Hip-Hop Refugees Tackle Taboos

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Mayank Bubna

A member of the Somali band Waayaha Cusub rehearses at a studio in Nairobi.

In Mogadishu, the air is filled with the sounds of urban warfare and unresolved political chaos, but in the Nairobi neighborhood of Eastleigh — a.k.a. "Little Mogadishu" — the dominant sound is that of radios tuned to a local station play a strange Somali song: Cudur, meaning "Disease", speaks of the dangers of AIDS, and warns Somalis to think twice about the social stigma that comes along with this sexually transmitted disease. Somalis don't typically discuss such taboo subjects in public, much less sing about them in bands whose makeup, music and lyrics transcend every boundary imaginable in the traditionally conservative Somali culture.

The band in question is Waayaha Cusub, meaning "New Era" in Somali, made up of young Eastleigh refugees whose almost 70 original recordings has included a number of smash hit songs, earning them local celebrity status.

None of the musicians have had any formal music training, and most had no education at all. But what has raised eyebrows about the group, locally, is that its members include both Somalis and Ethiopians, nations traditionally considered enemies. And the band has distinguished itself by its willingness to tackle subjects considered off-limits in Somali communities, from the negative impact of clan rivalries to the specter of AIDS.

Started in 2004 by music-loving teenagers, the group quickly grew to 11 members, the youngest being barely 10 years old. And today it represents a pastiche of identities in a region riven by multiple conflicts. The lead singer is Ethiopian, one of the front men is staunch Muslim who prays regularly, even while the girls in the band wear jeans and don't bother to cover their heads in their music videos (they do cover their hair when moving around in public places). Not the sort of group that would find a place within traditional Somali society. The rebellious spirit extends to their lyrics, which deal frankly with issues many Somalis prefer to avoid discussing. One of the band's music videos depicts clan loyalties interfering with true love; another displays scenes from the ongoing war.

Singer Brian Quincy, an Ethiopian refugee who goes by Q-Rap, says the band's unique makeup and the reality of its messages is what attracted him to Waayaha Cusub. Even though he was Ethiopian and not a Muslim, all he had to do to be welcomed into the band was prove his talent. "They started treating me like a brother," he says. "We started living together and sharing ideas. That made me love them more."

Joining Waayaha Cusub also gave Q-Rap a sense of security. Eastleigh is a tough neighborhood, and critics don't restrict themselves to words. Singer Salma Abdul Qadir had her face slashed by unknown attackers for accidentally displaying her navel in one of the band's videos. She has been forced into hiding ever since.

For some other members, the harshest detractors are their own family members. Shiine Abdullaahi Ali, one of the founders, says his religiously pious parents are unaware of his activities, and that if they were to find out, the repercussions for him and the rest of the band could be catastrophic.

But for Ali and many of his bandmates, Waahaya Cusub acts like a safety net to help them cope with the unforgiving lives of refugees. For Huissen Abdi Qananuf, acting in the band's music videos was the best thing that ever happened to him, "If I were back in Somalia, I would definitely be dead or killing people. Things have changed for me now. The gangsters who would take away my shoes at the mosque don't trouble me anymore."

Despite the odds against a band of mostly Somali refugees making its mark on Kenya, Waayaha Cusub has become a popular phenomenon way beyond Little Mogadishu. Ordinary Kenyans can now be overheard enthusing about their music, which is getting a lot of airtime on local and foreign TV and radio stations and provides an unusual twist on hip-hop whose lyrics are delivered in an eclectic mix of Swahili, English and Somali — allowing the band to reach audiences in Kenya, Somalia and the Somali diaspora. Being heard by Somalis back home is important to the band, members say, because of their message of reconciliation.

For Shiine Abdullaahi Ali, the importance of Waayaha Cusub is a unifying force in a society torn by clan and religious warfare. "The reason why I'm in music is because I want all my brothers and sisters to like each other," he says. "We, the young generation, are from different clans and different places and still we like each other. We can bring about a big change. People talk of us on TV, and people see the news. Being Waayaha Cusub, we pass the message of peace through music."