Somalia: Attacks on music practitioners


09 October 2008

Attacks on music practitioners in Somalia

On 18 June 2008, unidentified men armed with knives killed a multi-skilled musician singer in Mogadishu: the musician Abdulkadir Adow Ali was stabbed to death.

This is the report of a one-day seminar about music censorship and attacks on music practitioners in Somalia, which was held at Hotel Sahafi in the Somali capital Mogadishu, on 3 July 2008, and which reveiled an alarming level of threats to music and its practitioners in Somalia.

Edited by Abdulkadir M. Wa’ays

The core participants were around 40 artists and art-related professionals as well as representatives from Somali civil society organisations, all from different parts of Mogadishu, brought together to share views and experiences concerning music censorship in Somalia and the plight of musicians and artists, including targeted killing, intimidation and general deprivation of artists’ rights to work and express themselves. The participants were also expected to discuss the way forward for the threatened music practice in Somalia.

First of its kind in Mogadishu, the seminar aimed to address the serious threats mentioned above which increasingly face Somali musicians and the very existence of music practice in Somalia. In spite of the general atmosphere of insecurity and dominance of anti-music armed extremists in Mogadishu, the seminar was a great success.

The seminar was organised by the Somali-Speaking Centre of International PEN in partnership with Freemuse – the World Forum on Music and Censorship, who were kind enough to sponsor the event.

Context and general background to the seminar
Somalia is war-torn countries suffering from the destructions of long-running civil strive. In early 1991, armed violence brought down the state and destroyed all its institutions. The country’s entire infrastructure was wrecked, from government buildings, manufactures, ports, airports, water supply facilities and the communication system; to documentation centres, libraries, schools, theatres and other cultural facilities including the once vibrant music enterprises. This gross physical destruction was matched by equally devastating psychological damage and social wreckage. The physical dislocations of most Somali households and the post-traumatic stress suffered by most members of these households have resulted in an unprecedented family disintegration and social disarray. Children and elderly people were at the forefront of the worst affected victims.

Another aspect of the destruction has been the loss of human resources and capacity in key areas, with the majority of the skilled and talented people, including music practitioners being forced to flee the country in search for security and sustenance. This was coupled with a huge gap in education, training, cultural creation and people-to-people communication.

Several UN-backed attempts were made to restore peace, reconciliation and national governance in Somalia. Most of these initiatives targeted combating faction leaders in an attempt to make them reconcile and form a central government. The warlords’ unwillingness to genuinely collaborate has repeatedly frustrated the efforts of the peace-loving majority of the Somali people.

The latest of these peace efforts was a big Reconciliation Conference managed by the sub-regional organisation of IGAD held in Kenya from 2002–2004. The outcome was the reconstruction of national federal institutions: National Charter, National Assembly and Interim President, that is the current Transitional Federal Government (TFG) led by Col. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as an interim President. Backed by troops from neighboring Ethiopia, the TFG has been recognised by the international community and it continues to represent Somalia in all regional and international platforms but it is too week to make a significant difference in the reality on the ground. The biggest challenge is strong and heavily armed opposition groups dominated by radical and allegedly moderate Islamist movements, all of whom are directly engaged in active music-hate activities.

Civil war and anarchy
Somali musicians are at the forefront of those who have fallen victims of the civil war and anarchy. The clan-based factional fighting that broke out in many parts of the country rendered almost all Somali artists hopeless. In addition to losses of beloved family members, the livelihoods of the musicians got completely shattered as the warring militias either looted or destroyed their musical equipments.

Because of this shocking incident and the unabated fighting, a large number of Somali musicians 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 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 but these violations are not reported to the outside world.

The situation of musicians, composers, and music organisers in Somalia is relatively unknown to the rest of the world. The internal conflicts of Somalia have forced thousands of Somali people into exile, and few international journalists and researchers take the risk to report from Somalia.

In response to such a desperate situation, the Somali-speaking Centre of International PEN organised this seminar sponsored by Freemuse.

Objectives of the seminar
Bring together professionals from the affected music disciplines so they can share their experiences with journalists, scholars
Record government’s/power groups/religious groups infringement on Somalis’ right or impart music and musical activities through stringent censorship threats and attacks
Record current legislation and/or court practices regulating / restricting music life
Record attempts of individuals or institutions to internationally claim representation of musicians in Somalia
Document individual cases of censorship/threats of musicians or music life as such (including shop keepers, wedding musicians, education)

Format and proceedings of the seminar
To achieve its objectives, the seminar was organised in the form of panel discussions focusing on a number of key topics and sub-themes introduced by key presenters. The main topics included the identification of the key problems on Music Censorship, Community Censorship, Representation of Music Practitioners, Music Piracy and the Lack of Copyright Law, and Legislation and Court Practices.

