Somalia: Dilemmas facing Somali music and musicians
Musicians and singers in Somalia are continuously facing targeted killings, intimidation, injuries, and deprivation of their basic rights to work and express themselves freely by all sides in the country’s conflict, but these violations against Somali artists are not reported, writes journalist and author Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays in this analysis.
By Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays
The Somali artists once used to set the goals and visions of their nation, and every Somali child aspired to become an artist when he or she grew up. The artists are still remembered for their successful efforts in rendering the Somali music as the best and only language in educating and entertaining the Somali-speaking communities in the Horn of Africa. This has changed dramatically. Nowadays, the artists in Somalia are considered as outcasts in their own society. Here is what happened.
State collapse Shortly after the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, life immediately proved to be difficult and risky for the Somali artists. Clan-based factional fighting broke out in many parts of the country and rendered almost all Somali artists hopeless as they lost their beloved family members, their livelihoods got completely shattered, and their musical equipments were either looted or destroyed by warring militias.
The National Theatre in the capital Mogadishu, once among the biggest and the most beautiful theatres in Africa, and all other places where the Somali artists used to display their music, closed down after they were destroyed and turned into internally displaced camps. To date, the famous theatre remains shattered, roofless and a shelter for homeless animals.
Warlords The former government had a tradition of using both the music and the media as means to reach out to the public and thus had attached a great importance to the welfare and development of the artists. At the time, there was one state-owned radio, newspaper and tv corporation, and most of the musical bands were part of the state apparatus while a good number remained independent and privately owned.
But, Somali warlords had opted for FM radios rather than the orchestras and the print media because they needed cheap, simple, and quick-impact propaganda tools to be operated by their militias without prior training – so that they could swiftly reach out and mobilize their respective militias and support networks. For this reason, they considered operating the music and print media as time-consuming that also required much expertise and trained personnel. As the fighting intensified all Somali warlords had already in place their own FM radios, operated and protected by their militias. In consequence, the roles of music performances and print media were taken over and replaced by the radio broadcast media, and both print journalists and artists became a history.
30 musicians arrested The first shots against Somali musicians were fired on 8 January 1996 in north Mogadishu, a region then held by Ali Mahdi, now a retired warlord, when local Islamic court’s militia interrupted a concert, took about 30 musicians into custody, and confiscated their instruments (Africa News Service 5 February 1996; AFP 11 January 1996). Two days later, the musicians, accused of “corrupting the morals of Somalis” (Africa News Service 5 February 1996), were sentenced to twenty lashes each by an Islamic court; some were punished in public (ibid.; AFP 11 January 1996; ibid. 23 January 1996; Deutsche Presse-Agentur 11 January 1996).
As a result of this shocking incident and the unabated fighting, a large number of Somali artists fled to the neighboring countries where they are still today suffering in isolation with no international intervention for their plight, while a small number of them made their way to Europe and North America.
Somali artists who still remain in the country – because they are either unable to flee or have chosen not to do so – are continually faced with targeted killings, intimidation, injuries, and deprivation of their basic rights to work and express themselves freely by all sides in the conflict.
Community censorship Somali artists are now facing severe community censorship which is even worse than official censorship imposed by state or individual warlords as it becomes self-censorship. This dilemma did not come out of the abstract but it was the outcome of a long-time preaching to the community against music by the Somali Wahabi clerics, who view music un-Islamic and consider musicians as immoral outcasts in the community.
This brand of Wahabism has been actively taking root in Somalia since 1991 in the absence of effective central government, and it has substantially overpowered the traditional Sufi Islam which supported and promoted the music.
Cracked down on live music In 2006 when the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) was controlling Mogadishu and a large swathe of South and Central Somalia for six months, there emerged a confusion over their official stance on music as they ordered some radio stations not to play foreign music or local love songs, which they said to be immoral, whereas they left alone other radio stations. Furthermore, they cracked down on live music performances, broke up wedding celebrations and dispersed their attendants because a band was playing and women and men were socializing together.
