It’s hard to grasp how far American culture has spread throughout the world. Yeah, we are, for now, the dominant political, economic, and cultural, superpower of the world, but sometimes we underestimate the power and malleability that American popular culture has. Not just our Transformers or Batman movies, but our underground culture; beat poetry, the black liberation movement, the LGBTQIA movement, the women’s liberation movement, blues, jazz, rock and roll, hip hop, and even L.A.’s own Low End Theory beat scene.
Just like any other young person with an internet connection, Sufyvn—real name Sufyan Ali—found the music of J Dilla, Flying Lotus, and Samiyam, by scrounging through Youtube links and online forums. But whereas a kid from Iowa who’s just discovered “Tea Leaf Dancers” can hop on a bus to Los Angeles to try to live out his musical dreams, Sufyvn can’t even dream of that, at least for the next four years. Ali lives in Khartoum, the capital of North Sudan, one of the seven countries on President Trump’s Muslim immigration ban list. Talking to Sufyvn over the phone about his music, which molds L.A. beat music into the rhythms and around samples of traditional Sudanese music, it only becomes more obvious how barbarous and corrosive the ban is, which not only prevents people from coming to the U.S., whether for refuge, or to visit, but it presents a further roadblock in the exchange of culture between us in the U.S. and the people of those banned countries, a thing that can only make the world better. I talked to Sufyvn from his home in Khartoum about Fruity Loops, dentistry, and his new EP, Ascension. —Sam Ribakoff
How’s your day been going, or actually, isn’t it night over there in Khartoum?
Sufyvn:Yeah. It’s not been bad. Just got back from work, made some beats, and now I’m just chilling.
You just got back from work? Isn’t it like 12 AM over there right now?
Sufyvn:Yeah, I work two shifts, one in the morning and one in the night. I work as a dentist.
Sufyvn:Yeah, music actually came later into my life. I was always a science kid, and I wanted to be a doctor initially, but when I was about to go to college I was like, ‘Medicine is too much for me.’ Because if you become a physician you have to live and breathe medicine, and I didn’t want to do that, so I did dentistry. In Sudan, you have to have a job like that; medicine, engineering, architecture, to be able to make a living. Otherwise you won’t be able to live. I played music since I was a kid. When I was a senior in college I started making beats and getting exposed to a lot of the beat scene.
Was the music coming out of the L.A. beat scene a big influence on you?
Sufyvn:I’m hugely influenced by it. Flying Lotus is probably the biggest influence on my music, but also people like MNDSGN, Knxwledge, Madlib, J Dilla of course.
How did you get into that music? None of those people toured in Sudan.
Sufyvn:Well, first of all, I used to live in Kuwait. I only came here [to Sudan] in 2006. I was born in Kuwait, but I’m Sudanese. I was always a big fan of hip hop anyway. I used to listen to mostly mainstream music back then, like 50 Cent and Eminem, because I only had access to MTV back then, but I used to buy a lot of CDs every weekend. Through the internet I found out about people like J Dilla, Alchemist, and these other guys. I just found this stuff out because I was always curious. In 2009 I had this bootleg CD that had a lot of audio software on it, and there was a copy of Fruity Loops on it, and through trial and error I taught myself how to make beats. I remember that first “ah hah!” moment when I figured out that people sampled.
A lot of producers’ first software is a bootleg or pirated copy of Fruity Loops.
Sufyvn:Thank God for Fruity Loops man. I think that has a lot to do with how easy it is to crack. A lot of my friends who were DJs in Kuwait used it too. It’s everywhere.
Is hip hop popular in Sudan?
Sufyvn:No, not at all. The average listener doesn’t care that much. Hip hop in Sudan is associated with comedy and advertisement. The scene here, at clubs and stuff like that, is very acoustic based, like reggae guys, and a lot of traditional Sudanese music. When it comes to rap, it’s all on the internet. Younger people will know Drake, and Future, and Schoolboy Q, but most people know nothing about any underground artists or anything.
And your music is made using samples of Sudanese music. I don’t think that many people in the U.S. know what Sudanese music is, can you describe it?
Sufyvn:Sudanese music is really hard to paint with one big brush, because Sudan as a country is extremely diverse, and we come from a lot of different backgrounds, a lot of dialogues, and cultures, and different traditions. If you go to the north, around the Nubians, you’ll find some different traditions, and if you then go to the far south, it’s completely different, that’s why the music is so different too. The capital, Khartoum, is the melting pot, so you have this fusion of different styles.
How did you actually go about finding the samples you use of Sudanese music, because I’ve heard that vinyl recordings of a lot of East African music is hard to come by.
Sufyvn:Oh yeah, Sudanese vinyl is hard to come by, so I sample mostly by cassette tapes. I do have vinyl though. There was only one Sudanese label back in the day that released vinyl, and only by the biggest names in Sudanese music, and only in limited copies. I had to do some digging, but the stuff on vinyl that I did find, there’s some gold, and a lot of it isn’t on cassettes, or online.
I think Sudan is going to be the next country that is overrun by record collectors looking to reissue African music, like the Ethiopiques series of Ethiopian music, or the millions of West African music compilations.