Seminar participants in deliberations    

The opening session
The meeting opened with an overview of the seminar and its purpose made by Qamar Salad, on behalf of the organisers, in her capacity as the representative of the Free Expression Committee of the Somali-speaking Centre of International PEN. She started with a word of welcome expressing her appreciation of the attendance of the valued participants. This was followed by presentations made by three keynote speakers who highlighted the key aspects of the theme of the seminar and provided a focus for the discussions.

As a keynote speaker representing the Somali authorities, Abdirasak Yusuf Bahlawi, director of Planning and Training Section of the Ministry of Information, took the floor. He underscored the importance of music in Somali life and pointed out the multitude of problems faced by Somali artists today as the result of the civil war. He added that joint effort by the Somali Government, civil society and international community is required to reverse the situation.

The second keynote speaker was Mariam Hussein Owreye, chairlady of Ismail Jumale Human Rights Organisation who particularly stressed how Somali artists’ human rights are continually violated and how urgent is an action against such violations.

Then, professor Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, coordinator of Somali Peace Line, who represented the civil society umbrella, highlighted various aspects of the theme of the seminar, underling the role of the civil society in a future action.

After a tea break, the seminar proceeded to its panel discussions convened by Ahmed Ali, who was asked by the Somali-speaking PEN to serve as a facilitator. The discussions kicked off with the identification of the key problems facing the Somali music and musicians.

Many participants were keen to speak about this subject. Prominent among these were the participating musicians, singers and other performing artists who constituted the majority of the participants. Famous artists such as Said Harawo (veteran musician/composer), Binti Omar Ga’al (singer and actress), Maki Haji Banadir (poet, actor and singer), Ali Dagaal (musician) and Ahmadey Abdi Gashaan (veteran musician/composer/playwright) made interesting interventions, taking the clues from their own personal stories and experiences. They told the participants of how at different points in time their lives have recently been endangered, roughed up, chased away, stones thrown at them, and humiliated in public by anti-music individuals or groups.

Given below are the key problems identified in the discussions.

Key problems facing the Somali music and musicians
Personal censorship resulting from pervasive community censorship, which has rendered the musicians outcasts in their own society
Lack of facilities and premises for musicians to perform their music activities and, as a result, lack of the necessary means of their livelihood
Lack of financial and material support both locally and internationally
Harassment and targeted attacks from individuals and armed groups
General insecurity of nearly two-decades chaos and lawlessness in the country
Lack of organisation/entity unifying the music practitioners and representing their interests
Lack of communication and discussions among the musicians/artists
Lack of legislations protecting the rights of the musicians
Lack of copyright laws

Community censorship
Since the outbreak of the civil war in Somalia in 1991, there has not been any state or warlord-imposed official censorship on the music and musicians in the country. However, severe community censorship, which the seminar participants described as worse than any official censorship ever imposed by a state is actively in place. The community censorship becomes self-censorship. Friends, colleagues and even ordinary acquaintances all try to impose strict censorship on musicians under the guise of being concerned about their personal safeties or honours of their shared families, kinship, religion, clan or ethnic group.

The prevailing and pervasive community censorship in Somalia is the outcome of a long-time preaching to the community against music by extremist Wahhabi clerics, who view music as un-Islamic and consider musicians as immoral outcasts in the society.

This brand of Wahhabism 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 and musicians.

During the six-month period in 2006 when the Union of Islamic Courts (with Wahhabists in the lead) was controlling South and Central Somalia including the capital Mogadishu, they did not only wage a violent crackdown on music and musicians, but they also intimidated the artists into publicly denouncing music as un-Islamic and repenting of their old sins as artists.

On 1 September 2006, officials from the Union of Islamic Courts held their first meeting with the Somali musicians at the shattered and roofless national theatre in Mogadishu. In this meeting, the UIC officials strongly advised the musicians to repent of their old sins as musicians as music is forbidden in Islam, and to recondition themselves in line with the already prevailing Islamic law of the country.

Immediately and as a result, a good number of popular musicians hastily held press conferences in Mogadishu, telling local journalists of their denunciation of music as un-Islamic, and in the meantime informing the public that they had repented of ‘their old sins’ by asking Allah the Almighty for forgiveness. To date, this trend continues unabated both in Somalia and in the Somali Diaspora in the West.

Representation of music practitioners
The seminar participants thoroughly discussed the issue of representation of Somali music practitioners. The participants pointed out and agreed that after the collapse of the government in 1991 there was only one organisation that was at least trying to unify all their voices. Unfortunately, this organisation, by the name of SAHA, established in 1993, became one-man organisation and finally ceased to exist. No representative organisation for the musicians has since been formed in Somalia.