Despite these contradictions the UIC did not come up with a united stance on music. Some Somalia analysts, however, strongly believe that the UIC was just buying time and that they were planning to officially ban music by the time they had taken over the whole country.
As part of the prevailing community censorship, almost all violations against Somali artists are not reported by the local media, let alone by the international media. Similarly, the local human rights organisations do not record or speak about the plight of the Somali artists.
Wedding celebrations Presently, opposition groups led by the same people who led the UIC are engaged in deadly guerrilla fighting in South and Central Somalia with the weak government troops and its allied Ethiopian forces. Since they were pushed from power in December 2006, the Islamists have continued to launch almost daily attacks in Somalia.
As a result, many artists have been forced to abandon their families and their profession in order to save their lives. Currently, a small number of them risk their lives by performing at wedding celebrations of the Somali diaspora members where each musician is paid five dollars for the whole performance, while the equipments they have used for the performances, mostly poor and old, are separately charged on them. Sometimes they even dare to perform at occasional ceremonies sponsored by local NGO’s for national or international events.
Somali diaspora Musicians and their music are still admired and respected in the Somali diaspora communities in the West, despite the fact that the negative effects of the community censorship orchestrated by the Somali Wahabi clerics are still manifested in their mindset.
The Somali clerics and their support networks are actively operating in the West breaching against music and musicians. At times, they take the law into their hands by interrupting live music performances – this time not in Mogadishu but in Europe – because a band was playing and men and women were socializing together.
Self-censorship lead to hunger and death Recent tragic death of two prominent and respected artists, Ahmed Nur Jangow and Abullahi Amir Roble, highlight the plight of Somali artists and their multifaceted suffering since the onset of the continuing violent conflict and chaos in Somalia.
Ahmed Nur Jangow, 58, a long-time popular singer, musician, and composer, died in Mogadishu on 25 March 2008 of heart attack as a result of the stress and depression he had suffered because of his failure to put his skills to use and work freely as a professional singer and music composer so as to feed his family.
Abdullahi Amir Roble, 83, one of the most popular Somali artists and comedians, died in Mogadishu on 28 March 2008 of hunger and lack of medication for a long-time illness, because self-censorship resulting from community pressure had shattered his livelihood and profession.
Both of the deceased left behind dozens of children and their mothers, who were popular artists as well. These widow artists, Sahra Ileye Abdi and Nurto Saleban, now face further hardships in feeding their children as they can not work freely as professional artists.
In Mogadishu the Somali PEN held a literary event to mourn the two deceased artists and in the meantime to raise assistance for their families, especially for their wives who also are artists.
Paradoxically, while in Somalia musicians struggle with financial hardships – and still worse: some are dying of hunger and diseases – in the meantime some individuals in the diaspora are illegally making big revenues out of the music they pirated from these suffering fellow artists.
Empowerment In many respects, the situation of the Somali artists, singers, musicians, composers, and comedians is worse than the one of the Somali broadcast journalists. The Somali broadcast journalists do not face protracted community censorship, and in the meantime they are at least fighting back and defending their rights in one way or another with the full support and backstopping of their respective local support networks, communities, their rich and influential employers, and their international partner organisations as well.
Somali artists are not only poorly organized and resourced to speak for themselves but pervasive community censorship is also a major impediment to their ability to work professionally and advocate for their rights.
In Somalia, music still blares from local radio stations, teashops, and the youth enjoy music privately in their houses despite the fact that the general perception towards music and musicians has changed and that their previous roles of influence in the society have been fading away.
Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays is a Somali journalist/writer based in Belgium. Currently, he is chairman of the Free Expression Committee of the Somali-speaking Writers Centre of International PEN. He can be contacted on this e-mail address: cmwacays [AT] gmail.com (insert the @-sign yourself)
Photos by the author
Abdullahi Amir Roble, 83, one of the most popular Somali artists, died in March 2008