As a young boy, I remember seeing Mo Farah win gold at the London 2012 Olympics and, for the first time in my life, feeling truly represented. Finally, my British-Somali identity was not only being portrayed, but celebrated. But then the hubbub died down, and it was back to business.
Generally, as black Muslim children of immigrants, the British-Somali identity is complex and fragile. They are underrepresented in most industries and years of negative media portrayal and social exclusion hasn’t helped Somalis find their voice. A new crop of Somali rap is changing that. These acts have a restless desire to be heard, a fierce national pride, and with shared experiences of struggle they have a story to tell – one that hasn’t been given airtime before.
Leading the way in the surge of Somali UK music is rap duo 38 and Alz, who together make up YNM (Young Mali Nation). The pair are unapologetically Somali, using words such as lacag (money), hooyo (mum) and walaalo (brother) in their tunes, while also referencing growing up eating "bariis and moos", the traditional dish of banana and rice. Their smash song “Change”, which has racked up over 8 million views on YouTube, is indicative of the Somali rap sound. Called trapwave, it’s nasally, vibratory vocals over bass-heavy beats, with bleak, hard-hitting lyrics.
Some of the Somali artists making this music include Mastermind, from Manchester, whose unique high-pitched voice and enervated flow characterise his signature style. Recent single “War”, released this March, earned him an Official Top 40 in the UK Singles Charts, showing there’s space for the sound in the mainstream market. Meanwhile north west London native Geeyou burst onto the scene last year with his debut song “Slide Thru”, known for his smooth, soporific flows, while west London’s Born Trappy tells gritty hood stories with infectious melodies. Drill rapper Richi from east London rap collective Malistrip has also experimented with the trapwave sound on February 2020 release “41 Gelato” alongside fellow Malistrip member Babymane.
The presence of Somali artists in the UK scene has been a long time coming, especially given that the slang has become incorporated in UK music. British-Jamaican drill rapper Digga D and BRIT Award nominated D-Block Europe member Young Adz , who is of mixed Antiguan and English heritage, have used words such as cadaan (white) and bisad (cat) on D Block Europe’s “Kitchen Kings” and askar (police) and xabsi (prison) on Digga D’s ‘Mad About Bars’ session. The appropriation of the language in the UK was perverse given the lack of Somali representation in the scene at the time, but it foreshadowed the ensuing wave of talent.
“We’re fundamental on the streets, so it only makes sense our culture has been adopted by [other UK artists],” says west London’s Megz, who released the song “Pirate”, alongside Hackney rapper Kaos. In it, Megz uses Somali ad libs such as soo maaha (isn’t it), khatar (dangerous) and ka daa (leave it alone), while Kaos shouts out his "Mali queens" and mentions "taking a trip to Hargeisa" – the capital of Somaliland.
The song has helped repackage the meaning of the word pirate. Traditionally Somalis being shown on screen was mostly limited to news coverage on piracy, but the emerging UK talent is determined to change this narrative. During my secondary school days, being called a pirate was an insult but now the term has become somewhat disarmed by a generation that has embraced and redefined what it means to be a pirate. Now, Somali school kids are experiencing a new-found nationalism, emboldened by popular artists who are representing them positively.
But why did it take so long for Somalis to become interwoven into the fabric of such a multicultural UK music scene? In Toronto, where there is a large Somali demographic, it seems they had success much earlier. Drake-endorsed rapper Top 5, Puffy L’z and Smoke Dawg from Toronto hip-hop collective Halal Gang, and Somali-born K’naan, all contributed to the sound of their city. Their success can largely be explained by the Toronto demographic – Somalis make up the largest African immigrant population in the city. In the UK however, they have struggled to find a new sound amongst the diasporic sounds of afroswing and bashment. But that’s changing.
“I think it’s because we’re all making noise at the same time,” says Kaos on why the Somali sound is gaining traction now. The prominence of so many Somali artists at one time has helped build a thriving and exciting new scene. Support from the community means artists have loyal fanbases, while the emergence of music collectives has helped further push the sound. Groups such as Leyton-based Malistrip and Isleworth’s #7Side have facilitated the exposure of new artists as they unite not just based on their borough, but also their Somali origins.
The Somali sound is now louder than ever in the UK. The exciting new wave of talent is forming a fresh sound to tell their own stories and embrace their long-awaited recognition. But ultimately they are forging a new image and identity as they reconceptualise stereotypes and fuse the English and Somali language in their songs. The music epitomises the British-Somali identity – the sound is distinctly British but with deep-rooted Somali influences.