Rapping for Peace in Somalia
Somalia's Most Popular Band Ignores Death Threats and Hopes to Heal Their War-Torn Homeland
Lihle Muhdin performs for former fighters in Mogadishu. Photo by Daniel J Gerstle.
Lihle Muhdin’s face was glued to the round airplane window.
"Look how beautiful the beaches of Somalia are," he sighed. Below us stretched Mogadishu’s coast—miles of white-sand beaches and blue sea dotted with tiny fishing boats.
It was Lihle's first visit to Somalia since he left the country with his parents in 1993 at the age of three. The rapper and his band Waayaha Cusub (which means "New Era" in Somali) were headed to a music festival in Mogadishu—a routine event in many cities, but not for a capital city that until a few years ago was considered one of the world's most dangerous places and where the Islamic fundamentalist rebel group al-Shabaab is still spreading terror with frequent bomb attacks. The festival was the last leg of the Somali Sunrise Tour for Peace, a concert series that has taken Waayaha Cusub around the US and Kenya to perform for Somali refugees. They are Somalia's most popular band; their music fuses hip-hop, R&B, Somali pop, and traditional music while their lyrics reference Somali social and political issues.
The band hopes to build an alliance of musicians, artists, and other cultural personalities to promote a message of peace and also to convince vulnerable young people to turn away from violence and extremism. It's something they've been doing for years in their home base of Eastleigh, a neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, that's home to many Somali refugees—and also a stronghold of al-Shabaab. Their songs include "Yaabka al Shabaab" ("Get Out al-Shabaab") and Dhibaatada Waa ("Make an End to the Conflict"), and naturally this has made them a target of extremist violence. Shine Akhyaar Ali, the band's other rapper, has been shot several times, and Lihle and the group’s female singer Falis Abdi have received death threats. The last one Lihle got appeared on his phone and Facebook wall: "If you don’t stop doing what you are doing within 60 days, we’ll kill you."
Daniel Gerstle, an American who helped organize the festival and is producing a documentary about the group, was worried about terrorists targeting the Mogadishu festival. "The extremists who previously attacked musicians and who have been successful in banning the music in some parts of the country should be the last to know where we will be performing," he said. "It is safer for the youth and the musicians that way."
Lihle, however, didn't appear too worried, despite the specter of violence—or maybe he was just used to it. "I'm not scared, but I know that I must take care of myself," he said calmly when I asked him about it, and then his face cracked into a dazzling smile as the plane touched down.
"Welcome to Mogadishu," announced the pilot. The passengers applauded.
Soldiers in the Somali army. Photo by Janne Louise Andersen
The day before the flight, I met Shine, another festival organizer, in a hookah cafe in Nairobi. Shine had hundreds of last-minute chores and had just come from Eastleigh, where he has lived since he can remember. He was born in Somalia, which he described as his "motherland," while Kenya is his “fatherland.”
"But I am Somali and would love to return when there is peace," he added. He travels back and forth between the countries he calls home, as well as Somali communities in the US and Europe, to perform and educate young people through concerts and workshops.
"When I came to Kenya, I was a refugee without any value," he told me, "but now I am a refugee who has some value and who can make a small chance for my people."
He said YouTube is the key to Waayaha Cusub's popularity among the new generation of Somalis, and helps spread their political messages. "Music can fight terrorism," he said. "If we can connect with young people through love and music, they will appreciate and have more respect for life."
Photo by Daniel J Gerstle.
Shine believes al-Shabaab is still a threat, but they no longer have the same support among religious scholars they once did, especially in Eastleigh. "This is where they recruited young people and found financing. Now people talk bad about them in the mosques," he said.
He added that Waayaha Cusub’s music is played in a rehabilitation center for former al-Shabaab soldiers in Somalia, and the government wants them to do workshops there.
"This is one of the soft weapons to bring us back to the society we came from," said Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia's president. "After 20 years of war, culture can help to create social reintegration." He said there are numerous cultural events planned to help this process along, including a day set aside for forgiveness and the commemoration of all those killed by Somalia's ongoing civil war.
Mohamud is pleased to see musicians like Waayaha Cusub return to their homeland. "We have long been saying that we are experiencing a brain drain. Our elite has left the country," he said. "The irony is that people are waiting for the country to be stabilized, and the country is waiting for people to come back to stabilize it. But economic and intellectual sources are returning now, and we expect that many more will come."
He admitted that it's risky to organize large public cultural events. "But there is always an element of risk," he added. "If we are afraid of everything, we can’t do anything." Mohamud knows a thing or two about risk, having been the target of an assassination attempt just days after his election in September.
Lihle performs at the final concert of the tour. Photo by Daniel J Gerstle
Thankfully, the Sunrise Tour traveled through the country without incident. Six concerts were held in Mogadishu and advertised using text messages and emails—in all, about 2,000 Somalis attended, along with members of the Somali press. One concert was held in a women's center, where only the female musicians performed. Another event was an open mic where young Somalis, including child soldiers, came onstage to sing and rap with the musicians. One concert was held in a government rehabilitation center in front of 850 young former al-Shabaab soldiers, who danced and bubbled with enthusiasm.
Several people approached Lihle afterward. When I asked him what they said he told me, "They told me that they had been brainwashed to be members of al-Shabaab, but now were in their right minds and ready to work for peace and stability in our country."
As the icing on the cake, the head of the rehabilitation center announced that they would name the center after Waayaha Cusub. And there was another welcome surprise.
"We had previously confirmed that al-Shabaab infiltrated the young people who came out to rap and dance with Waayaha Cusub in Eastleigh," said Daniel. One of these was a man who the group had come to know, and whom al-Shabaab had ordered to bomb a concert in Eastleigh. Luckily, the plans were intercepted by the Kenyan police and he was handed over to the Somali authorities.
He was there at the rehabilitation center in the audience, and, straining to smile, apologized to the band. When I asked Daniel about the awkward interaction he said, “Since our whole mission was to persuade youth away from violence, we're coming to see his apology and the whole group of former al-Shabaab fighters' enthusiasm at the show as a sign that this war can end, that these kids have been misled, and need to be given a chance at redemption.”
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