Somali rapper leads rebirth of music in Mogadishu after years of oppression
Shiine Akhyaar Ali and his hip-hop collective Waayaha Cusub will headline at open-air festival
Jessica Hatcher in Mogadishu
Thursday, March 28, 2013
A rehearsal for the Somali group Waayaha Cusub, while in exile in Kenya. Now the group is to headline at the Mogadishu music festival. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images
When Shiine Akhyaar Ali took to the stage in Mogadishu this week, it was the first time the Somali rap star had performed in his former hometown. It was also the capital's first proper music festival in more than 25 years.
Ali, whose hip-hop collective Waayaha Cusub is headlining the open-airMogadishu music festival, has been through a lot to get here. The group he formed with fellow Somali refugees angered the Islamist militants who used to run Mogadishu, with their lyrics attacking al-Shabaab and its al-Qaida allies. In 2007, gunmen believed to be working for al-Shabaab fired 17 shots at him and left him for dead in his adopted home, Nairobi. Ali was hit five times but survived to fight back, using words as his weapon. "He's Martin Luther King crossed with Tupac," said Daniel Gerstle, one of the festival organisers.
Waayaha Cusub are among artists from seven countries playing in Mogadishu, a city that used to have a thriving music scene. Al-Shabaab, the latest insurgents to control the city during more than two decades of conflict, banned music in 2009, forcing most musicians to quit or flee. Even after the Islamists were chased out of Mogadishu in 2011, this once diverse and bustling seafront city remains one of the world's most dangerous places, with regular suicide bombs and assassinations.
With organisers concerned that the festival will be a target for anti-western militants, security is tight. Details and dates of the five-day festival were kept secret until 12 hours before Wednesday's opening ceremony, when about 200 young men and women attended an invitation-only concert. By 10pm, the dancefloor was packed. "This has never been seen before in Mogadishu," 23-year-old Abdi Kafi Hassan said.
Among the rappers and Afro-fusion bands warming up the crowd for Waayaha Cusub, Bill Brookman, a 57-year-old Englishman from Loughborough, drew gasps and applause with his fire-eating performance while wearing a flak jacket and helmet with clown trousers.
The festival is made up of a series of events spread over four days in different locations. The schedule is fluid and venues have not been publicly confirmed. The organisers are building towards the final "reconciliation concert", open to all Somali young people, where a crowd of more than 2,000 is expected. This may be held off until Monday for security reasons. "It's baby steps," Gerstle said to the musicians after last night.
Brookman, a festival consultant and veteran of running events in conflict zones, said all the secrecy was necessary. "The fear of being attacked is real," he said. "We are seen as such a legitimate target."
Performers are held in secure compounds and accompanied by a pickup truck carrying five private security guards armed with AK-47s whenever they leave their hotels.
Singer Ariana Delawari, who in 2011 became the first woman of Afghan descent to perform live rock in Afghanistan, said she was nervous. "I'm definitely way more scared to be in Somalia than Kabul," she said.
And security isn't the only headache for organisers: logistics have proved equally difficult. Brookman said among the various challenges was the struggle to find enough metal piping to build a six-metre-high rig for a young Somali woman to do acrobatics.
And the speakers, sound system, lighting and stage for the final concert are all still on a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean, en route from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Driving the equipment overland was impossible, as it would have meant crossing al-Shabaab lines.
And whatever happens, the presence of al-Shabaab will be felt at the festival. Ali said that, shortly after he arrived in Mogadishu, an 18-year-old named Muhammad came to see him at his hotel. Muhammad confessed that he had been part of Amniat, al-Shabaab's intelligence agency. He told Ali that al-Shabaab had lured him with the promise of money, paradise and all the women he could ever want. He asked Ali forgiveness for the attack on him and said that he wanted to take to the stage at the festival to tell young Somalis that al-Shabaab was not the way forward.
"He asked me to write a song about his story," said Ali, who will bring Muhammad on stage on the final day of the festival. "He will tell others that the promise of women and rape is not right."
And after Mogadishu, the music tour moves on to Dadaab in north-eastern Kenya, the biggest refugee camp in the world.
Source: The Guardian