Photo by Futsum Tsegai
The new album from Seattle's Somali hip-hop duo Malitia Malimob courts controversy. It's titled simply ISIS, a move that delayed the album's release while iTunes scoured the group's lyrics looking for ties to the infamous terrorist organization. The album cover is a picture of a dead Somali baby beneath a cartoon of Egyptian pharaohs and African lions. The band itself isn't even together at the moment because one-half of Malitia Malimob is in jail after being shot in the back by the cops. And though this might seem to be a lot of shock value, the point is to force the listener to look beyond the stereotypes to see the truth: that African culture has been defined in the worst terms by non-Africans, while African voices are silenced every day.
I'm meeting one-half of Malitia Malimob, Chinoo Capo Gaddafi (born Guled Diriye), at Paradise Restaurant, a well-worn Somali restaurant so underground and deep in the community that Chinoo had to call ahead to let them know that white people were coming. Chinoo rolls in late and we've already eaten, giant delicious heaping mounds of spicy roast chicken, goat, and, strangely, curried spaghetti, a throwback to the days of Italian colonization. Chinoo immediately orders more food, and tucks into it. He's here to talk and he's got stories to tell. Stories about escaping Somalia on foot. Stories of AK-47 rifle shots echoing behind him as his family left. Stories about growing up in Seattle as a displaced African and Muslim.
These are stories that aren't being heard in the local press, who seem more concerned about "gangs" of Somalis that have supposedly been robbing people on Capitol Hill, a heavily gentrified neighborhood. "I feel like our community is shunned," Chinoo explains. "Every time it's negative. We're good people, good-hearted, welcoming, but we're shunned. You see East Africans, Somalians, it's: 'They're criminals, they're no good. Get them out of here. They're pirates!'"
The epithet of "pirates" is an immediate flashpoint for many Somalis. Somali pirates (Chinoo refers to them half-jokingly as the Somalian Navy) came about as a response to the desecration and destruction of traditional fishing grounds by multi-national corporations taking advantage of Somalia's lack of a central government to dump in or overfish the waters. I ask Chinoo how he feels about the pirates and he leans forward with an intense look. Talking directly to me, he says, "Let's say you guys were in Somalia. Let's say we switched places and you guys were from Somalia, you have nothing. You only rely on the water for your food… You rely on the fish. So, you go in there every day; you fish for your family. What if that was gone? These big companies and ships coming in and dumping shit, killing your fish. Your kids are dying because of the shit that the fish have been eating and now you got nothing. Would you let your family just die? Or would you hop on that little banana boat and grab that AK and get on up there? That's what the fuck I would do. You got to put yourself in that predicament; you can't really say nothing 'til you're in that position."
It's a sobering thought and an example of the divide between Seattle's predominantly white middle-class and the war-torn background of the Somalian community in Seattle. And that's only one example of the cultural clashes that young Somalis in America experience. Many young Somalis are also torn between their religion, Islam, and an American culture that fears Muslims. In response, they take up the street culture around them to blend in, which brings them into conflict with their more conservative parents. "I was just having this talk with my mom," Chinoo says. "'Cut your hair, son. Go to the mosque, son. Leave this music and all this crap alone, son.' My mom's a musician herself; she's a poet. In [my parents'] eyes, all they see is, 'Yo, yo, yo motherfucker, bitch.' That's how my mom will tell you. With her, when I explain it to her, I break my lyrics down for her. Some of them. I tell her, 'Mom, this is what I love.' She tells me, 'Go to school.'"
Caught between two worlds, Somalis have few resources to help them cope. "I was just reading an article about how they had an FBI division come over here specifically for the East African Somali community," Chinoo says. "They don't understand us. They think we're untamable animals. They don't know our problems. They don't know what we go through. They don't know why all these Africans are causing all these problems. It's common sense; we just came from civil war in Somalia…"
Chinoo came from an affluent family in Mogadishu, living in a mansion on the beach. In a matter of moments, as civil war broke out, that was all gone, and he and his family were forced to flee to refugee camps in Kenya. There, he found himself with no toys, no shoes, playing in busted tanks and picking parasites out of his feet for fun. It was a terrifying journey, and still clearly takes an emotional toll on him to recount. In this way, he associates with the new war-torn, anarchic world of ISIS, without actually believing in any of the ideology that the terrorist organization spouts. "I hate them. I'm not with them. I hate their cause," he says. "I named the album that and I thought about what I was doing. It took me time. That's why you see the cover; it's the complete, total opposite. It's a little baby Somalian that's dead. And underneath is his mother. The concept is: how could something so evil or cruel, come together? How come something so positive and beautiful, like us—Somalians, Muslims… How could we not look at ourselves and come together?"
"So, when I wrote in that last song, 'I Am James Foley…' [James Foley was the American journalist beheaded by ISIS]. What I meant by that is to explain to you, 'I am James Foley,' meaning… I felt bad for him, I felt like I can relate to him because of the fact that he was a good guy that went over there, and his intentions were to help the people. They killed the man that was out there to help them. So, with me, when I say, 'I am James Foley,' I speak that I am a casualty of war."
The shadow of war and violence looms over Malitia Malimob, both in their backgrounds as Somali refugees and in their present day lives. Chinoo himself has been shot on the streets of Seattle, and his partner (Malitia Malimob is supposed to be a duo), J. Krown, is currently serving a three-year sentence in jail after being shot in the back by Seattle cops. As the sung refrain of "I Am James Foley (RIP)" goes, "And they wonder why, why my people so violent, when all we know is violence. I was born in the civil war, fled to the States. Right now, bitch, we're still at war, war in the streets. But we still pray. Pray for better days."
There's a positivity in Chinoo's music and in his speech, and an intense pride in Somalian people and culture. "If I could choose," he says. "If God created me all over again and he said, 'You can pick whoever you want to be.' I could pick something that would probably make my life a lot easier, but I wouldn't. I would be the same shit. I can't even lie. It's just the simple fact of seeing how strong that we are. It's beautiful; I love what I am. I love our culture."