In Somalia making music equals risking your life

Somalia is a war torn country, but music is simmering underneath the surface calling for peace. The members of the music movement Waayaha Cusub are risking their own lives to reunite Somalia.

“Somebody called me and said: ‘Dikriyo! You have to stop that music, man! If you don’t stop that music, we’re gonna kill you!’”, says Dikriyo Abdi in the trailer for the documentary “Live from Mogadishu”, about the dangers of making music in Somalia.


Dikriyo Abdi is one of the members of Waayaha Cusub (“Somali for New Era”) – a Somali hip hop band and production label. He is not the only musician who received death threats from extremist groups. In 2007, Al-Shabaab called for the killing of the leader of the group Shiine Akhyaar. Eventually in December the same year they tried to kill him. Iin the trailer of the documentary, which is about to premiere in Somalia, Shiine says “They wanted to finish me. See here: One bullet went through my arm. You can see here. Five bullets hit me. Here and also here and here,” pointing at his hip. Altogether, 17 bullets have been shot at him.

He survived, but the Somali community fell more and more apart: some supporting the musicians, who promoted peace, while others did not want to oppose the extremists. There was another attack against a female member of the group taking place, which eventually led to all the women leaving the group, with one exception: Falis Abdi, who is married to Shiine Akhyaar. The two, together with Dikriyo, now represent the core group of the movement.

Mustaf Harun, a Journalist who fled Somalia in 2010, strongly believes in the power of music to bring about peace. As music and poetry have had a very strong meaning in Somali society throughout history. He also says that: “Waayaha Cusub are the most wanted victims of Al-Shabaab.” For the group making music and promoting peace and reconciliation means risking their lives. Daniel Gerstle from Humanitarian Bazar, who filmed the documentary “Live from Mogadishu” about a music festival in Mogadishu, says: “Waayaha Cusub is without a doubt the bravest set of musicians I have ever worked with.”

New Era

A group of men with covered faces smashing a coffin – cut. A man wearing a jeans-shirt and sunglasses – Shiine Akhyaar Ali. In the background the Somali flag in a bright blue with the white star, symbolizing the unification of the Somali people. Another man dressed in grey and black dancing – Dikriyo Abdi. A woman in a bright blue shirt singing – Falis Abdi. A man with a covered face hitting another man with a stick – cut. Shiine, Dikriyo and Falis dancing, singing and making music together.


This is only one example of how a music video, here Yaabka Al-Shabaab (“Reject the Extremists”) by Waayaha Cusub looks like. It shows the harsh contrast between the band and groups like Al-Shabaab. In 2003 and 2004 Waayaha Cusub was formed by youngsters of refugees mainly living in refugee camps and in Eastleigh, Kenya. They dreamed of freedom and peace and expressed their emotions through music especially Hip Hop.

In 2006 and 2007 the Islamic Courts Union, together with Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, gained control in Somalia. Daniel Gerstle sheds light on what that meant for musicians in Somalia: “So in 2007 the allies of Al-Shabaab wanted to ban music and they closed a lot of radio stations and they murdered some musicians in Mogadishu. They basically made music illegal in all of Al-Shabaab controlled areas.” During that same time between 2007 and 2012, Waayaha Cusub was growing fast. They called on the people not to hate each other, but to show love and rebuild their country. Additionally they not only continued to criticize extremists and pirates, but especially Al-Shabaab. Daniel Gerstle describes their songs at that time: “They criticize Al-Shabaab directly: you Al-Shabaab are puppets of Al-Qaeda, don’t listen to them, but love your brother, don’t kill your brother. That’s what their message was.”

Political Lyrics

“Peace is vital, for anything you want in life. Man who kills his brother takes both men’s’ breath. Try to save his soul only leads him into fire. Reading a book won’t lead you into fights. Watch for liars who trick you not to learn. They say you’ll go to Heaven, only take their own reward” from the song Nabada Wa Muhiim (“Peace is Vital”) by Waayaha Cusub.


The influence from the broader Somali community was reflected in this new genre of Somali Hip Hop. While their first songs covered topics like peace and honesty, eventually through the influence of American Rap in 2006 their lyrics started to be more political. They especially expressed their anger against warlords, as well as against Al-Shabaab and their allies like the Islamic Courts Union who at this time had started to take over Somalia. Daniel Gerstle explains the situation: “The allies of Al-Shabaab helped reunite the country on bloodlines, but then they in fact divided it instead by religious perceives.” This was when members of Waayaha Cusub started to receive serious threats. In this period Waayaha Cusub became famous in the Somali community in Somalia itself as well as in the Diaspora.
Mustaf Harun thinks that it is really important to support groups like Waayaha Cusub and compares them to the Somali Youth League, who fought for independence during colonial times. He adds: “Like them Waayaha Cusub can bring something good to Somalia.”

Back to the roots

Waayaha Cusub is connecting to a long Somali history of poetry and music. Before 1991 and the ousting of the then president Siad Barre, the Somali government had formed a supergroup called Waaberi. The plan was to encompass all important musicians from different Somali regions into waaberi and bring them to Mogadishu. Thus, on the one side the government unified all these musicians and poets in Mogadishu, but on the other hand acted oppressive and discriminative against certain political believes and clans.

When the then president Siad Barre was ousted almost in 1991, all musicians had stayed in Mogadishu. When the actual fighting started and people started fleeing, the majority of the musicians left the country as well. Daniel Gerstle says that “suddenly there was not only the famine, but also a cultural famine.”
The Somali diaspora spread to neighboring countries as well as all over the world. So the majority of the youth amongst these refugees developed nostalgic feelings about Waaberi, as a symbol of a unified Somali music and poetry culture. The aim of the Waayaha Cusub, which strongly connects to this history is to continue the unification of Somali musicians, like Waaberi once did, in a record label to which the Somali diaspora all over the world can contribute.

Documenting the Process

In 2011 Daniel Gerstle, who was working in Somalia at that time, met the members of Waayaha Cusub and decided to do a documentary about how the group was pushing to bring music back to Somalia. Together they planned to do the film “Live from Mogadishu”, in which their way would be portrayed.
Shiine said at the beginning of the Mogadishu Music Festival last year: “We are doing this festival to support our country, Somalia. We must overcome this prolonged violence. We can become strong like any country in the world. Please help us share this vision of peace. Our country needs your support now. Long live Somalia! Long live Somalia!”

In 2014, the editing process of the documentary could be finished to be premiered in Mogadishu, which has not happened yet. By premiering the film in Somalia the focus should be on the Somali people and give them the chance to see the story of some of their fellow Somalians. Daniel Gerstle explains why that is so important: “Showing the video first to someone in the West, would by default be taking a side. So letting the youth see the film first and letting them be the first to ensign meaning to what that film means to the community locally.”

Until now, members of Waayaha Cusub are still receiving death threats and fighting for peace with music puts them into being a target of attacks. “One guy got arrested and he admitted that he had infiltrated the group. He had a bomb at one of our concerts”, says Daniel Gerstle, showing how dangerous the working environment is for the musicians of Waayaha Cusub. It also shows that even if the film is thought to be an important milestone for Somalians towards peace, it also makes divisions within the society apparent.

An earlier version of this article was originally published on Orange Magazine in October 2014. It was republished on Shabka with the authors consent.

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