Somali rappers defy bullets, death threats for Mogadishu concert

Story highlights

The Somali capital of Mogadishu is set to host its biggest music festival in over two decades

The Mogadishu Music Festival is aiming to rally would-be fighters to peacefully resist extremism

The stealth event is put together by Waayaha Cusub, a group of Kenya-based Somali rappers

The collective is famous for its powerful lyrics attacking militant extremists

CNN  — 

The jarring sounds of war have longed echoed over Mogadishu. Now it’s time for music to rock the Somali capital.

Armed with powerful songs and bold lyrics, a daring group of hip-hop musicians has defied death threats and violent attacks from militant extremists to spread its message of peace in war-torn Mogadishu.

Waayaha Cusub, a popular collective of Somali refugee musicians based in Kenya, traveled to the coastal city to stage the Mogadishu Music Festival, expected to be the country’s biggest music event since the eruption of a vicious civil war in 1991.

“Through this tour and our music we are trying to pass the Somali people a message to stop the killing, to stop the dying, because, there is no need for all these people dying for nothing,” says Shiine Akhyaar Ali, lead singer and manager of Waayaha Cusub, a group famous for its lyrics attacking Somali warlords. “We want to finish this war for good.”


‘We will continue’

Waayaha Cusub, whose name translates as “new era,” was formed in 2004, featuring the talents of a revolving collective of exiled rappers and singers who moved to neighboring Kenya to escape the horrors of Somalia’s conflict.

Led by Ali and fellow singer Falis Abdi, who are now married, the group’s energetic rap and soulful R&B struck a chord with the youth in East Africa.

From their makeshift studio in Nairobi, they first tasted success with songs touching on themes such as love, poverty and human rights. Yet as the crisis in their homeland deepened, Waayaha Cusub’s lyrics soon broke into more dangerous territory.


“Shocked shocked/Who is behind this trail of destruction?/Al-Shabaab is/They galvanize people on the street for their wicked cause/They profess to be pious but they wield machetes,” raps Ali in Somali on “Yaabka al Shabaab” (Reject the Extremists), one of the group’s most popular songs.

Al-Shabaab was once the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union, which took over most of southern Somalia in the second half of 2006.

As it expanded its reach in the East African country, the al Qaeda-linked insurgent group started implementing cruel punishments for behavior it deemed un-Islamic: women were stoned to death for adultery, amputations and beheadings became common, while in some areas Al-Shabaab banned listening to the radio.

Read this: Somali women defy danger to write history

Popular musicians were also a target; Waayaha Cusub, which had caused a stir by having women dance on stage and in its videos, received several threats and was ordered to stop making music.

“They sent us a lot of threatening messages and also phone calls,” recalls Ali, who is from the town of Dhusamareeb. “They were saying, ‘you are doing propaganda for anti-Islam or anti-jihad, so we will finish you,’” he adds.

Shiine Akhyaar Ali shows the bullet wound in his arm after the attack in his house. - (JAKE SIMKIN)

And that’s what they tried to do. In late 2007, militants broke into Ali’s Nairobi house and shot him several times. The rapper, who managed to escape, took five bullets and suffered internal organ injuries, as well as an arm wound. Since then, several more incidents have followed, with radical militants threatening members of the band and in some cases assaulting them.

Yet all these attacks have failed to deter Waayaha Cusub. Its members have continued risking their lives, remaining on the front line to promote their message for peace.

“If we stop, I think these people will win, they will reach their aim,” says Ali. “So if we continue, we are the winners because we need to tell our people that terrorism is not good, that killing people is not good, that suicide bombing is not good. So we will continue.”