaysia, she insisted on returning to her country a few years after independence. “You love this country because it’s where you come from. It is our house. It is very imperfect. But we prefer to be at home rather than to be in exile all our life, ”she tells us at Baobab, an artists’ house which is also a refreshment bar and an exhibition space set back from the hustle and bustle of Juba, the capital of the young African country.

Like most musicians of her generation, she leads a life decidedly different from that of her parents and grandparents, who took to the bush to participate in one of the two Sudanese civil wars that led to the birth of the country.

South Sudan’s independence has not ended all violence. The most recent civil war, which pitted supporters of President Salva Kiir of the Dinka ethnic group against those of Vice President Riek Machar of the Nuer ethnic group, ended in December 2020. Since then, the country has been relatively stable, but jobs are scarce.

Yanas stands in a dysfunctional country. Singing as a woman is frowned upon in South Sudan. Whatever, she does it on her own, so that mentalities evolve in a country still streaked with taboos.

If we had to describe her way of singing, she would be somewhat between Lauryn Hill and English singer Michael Kiwanuka. Her two favorite singers are Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. “We use music to teach young people to be careful, to take care of themselves and to avoid dangerous areas, because many are being raped,” she continues.


Between 1955 and 2005, South Sudan experienced two successive civil wars. Both wars were aimed at liberating the South from a predominantly Arab North. The first civil war raged from 1955 to 1972 and caused 500,000 loss of human life. The second civil war lasted 22 years and caused the displacement of more than 4 million inhabitants, and left more than 2 million dead. In 2005, a peace accord gave South Sudan greater autonomy. The road was open for the referendum and the country’s independence, declared on July 9, 2011.

The hip-hop clinic


Johnson Mike performs a freestyle song with fellow Hip Hop Clinic members at Asylum Records studio in Juba, South Sudan on May 13, 2021.

We are at the Asylum Records studio, in a family courtyard in the Gudele district. The owner of the premises, Linus De Genius, is a Ugandan who came to settle in the capital just before independence. For this great spiritual fellow, “musicians can play a major role in solving many problems”.

There, Johnson Mike, Lushy Kay and Lord Gabriel are recording a new improvised piece: Do You Right . The atmosphere is fun.

When he’s not singing, 23-year-old Johnson Mike regains his serious air. He talks about his arduous journey, between the aridity of a refugee camp and an absent father who taught the Lost Boys, the “lost” children of the war, and took part in the fighting, like most of the South Sudanese from his life. generation. He wanted his son to become a doctor, but the rapper could not follow this vocation: he is terrified of blood. So he founded another kind of clinic, musical, that one. A tribute to this father lost too soon.

“When you’re sick, you need a doctor, a clinic, and medicine,” says Johnson Mike, who adds that he helped build his crew in response to everything “wrong” around you. him.


At the end of the 1980s, more than 20,000 children fled without their families because of the attacks of the Mujahedin and the bombardments of the Sudanese army. They walked for weeks before finding refuge, starving, in Ethiopia. Driven out by a new conflict in their host country, they set off for Kenya. Some were recruited there as child soldiers by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), others have adapted as best they could to refugee life. The United States welcomed approximately 4000 of these Lost Boys to their territory. Many of them then denounced the atrocities experienced by South Sudaneses in novels, lectures or films.

The restorative power of words


Ade records a song about the uselessness of humanitarian aid in the Rich Kidz studio in Juba, South Sudan on May 13, 2021. Ade is 27 years old. He has lived much of his life outside his country, as a refugee in South Africa and Uganda. Speech helps him to reclaim his identity, to name it.

“It is not about a revolution consisting of taking up arms, but simply of being able to express oneself. That’s why I started doing poetry, ”says Ade. Slender, 27 years old, the man whose baptismal name is Mandela Matur welcomes us in front of his PS4, sipping Jack Daniels in a styrofoam glass. A pioneer of slam in South Sudan, he also works in mental health. Ade believes in the restorative power of speech.

He created a circle of young poets in Juba and told them: “This is a free space for us. We don’t need to be violent. You don’t have to do anything other than speak your truth. ”

Mandela Matur, alias Ade, is a slammer who also works in mental health

He invites people to name their traumas. Ade’s father was fighting alongside John Garang, the hero of the liberation who died tragically in a helicopter crash. Her mother also died abruptly in 2013, which sparked her desire to speak up.

“There can be no peacebuilding without solving our mental health problems,” he explains.

The prejudices surrounding mental health are very present and Ade wants to build bridges between the generations, to offer a dialogue. The gulf between parents and their children remains enormous, and the latter are struggling to take their rightful place. However, in a country where two-thirds of the population is under 30, many believe it is time for them to make their voices heard.

The past to prepare for the future


The Maale dance group performs on May 25, 2021 in a protection of civilians camp on the outskirts of Juba, South Sudan, where the Nuer took refuge at the start of the 2013 civil war. Deng Chioh Dhoa, leader of the cultural group, had worked with the South Sudanese Ministry of Culture and UNESCO to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of the sixty ethnic groups in his country.

Since a civil war in 2013, it is in the stagnant atmosphere of IDP camp number 3 (POC3), not far from Juba, that anthropologist Deng Chioh Dhoa brings the dances and songs of his culture to life. Her group, Maale, enables young refugees to turn to the traditions of their Nuer ethnic group. While fleeing violence, Deng Chioh Dhoar himself lost everything. To save his life, he gave up his collection of traditional instruments and a book he was writing. “The most important thing is life,” he sums up. For him, music is a bulwark against despair.

“You know, the nature of human beings is environmental. If you are in a certain region, you can be part of this environment, you know this situation. So the more we are together, the stronger we are. “

Deng believes that by teaching his people their traditions, he will overcome hatred, the culture offering a ground for reconciliation in addition to a breeding ground for cultivating their understanding of the country far from the guns.

This report was made possible thanks to funding from the Quebec International Journalism Fund.
It was published in Canadian media La Presse.
Corrections were made on the translation on July 28th, 2021.

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