The Queens Rapper Connecting American Hip-Hop to African Audiences

Bas, raised in New York, wants to bring his music to his Sudanese parents’ homeland and to the broader continent. And so do his fans.
By Hannah Giorgis

It all started one night in Lagos, Nigeria. The first time that Bas, the Queens-bred rapper signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville label, performed in front of an African audience was surreal. He’d accompanied Cole on tour following the release of KOD, the North Carolina rapper’s 2018 album.

Bas, the son of two Sudanese immigrants, had gone to Nigeria just to kick it with his labelmate and longtime friend from Fayetteville.
But when Cole asked him to come perform a few songs, Bas planned to play two from his March 2016 album, Too High to Riot.

“I figured we’d do ‘Housewives’ and see how it goes. By the time we get to ‘Night Job,’ Cole’s on that, so odds are they’ll know that one,” Bas said of the Lagos audience when we spoke backstage before his show in Nairobi, Kenya, last December.

“But we started ‘Housewives’—Cole’s not featured on it—and it was just like 5,000 [fans] going word for word with me to the point where, at one point, me and Cole exchanged this look onstage, and we were like, What is going on?

“I almost forgot to rap my next bar,” he said with a laugh. “I was like, Oh, lemme get back to the show!

For Bas, the audience response was flattering, but more important, it was confirmation of a dream he’d long been working toward: bringing Dreamville’s music, and American hip-hop acts, to Africa more regularly.

“I remember calling Cole and being like, ‘We gotta stay longer than we usually stay; we can’t do the three-day trip,’” Bas said of the period before the Lagos show.

“And really tryna explain to him that I think we’re in a really special time as far as, like, the continent and the culture coming out of it and the music being created … and just wanting to play my part.”

That conviction is what led the 31-year-old rapper to plan a series of shows on the continent beginning last December in Nairobi, where he performed alongside the Brooklyn rapper Desiigner and the British Jamaican rapper Stefflon Don. At the Nairobi show, fans from several East African countries greeted Bas with rapturous applause. The ground rumbled, fans’ enthusiasm seeming to spill out of the massive tent where the event was held. Bas was among kin.

The final concert of the series was meant to take the rapper home to Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, where he’d spent many summers as a kid. But then Sudan entered a protracted period of social unrest, most immediately in response to the announcement of widespread hikes in the prices of basic goods in the country. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir framed the staggering price increases, particularly for staples like bread, as a necessary response to rising inflation. But these untenable economic conditions were just one reason that tens of thousands of people began to protest and demand the president’s resignation.
Bashir, who has been in power for nearly 30 years, has also sown ethnic conflict and antiblack sentiment in the East African nation; he has been ruthless in his attempts to consolidate and maintain power. He responded to the wave of protests that followed the price hikes with brute power. Within weeks, government forces had killed or grievously injured dozens of protesters, many of them young people and women.

Following this unexpected swell of protests and state-inflicted violence throughout the country, Bas’s Khartoum show was canceled. When we spoke again in February, Bas reflected on his disappointment upon hearing the news.

“It just became [clear that] it’d be dangerous to have, like, a large congregation of youth turnin’ up,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to endanger his fans by placing them within the state forces’ target area.

“I was really looking forward to the show, but I definitely think it was the right decision. I would’ve just loved to give people—especially the kids—a night of escape.”

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