On 1 September 2006, officials from the Union of Islamic Courts held their first meeting with the Somali musicians at the shattered and roofless national theatre in Mogadishu. In this meeting, the Union of Islamic Courts officials strongly advised the musicians to repent of their old sins as musicians as music is forbidden in Islam, and to recondition themselves in line with the already prevailing Islamic law of the country.

On 15 December 2007, the Union of Islamic Courts established a new Islamic council for the Somali Islamist poets as part of their determination to silence the music and the musicians, with the clear objectives of discouraging the music, intimidating the musicians into repentance, and promoting a music-free and non-love poetry.

Nevertheless, a few weeks later, before this council became full-fledged, the UIC forces were ousted from power by an alliance of the Somali Government and its allied Ethiopian forces. In spite of that, this council is now still very active and operational in Mogadishu and its surrounding regions.

At the end of the discussion of the issue of representation, two main conclusions were arrived:

1. That the absence of an association or body representing the Somali music practitioners is one of the major problems suffered by these artists

2. That outside support is crucially needed to assist Somali musicians and singers to piece themselves together again and form an effective organisation representing their interests.

Music piracy and the lack of copyright law
Music piracy and copyright violations are among the key problems identified by the participants of the seminar. A class of Somali musicians emerged in the late 1980s and catapulted to a blossoming level of popularity among the Somali youngsters particularly in the Diaspora.

These groups of musicians reproduce existing Somali songs with slightly altered beats using a range of high tech instruments barely recognisable to the conservative old guards to which these songs belong. Traditionally, the Somali music was a profession learnt outside the classroom and was by large talent-based. Artists used to be highly revered but membership to the music community was quite demanding as one had to prove himself/herself to have what it takes to be a musician. However, amid lack of copyright laws coupled with the absence of screening bodies, the Somali music underwent a considerable conversion over the last two decades, allowing many youngsters to join the music community without necessarily having songs of their own, a practice that many see as unacceptable.

The three successive Somali regimes prior to the civil war used music as an instrument to control the mass, rendering the primary function of Somali music a mechanism to steer the public psyche in a desired direction. Because of this, the Somali music remains to date commercially insignificant despite the existence of a considerable Somali speaking population – estimated around 20 million – in East Africa. Most Somali musicians earn a living out of shows held during festive seasons in the Somali territories in the Horn of Africa as well as in the Diaspora, especially in North America and Western Europe where significant Somali communities live.

Recently a widely read Somali language newspaper, Haatuf, slammed at shows held in cities in Somaliland by the North American based famous band, Sheego. The report accused the band of being at the forefront of the Somali music piracy, describing them as music looters taking advantage of the lack of copyright laws in the country. Similar Somali bands or individuals of music looters are currently on the increase and operational in North America and Western Europe.

The participants sadly pointed out that either the legitimate owners of this music had died or they are still suffering in Somalia of hunger and lack of medication. They mentioned as an example the shocking case of late Abdullahi Amir Roble Aw-Kuku, one of the most popular Somali comedians ever, who died at the age of 83, after a long struggle with a persistent TB, which resulted from hunger and lack of medication.

The widow of the late comedian, Nurto Saleban told the seminar that she had recently complained to the administrations of local radio stations in Mogadishu about their unauthorised use of his music, her husband’s intellectual property, in their daily adverts — a key source of income from which they earn a substantial amount of money. Unfortunately, these radio stations ignored the legitimate complaint of the widow.

However, the participants generally agreed on the alteration issue that they consider these alterations represent no more than sheer corruption of the sweet Somali melodies.

One of the participating singers angrily said, “The unauthorised reproduction of Somali music is indicative of the lack of creativity among today’s youth… you cannot call yourself a musician or an artist when all that you do is singing a song that belongs to some one else.”

The division that is apparent in the Somali audience draws on diametrically opposing rationales largely determined by factors informed by differences in age. More often than not, old and middle aged listeners align themselves with the previous undiluted forms of Somali music whereas the young generation subscribes to the altered styles.

Legislation and court practices
The seminar discussed the legislation problem in detail. The participants highlighted the fact that since the collapse of the former government in 1991 no legislation was put in place concerning the Somali music and musicians. However, severe community censorship, which the participants described as worse than the harshest censorship ever imposed by a state, has prevailed in Somalia. One participant stressed “as part of the prevailing community censorship, almost all violations against Somali artists or musicians are not reported by the local media. Similarly, the local human rights organisations do not record or speak about the problem of the Somali artists.”