Sufyvn:Oh yeah! In fact, it’s already happening. I have some good friends that do some reissues. I highly recommend Habibi Funk. I think they have plans to do some Sudanese stuff. The vinyl you do find here is really expensive. I’ve heard about people taking an original Sudanese record and making a copy of it and selling it off as an original. There’s a lot of money in it. I have a good amount, and I’d happily give somebody one if I knew they were a collector and really interested in it, but if I sense they were going to try to sell it, no way.
Because they’re cultural treasures?
Is their a particular aspect of Sudanese music that makes it unique from other east and north African music?
Sufyvn:Sudanese music kind of connects the two. It’s also a middle eastern country, and an African country. It’s too African and too Arabic at the same time. The music reflects that. The music has elements of African percussion, and at the same time it sounds like desert music. In my opinion, it’s way more African than it is Arab, like in the ’70s there was a lot of good jazz being made here.
When you were first making music, did you try to sound like an L.A. producer, or did you initially have this idea of Sudanese inspired beat music that you do now?
Sufyvn:No, when I first started I didn’t think about sampling Sudanese music at all, I didn’t know about sampling at all. The first year after getting Fruity Loops was just a learning phase. I was just using the plugins that come with Fruity Loops, the stock sounds, just learning, and it wasn’t really even a serious thing at the time, I’d make like one beat every two months or something. I used to do mostly generic hip hop, or pop music, but eventually, when I found out about people like DJ Premier, I tried to literally just copy them by sampling a lot of jazz and soul, but whatever country you’re from, you’ll eventually start sampling your own country’s music.
When you started making that music with Sudanese samples, how did your friends respond?
Sufyvn:To be honest, I didn’t share it a lot because no one really cares about hip hop music in Sudan. Eventually I started getting some attention. I play live occasionally here, and when I do I play mostly those Sudanese sounding beats because people will be able to relate to it.
Is there an electronic music community in Khartoum?
Sufyvn:No. The closest thing to an electronic music scene is this style of music called zanig, it’s African music, like extreme African dance music. It moves people. You’ll see a zanig party and it’ll be just 300 dudes dancing their heads off. It’s a strong scene actually. The old generation is fighting against it. A lot of police will show up to shows and try to arrest people. It’s a crazy genre. It’s just amazing.
Have you played zanig parties?
Sufyvn:No no no no. I play a lot of private parties and cultural events with like a max of 100 to 115 people. I started doing like audio visual shows at my performances where a program is changing shapes being projected that’s set to the music. I try to get creative with it.
I think people will be surprised that there are clubs in Khartoum, because people, if they know of Sudan at all, think of it as a very authoritarian police state.
Sufyvn:Well, it’s an extremely Islamic country, but they’re not opposed to music, but the only music events that have large crowds and stuff are the traditional musicians who make strictly Sudanese music. The government isn’t against hip hop, or any other Western music, it’s that it just doesn’t have any appeal to the average listener. The problems that come from those zanig parties are because it gets associated with troubles, like a protest, like disturbing the peace.
And now if people in the U.S. know of Sudan it’s either in reference to the genocide in Darfur, or that it’s one of the countries that we’ve now banned people from coming to the U.S. from. Do you hope to eventually come here to tour, or to just visit?
Sufyvn:Yeah, that ban is just bullshit. I’d love to tour the U.S., but I really want to tour Africa first, like Ghana, or Kenya, or South Africa. I would love to play in Europe and the U.S., though. I think I have a lot of fans in Los Angeles, and Oakland. In the future I’d love to play in the U.S. as long as there’s no degrading Muslim ban.
How did the news of the Muslim ban go over in Khartoum?
Sufyvn:To be honest, it’s wasn’t something that was out of the realm of possibility that this would happen, because Sudan has been sanctioned by the United States government for the past 20 years. To give you an example, I can’t have a PayPal account here in Sudan. I can’t have a credit card, I also can’t buy anything online. For me to be able to collect the money I make on my music, I have a friend in the U.K. who collects the money, and then sends it to me somehow where eventually a man in Sudan hands me the physical paper bills of money. We have to do it that way.
These are just a few things, so when they banned Sudan, most people were like ‘Yeah, whatever.’ It’s nothing new, it was already almost impossible to get into the U.S. from Sudan anyway. In fact, we were expecting much worse. I do feel bad about my friends who did get green cards and are living in the U.S. now. I have a friend who lives in Dallas, he’s from Sudan, and he wanted to come back for a visit, but he can’t because he doesn’t think he’d be allowed back into the U.S. It is really sad, and I feel for them.
I hope you get to play the Low End Theory one day man, maybe in four years.
Sufyvn:That would be amazing. I won’t stress it though, it’s all government bullshit. Our two countries have beef, but it’s us, the citizens who are the victims.
Switching gears really fast, you have a new EP out.
Sufyvn:Yeah, on this one I didn’t set any genre restrictions on myself like I did with my other projects. Like for Pseudarhythm Vol. 2 I sampled Sudanese rhythms and put hip hop drums over it, that’s it. Even back then I was like, there’s more to it than that. I actually sat down with a Sudanese percussionist and learned the differences between Nubian rhythms, and drumming from other parts of Sudan, and I implemented that in my sound. The new record is a bit of a fusion of everything without focusing on any one. It’s more expanded.