Silent airwaves – This is the sound of censorship
|The music died in Somalia when, on 14 April 2010, radio stations in the country’s capital Mogadishu were ordered to cease playing all music. In a nation under a government that has already banned wearing bras, musical ringtones and in some areas made growing a beard compulsory, this is the latest blow to individuality in Somalia.
By Jessica Saxton
The Somali press has been heavily censored since 1969; in the last 40 years many newspapers have been shut down, journalists imprisoned and media stations smothered beneath stifling government control. Now musicians are fleeing the country for fear of being beaten, imprisoned or killed for their art.
Hezb al-Islam leader Sheik Mohamed Ibrahim told AFP that the ban was an appropriate move in an attempt to stop “evil deeds”. It now seems in the extremist governed, southern regions of Somalia; listening to music is illegal. Practicing music is illegal. Killing in the name of religion is commonplace: yet the airwaves remain music-free to save their souls.
The country’s politics are divided geographically; the northern regions of Puntland and Somaliland are under the ‘national government’ known as the TFG, while areas south of Puntland are predominantly under extremist control, largely Al Shabaab. From the Garowe Radio Station, operating out of Puntland, Mohammed Omar Dahla says many people in the areas under Al Shabaab rule are afraid to play music in their own homes.
Mohammed Omar Dahla
Regions south of TFG governed Somaliland and
In the extremist governed regions, the only resemblance to music is the approved Nasheed; which is simply religious chanting. Even jingles have been banned from radio. According to militants, the playing of music violates core Islamic principles and distracts from worship. Music worldwide has long been seen as a means of worship, storytelling and creative expression. Perhaps this is why it is such a dangerous weapon. The ability for music to unite, uplift and inspire people is much more powerful than the repression that can be attained through fear.
A Somali journalist, Kassim Mohamed, says the people are becoming depressed from the sound of gunfire every day, “I think without music they are not going to survive.” The ban on music includes jungles; as such, sound effects on the air have largely become animal noises and the sound of gunfire. Kassim is fearful that many people, especially youths, who formerly would be playing or listening to music, will find ulterior, less desirable means to cure their boredom. It is also possible that with the only media input being religious chants, news and below-par sound effects; their cultural growth could be significantly stifled.
The Somali Arts and Culture Foundation (SAAC) have strongly condemned the ban. The deterioration of musical expression in extremists controlled areas mean musicians, composers and artists are facing daily threats and joblessness. They have pleaded with the Shabaab groups who initiated the ban to reconsider, to no avail.
In the capital Mogadishu, it is not only quiet on the air. The National Theatre, once considered one of the most beautiful theatres in Africa; and nearly all other places where the Somali artists used to perform their music, have been forced to close down. Many are now derelict and broken, housing the homeless alongside animals.
Many musicians have fled Somalia, fearful of punishment for their art. Living in exile in Kenya since childhood, a group of Somali musicians formed a anti-extremist rap group, Waayaha Cusub. They sing of the corruption and repression of their home. Since their formation in 2004, they have recorded albums on pirated CD’s and DVD’s, their lyrics blatant attacks on the Somali warlord’s actions.
Lyrics from a Waayaha Cusub song
They highlight the hypocrisy of the rule in extremist regions and defend that practicing music does not make them ‘bad Muslims’, “We pray five times a day. We go to the mosque, we fast. But we don’t steal and we don’t kill.” Some of Waayaha Cusub’s CD’s have made their way back to Somalia, where they are eagerly received, to be played in secret. An underground rebellion; simply listening to the music is an act against the Shabaab rule. It may not seem like much to listen to a CD, but what it means is the power of music has re-infiltrated the southern regions of Somalia. Though it is not being freely aired, the ideas expressed in the music are being spread and kept alive within the people. It’s a sign that the Somali people are not ready to take this cultural repression lying down, they are still capable of independent thought and their own ideals, though stemming from the same religion, are not that of their current political leaders.
Omar’s station is based in Garowe, the capital of Puntland; where he says there is no Shabaab. Radio’s play national and international music freely, without fear of extremist reaction.
Hezb al-Islam says they are striving to eliminate ‘evil deeds’. People in Somalia are killed, punished and culturally repressed daily. This is a blatant violation of the basic human right to self expression. Is that not an ‘evil deed’ in itself, far worse than music playing on the radio? In my discussions with Omar, he mused over the bans moral contradictions.
“No Shabaab is not in Somalia to ‘stop evil deeds’,” he said. “Simply, they want power. You can try to avoid that basic principle, and focus on music bans, and so on, but Shabaab want power. And power is earned in two ways; fear or respect. For Shabaab, its only option is fear.”
Music’s ability to unite, uplift and inspire people is ever more powerful than the repression that can be attained through fear. “You can never stop the Somali people from listening to music because it is part of their culture.” said former renowned musician, Mohamed Omar Dalha in a recent press release.
With musicians fleeing, and working on protest music from outside the extremist control, individuals within the country secretly listening to CD’s and the northern half still operating freely, it looks as if the repression will end in two ways. Either the extremist controlled areas will lose their cultural identity and will to operate independently, or the people will rise against their repressors in a renaissance that will either evacuate the affected regions or revolutionise them.
Jessica Saxton is a student at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia, where she studies mass communication and music. She collarboratively runs and writes for a Brisbane-based music blog called Not Street Press, and for the Australian online publication The AU Review.
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