Individual cases
Throughout the discussions, a big number of tragic cases were referred to in relation to music censorship and suppression of freedom of expression. Yet, the participants spoke cautiously because of fear of their own safety.
Given below is a summary of the individual cases that happened recently:

On 21 July 2008, militiamen from the Somali Islamist groups, armed with pistols, seriously injured musician Omar Nur Basharah by gunning him down in the capital Mogadishu. They shot him several times in the chest as he was returning from a funeral of a relative.

On Sunday night 29 June 2008, militia from the Union of Islamic Courts reportedly attacked a traditional folklore-dancing event in Ceelgeelle, a rural village on the outskirts of Bal’ad town in the Middle Shabelle region, 30 kilometres north of the capital Mogadishu. In this attack, two of the nomad-dancers lost their lives.

On Sunday night 22 June 2008, assailants believed to belong to a radical Islamist group launched a hand-grenade at a cinema-hall in Baidaba. More than ten boys of the local youths, who were watching films and music-related videos, were killed in the attack while another two died from their wounds at the hospital in the town.

On Saturday night 21 June 2008, attackers believed to belong to a radical Islamist group threw a hand-grenade at a cinema-hall in the capital Mogadishu where a youth were watching films and music-related videos. In this attack, one person died and four others were injured.

On 18 June 2008, musician Abdulkadir Adow Ali was stabbed to death in Mogadishu. Unidentified men armed with knives killed Abdulkadir Adow Ali, a multi-skilled musician, singer, actor, and music composer, in Mogadishu while he was heading home to his house.

In March 2008, soloist Aden Hasan Salad was shot dead by three unidentified men armed with pistols at a teashop in Waberi district in the capital Mogadishu.

On 25 March 2008, singer and music composer Ahmed Nur Jangow died on 25 March 2008 of heart attack, because of the stress and depression he had been suffering from for a long-time living under community censorship, which finally led him to death.

Other brutal attacks
On 28 March 2008, Abdullahi Amir Aw-Kuku, one of the most popular Somali comedians ever, died after a long struggle with a persistent TB, which resulted from hunger and lack of medication as he lived under community censorship for a long time which finally led him to death.

On 27 December 2007, Mohamed Muhiyadin Ali, a popular and celebrity newspaper editor, was brutally murdered in a remote-controlled landmine attack in Mogadishu. It is widely believed that he was targeted, among others, because of his critical writings on the musicians’ plight and suffering as well as his documentation of targeted violations against them.

In the concluding session and throughout the discussions the participants made the following recommendations:

1. Awareness-raising workshops on copyright violations
To rescue the Somali music from the free-for-all state in which it has found itself, two things are required. First, to promote the need for copyright laws and raise the awareness of the young, aspirant musicians, music shops owners, local radio stations of the importance of respecting the intellectual properties of other artists and the crimes associated with such illegal activities. To achieve this, it is important to organise awareness-raising workshops both inside and outside the country. We should bear in mind that almost all emerging young singers who engage in music piracy live in the Diaspora. It is important to raise their awareness and unpack their potential in music.

2. Follow-up conference
To organise a follow up, larger conference bringing together more stakeholders and addressing the problems and prospects of threatened Somali music and related performing arts in a greater depth. Such a conference should preferably be held in Djibouti, capital of neighbouring Djibouti who shares the same language and have a similar music. Djibouti also would provide a safer venue for participants coming from outside Somalia, including Somali music practitioners in the Diaspora. The organisation of such an event requires the technical support and the attendance of the international music organisations.

3. Awareness-raising workshops on community censorship on music and the musicians
Local media, religious groups, elders, and human rights groups should be mobilised and their awareness raised on this issue in any way possible, so that they can fully participate in and contribute to the campaigns against community censorship on music and musicians. Without the support and solidarity of the local communities including these groups, it is not viable to confront this deep-rooted phenomenon. To date, these groups are not supportive and thus do not objectively report on, document, or speak out about the horrible incidents and sensitive issues involving the music and musicians.

Likewise, in the absence of an association or body representing the Somali music practitioners, one of the major problems suffered by the Somali musicians and artists, it is not viable either to fight and uproot this phenomenon. In this respect, outside support is crucially needed to assist Somali musicians and singers to piece themselves together again and form an effective organisation representing their interests.

