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NPR's East Africa correspondent asks interviewees the songs they carried through 2021


I tend to listen to music as a way to help make sense of things, but that seemed impossible this year. On my beat there was COVID, of course, but the year began with a deadly crackdown in Uganda. It was capped by a second military coup in just as many years in Sudan. And in between, somehow, the civil war in Ethiopia got worse. My music taste veered from the political to the personal. Perhaps unlikely, a kind of torch song called "Feeling This Bad" by Tai Verdes topped my playlist.


TAI VERDES: (Singing) She either slept with 50 people or she's taking a break. She's either telling people that she love me or she filling herself up with hate.

PERALTA: Yeah, it's about a breakup, but it speaks to how a bad situation can have a really good beat.


VERDES: (Singing) Feeling this bad never felt so great. Never thought that I'd be happy today.

PERALTA: I decided to also reach out to some of the people I interviewed this year to see what songs kept them going through another season of heartbreak.

MAAZA MENGISTE: Hello, this is Maaza Mengiste. I am from Ethiopia. I live in New York City.

PERALTA: Mengiste is a professor and author whose novels include "The Shadow King." As Ethiopia delved deeper into civil war, Mengiste faced ongoing COVID isolation.

MENGISTE: And the song that got me through 2021 was Sarah Vaughan's "The Smiling Hour."


SARAH VAUGHAN: (Singing) Let's forget all our troubles and sorrows. This is the smiling hour.

MENGISTE: I would come back to it again and again, and just the title of the song, "The Smiling Hour," made me think about, all right, let me just think about this for one hour. Let me see if I can break down this day into small compartments. And for this moment, I'm going to be completely free.


VAUGHAN: (Singing) This is the smiling hour.

MENGISTE: I'm going to dance by myself in my apartment, and then I'll sit down and confront the world.


VAUGHAN: And please never let it go. Don't let it go.

AHMAD HIKMAT: My name is Ahmad, Ahmad Hikmat. I'm the founder of Maryud 103FM, which is an audiovisual radio station that broadcasts from Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan. A song that got me through 2021 - "Baltimore" by Nina Simone, which emphasizes on the struggle and hardships of life.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Hard times in the city in a hard town by the sea.

PERALTA: Young people on the streets of Sudan forced an end to a 30-year dictatorship in 2019, but hopes for a democracy took a huge hit this year when the military ousted civilian leaders. Since then, dozens of young protesters have been killed by security forces.

HIKMAT: So "Baltimore" and Nina Simone somehow kind of theme this period, adding to it, you know, the COVID and the restrictions and the quarantine, which just was the cherry on top. I keep listening to this track. I really don't want to, like, have any sort of high anticipation or high hopes for 2022. I'm just crossing fingers so that I just survive, you know, whatever number of days left for 2021.


SIMONE: (Singing) Oh, Baltimore, ain't it hard just to live?

STELLA NYANZI: My name is Stella Nyanzi. I'm from Kampala in Uganda. The song that got me through 2021 is (singing) something inside so strong. I know I can make it.


LABI SIFFRE: (Singing) Though you're doing me wrong, so wrong. You thought that my pride was gone. Oh, no.

NYANZI: The greatest reason why I kept returning to that song is because of the lyrics. The lyrics of the verse talk about human rights violations, talk about persecution. And I went through a number of those similar issues in 2021, to the extent that I had to flee from my country, Uganda.

PERALTA: At the time, the Ugandan government was disappearing dissidents. Stella, who is a vocal and vulgar critic of the country's president, fled to Kenya, but seeking asylum seemed impossible, so she went back home to Uganda.

NYANZI: And so all the time the song I kept singing was (singing) something inside so strong.


SIFFRE: (Singing) Because there's something inside so strong, so strong. I know that I can make it.

PERALTA: It's a mantra we can all use going into 2022.


SIFFRE: (Singing) You thought that my pride was gone. Oh, no.

PERALTA: That's the original 1987 version of "So Strong" by Labi Siffre. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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