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Africa

Somali rappers take on al Shabaab militants

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2012-02-20

As diplomats gather in London to seek a solution to Somalia’s crisis, a Somali hip-hop group is daringly rapping their opposition to al Shabaab. Unlike the conference attendees, their message is in Somali for Somalis by Somalis.

The morning after al Qaeda and al Shabaab issued their latest merger declaration, experts across the world were puzzling over what to make of the news that wasn’t really new. But in a teeming, Somali immigrant district of Nairobi, one of the world’s best-loved and most-detested Somali hip-hop stars was taking the news very seriously.

“This is bad news. This is bad news for Somalis. This is bad news for Somalia,” said Shine Ali, founder of Waayaha Cusub, a Somali hip-hop group, as he lowered the rim of his black hoodie over his forehead.

The gaily painted Waayaha Cusub studio-cum-store-cum-hangout in Eastleigh, Nairobi. (Photo: Denis Bouclon)

Sitting in the gaily painted Waayaha Cusub studio-cum-store-cum-hangout in Eastleigh, a hardscrabble district of the Kenyan capital also known as “Little Mogadishu” Ali however was trying to play it cool – as a rap star would – while band members, groupies and sundry clients crowded the tiny storefront.

Across the block, on Eastleigh’s pothole-riddled First Avenue, the midday azan – or Muslim call to prayer – wafted above the car honks and hawkers’ pleas. Seconds later, another mosque down a dusty, congested side street took up the cry a micro-beat behind its competitor. Soon, a chorus of chants soared majestically over the noisy neighbourhood, as workers pushed handcarts improbably piled with merchandise and women in a variety of burqas in shades ranging from lavender, white and pink to sombre blacks and browns.

Just the previous night, on Feb. 9, Eastleigh’s residents heard of a new message from al Qaeda’s media-hungry new chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In a videotaped statement released on a jihadist site, Zawahiri announced the “glad tidings” that the Somali militant group al Shabaab had formally joined al Qaeda.

News not really new

But the tidings were really not new. The two groups have already publicly declared their allegiance in the past. In the absence of novelty, experts were scrambling to spin the story as a “new formal declaration” or as evidence of a weakened al Qaeda’s desperate attempts to project influence.

The discourse will undoubtedly be repeated in London on Thursday, when the British Foreign Office hosts a special Somalia conference to try to find a solution to the Horn of Africa nation’s endemic political problems and to tackle Islamist extremism.

But Eastleigh is a world away from the conferences and high-level meetings in Europe.

Shine Ali (in black hoodie) presides over the proceedings at the Waayaha Cusub store-cum-studio in Eastleigh, Nairobi. (Photo: Denis Bouclon)

For Ali - a Somalia-born immigrant whose family fled their conflict-riddled motherland for neighbouring Kenya in the 1990s - the “al Qaeda is losing” narrative has not improved his daily life. Drawing back the hem of his hoodie, Ali displayed a little bruise near his hairline. “Somebody threw a stone at me from a car in the morning,” he said in faltering English.

The Somali rapper had no idea who the stone-thrower was. He did however believe the attack was somehow linked to the latest al Qaeda-al Shabaab merger announcement. But he couldn’t be sure.

If you’re Shine Ali, 29, founder of the world’s first Somali hip-hop group, poet and rapper, whose hit tune, “Yaabka al Shaabab” translates from the native Somali as “Say no to al Shabaab,” you never really know who’s out to get you.

Founded in 2004, Waayaha Cusub - which loosely translates as “A New Dawn” - has recorded a number of songs that denounce al Shaabab and its jihadist ideology.

Rappers receive threatening texts

The group’s message has earned the wrath of al Shaabab, which controls most of southern Somalia and has a prolific media wing that produces propaganda in Somali and English that has successfully lured recruits from the US and Europe on the “jihadi tourism” trail to Somalia.

Ali frequently receives text messages threatening to “finish him” - and on the night of November 10, 2010, they almost succeeded.

Pushing down the waistband of his low rise jeans, Ali revealed bruises on his right hip and left arm – the remnants of the night al Shabaab shot him at close range inside his Eastleigh home. He survived after spending six months in hospital.

While al Shabaab is based in southern Somalia, many Somali immigrants as well as Kenyans believe the Islamist group’s reach extends to Eastleigh in the heart of the Kenyan capital. Last year, a Kenyan MP controversially told parliament that al Shabaab was a snake "with its tail in Somalia and its head in Eastleigh”.

The remark, made at the start of the October 2011 Kenyan military incursion into Somalia, sparked fears of a backlash among Somali immigrants as well as Kenyans of Somali origin.

Despite the fears, there is little evidence of an extensive backlash against the country’s Somali ethnic group. But Ali couldn’t be sure if his stone-wielding attacker was reacting to the fairly common Kenyan notion that their northern neighbours are just trouble at best, scoundrels at worst. Besides, there are also a number of conservative Somalis in Eastleigh who do not approve of Ali’s music or the lifestyle message it conveys.

Blending ancient oral traditions with a hip-hop sensibility

Waayaha Cusub’s music, which features a unique blend of the age-old Somali oral traditions with a catchy hip-hop sensibility, is popular among youth inside Somalia as well as the extensive Somali diaspora stretching from neighbouring Kenya to the US, UK, Canada and other European countries.

Back in 2004, when Ali started the group with a couple of friends, he had no idea his music would make such waves. “We just recorded our first songs and made copies on CDs. We didn’t know anything. We didn’t even know how to sell - that was not the issue, we just wanted to spread our message,” said Ali. “We gave our CDs to [Nairobi-based Somali] radio stations, then Kenyan radio stations started playing our music and they called us the first Somali hip-hop group.”

Today the group has grown to around a dozen members ranging from Somali immigrants to a few Kenyans, the odd Ugandan and at one point, an Ethiopian.

Ali finds it hard to pinpoint how many members are in his group at a given point.

An Ethiopian band member, Quincy Brian – who goes by the name Q. Rap – was one of their lead rappers for a while, but he was since moved to the US. Female band members are particularly transient - one female Waayaha Cusub member had her face slashed in Eastleigh the day after receiving an anonymous threatening phone call. She has since quit the band and is in hiding.

Some of the other girls come in for recordings but they don’t approve of Ali’s media-friendly way of doing business or they simply prefer not to grant interviews due to fears for their safety.

‘The fighters for al Shabaab are just like me’

But Ali is determined to continue rapping.

“Every day when I wake up, I think today is a new situation – either I get into trouble or I don’t get trouble,” he said. “I want Somali youth to hear our message. Al Shabaab is giving them the wrong message. They’re telling them God wants them to do violence, that if they become suicide bombers they will have 70 virgins in paradise. But if the youth hear another message, if you tell them to think of their family, their education, jobs, they will understand. The fighters for al Shabaab are just like me – but they got the wrong message.”

His message was blasting loud and clear minutes after the neighbourhood azan chorus ceased.

As Mohammed Abdi, the Waayaha Cusub’s shop manager, slipped in the “Yaabka al-Shabaab” CD, slowly, smoothly, the youngsters started to groove, their hands puncturing the air to the beat, their faces frozen in studied nonchalance. As the verses gave way to the popular refrain, the boys chorused “al Shabaab” with defiant emphasis.

Thousands of miles and worlds away, foreign diplomats, experts, as well as Somali politicians and elders are gathering in London to try to figure a way to bring stability to the Horn of Africa nation that has turned into a byword for chaos over the past two decades. But in this dusty neighbourhood of East Africa, Somalia’s youth – many of whom have fuzzy memories of their homeland – are doing what they can to try to secure their country’s future.
 

Date created : 2012-02-20

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