Programme of the seminar
08:30 – 09:00 Registration
09:00 – 09:30 Opening session with keynote speakers
09:30 Panel 1:
key problems of music censorship
09:30 – 10:00 Discussion
10:00 – 10:30 Break
10:30 – 11:00 Panel 2:
Existing musicians and artists after the civil war and problems of community censorship

11:00 – 11:30 Issue of representation
11:30 – 12:00 Discussion
12:00 – 12:30 Individual cases of music censorship
12:30 – 01:00 Prayers break
01:00 – 01:30 Concluding session:
Seminar topics wind up, recommendations and closing remarks

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]   (insert the @-sign yourself)


Abdirasak Yusuf Bahlawi, director of Planning and Training Section of the Ministry of Information

Mariam Hussein Owreye, chairlady of Ismail Jumale Human Rights Organisation

Professor Abdullahi Mohamed Shirwa, coordinator of Somali Peace Line

Go to top
Related reading on

Somalia: Poet, playwright and songwriter killed by unknown gunmen
Somali poet, playwright and songwriter Warsame Shire Awale was killed in the country’s capital, Mogadishu, on 29 October 2012 in the evening, reported BBC World
31 October 2012
Somalia: Bomb blast at concert in newly opened national theatre
“The blast happened as musicians were singing and spectators were clapping for them,” told Salah Jimale to The Guardian. Ten people are reported to have been killed
04 April 2012
Somalia: New stage for music and threatre in Mogadishu
On 19 March 2012, live music sounded in Mogashu, Somalia's capital, when the country's national theatre was reopened
20 March 2012
Somalia - Music Freedom Report: Music too powerful to ban
Video from Somalia - part of the series of Music Freedom Reports which was published in March 2012 on the occassion of Music Freedom Day 2012
07 March 2012
Somalia: Religious extremists storm music radio station
The militant extremist group Al-Shabaab carried out an illegal takeover of Radio Afgoye, the only radio station in the lower Shabelle region, because it broadcasted music
21 January 2012
Somalia: Radio station wins award from Reporters without Borders
On 9 December 2010 the press freedom advocacy organisation Reporters without Borders awarded Somali Radio Shabelle with the '2010 Media of the Year prize'
15 December 2010
Somalia: Silent airwaves – This is the sound of censorship
Article about the situation in Somalia after the music died when, on 14 April 2010, radio stations in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu were ordered to cease playing all music.
08 December 2010
Somalia: Broadcaster ignores death threats and plays music
Islamic extremists have banned music on the airwaves, but the organisers of Somalia’s newest radio station, Bar-Kulan, ignore their death threats and music ban
19 November 2010
Somalia: Al-Shabaab bans music like the Taliban
Somalia is starting to resemble Afghanistan under the Taliban, where hard-line Islamist militia bans music and movies and forbids the public from watching sports on TV
23 August 2010
Somalia: Government minister backs up radical Islamists’ music ban
Somalia's Minister of Information has backed up a music ban in Mogadishu and in this way countermanded a government order to radio stations to play music or face closure
03 May 2010
Somalia: The government insists: radios must play music
Four private radio stations in Mogadishu have been accused of collusion with radical Islamists over music ban
23 April 2010
Somalia: 14 radio stations in Somalia's capital turned off music
All radio stations in Mogadishu stopped playing music on 13 April 2010, following an ultimatum by hardline Islamist militia, reported AFP.
14 April 2010
Somalia: Music ban on radio stations was expected
On 3 April 2010, the commander for Hisbul Islam in Mogadishu issued a 10-day ultimatum to radio stations to stop broadcasting music or face Sharia-based penalties
07 April 2010
Somalia: Interview with Somali music shop owner in exile
Interview with Fatma Adow who is one of 25 women who on November 2008 faced the wrath of Somali militiamen the for taking part in a folklore dance galore in Somalia
10 February 2010
Somalia: Rule no 1: "Music should not be aired"
On 15 September 2009, the newly appointed information officer in Belet-Hawo town published a list of edicts the Al-Shabaab want to see implemented in the media
05 October 2009
UK: Somali festival in London focuses on arts censorship
This year’s Somali Week Festival in London, held on 23-31 October 2009, will focus on censorship of art and artists
23 September 2009
Somalia: Religious groups stop music at weddings with violence
Somalia experiences an on-going struggle over the right to listen to music and dance to it. These are the latest two reports in international media
24 August 2009
Somalia: Music suppressor elected as president
The Islamist cleric who was elected as Somalia’s new president on 31 January 2009 has a long history of silencing musical expression in Somalia, writes Wa'ays
11 February 2009
Somalia: Two radio stations closed down for airing music
Somali Islamist groups have unleashed a renewed crackdown on radio stations in the areas under their control for airing music and music-related programmes.
29 December 2008
Somalia: 32 traditional dancers lashed in public
On 14 November 2008 an Islamist group arrested and whipped 25 women and seven men because they had been singing and dancing
18 November 2008