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Digital media and coffee shops are helping to nurture aspiring Somali singers

A screenshot of Said Qalinle, a 25-year-old Somali singer. Image sourced from YouTube.

In Somalia, a lack of professional musical training opportunities, a conservative culture, and strict Islam practices which discourage music often leave aspiring musicians with few options. To combat this, some youth who aspire to careers in the music industry are using coffee shops and digital media to train and perform.

Said Qalinle, a 25-year-old Somali singer, is trying to follow in the footsteps of many great Somali singers and climb the top of the music charts in Somalia. Qalinle sings at one of the coffee shops in Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland, an unrecognized state in northern Somalia. Global Voices recently spoke to Qalinle in an in-person interview. He said:

My dream is to become a music legend.

I don't know what the future holds for me. But singing is my passion. I started singing when I was very young.

Qalinle grew up in Garowe, a traditionally conservative town in eastern Somalia where singing is perceived as immoral. Islam is the main religion in Somalia, and youth often grow up in a strict Islamic culture. Since the collapse of the government in the early 1990s, the popularity of music, dancing, and movies declined in the country — in fact, just last year, the country had the first movie screening in more than three decades. In some regions where Islamist groups operate, music, movies, and playing or watching football are banned.

But these restrictions do not deter some Somali singers and songwriters. Recently, Somali artist Nimo Happy's popular song, “Isii Nafta,” a remix of Somali, English, Arabic, and Kiswahili languages that expresses love and affection, became a global sensation on TikTok. Her song was viewed over 67.1 million times on TikTok and featured in over 100,000 videos. Global Celebrities such as  Trevor Noah, the host of the popular comedy Daily Show have uploaded videos dancing to her song.

Defying the odds to become a singer 

Isse also hopes to defy the odds like Nimo Happy. In the beginning, he convinced his family and then sought the wider public's acceptance in his hometown. Now he has moved to Hargeisa hoping to increase his chances of becoming a professional singer. 

When my parents learned that I want to build a career in singing, they were very concerned. My father is religious, and he did not like the idea. 

There is a perception that if you become a singer, you will do a lot of bad things like drinking alcohol, or taking other drug substances, but I keep telling my father that I will not do any of these things. I used to sing in small gatherings and private parties. It was easier for me to do that and I was able to make some earning.

I might not be a scholar of religion. But I believe what I am doing is something that I love doing, and people love it. 

 

For many like Qalinle, Hargeisa offers a safe place and a home to nurture their talents. It is a bustling town, and it is the center of a region known as the birthplace of Somali art. The region is the home to some famous singers and songwriters like the late Mohamed Ismail Hudiedi, the father of Somali oud, a type of music widely popular in Somalia, and Mohamed Warsame Hadrawi, known as the Shakespeare of Somalia. 

Hargeisa and breakaway Somaliland

Hargeisa has a polarized, contentious history. Hargeisa is now the capital city of the breakaway region of Somaliland. In 1988, it witnessed a brutal civil war between the Somali army forces and the Somali National Movement (SNM). The armed rebel group eventually took control of the city and declared the region's independence from Somalia. However, the region has not yet been recognized as an independent state. 

These events have led to the decline of the Somali music industry, but Hargeisa still serves as the powerhouse of Somali art. Unfortunately, like many other Somali towns, there are no schools to help young people train in the arts, but publicly listening and showing interest in music is less taboo than in parts of Somalia. 

During evening hours, residents flock to restaurants that offer live music performances. Occasionally, famous Somali singers who were exiled during the civil war return to the city to host music events. One local resident, Halima Isse, told Global voices during an interview at a music event:

I come to this place to enjoy the music. Usually, my husband and I come here to dine and listen to music. People come from all corners of Hargeisa. It is one of the very few places that offer this type of services. 

Hargeisa residents frequent these coffee shops, but many people come to Hargeisa from other regions in the horn of Africa for vacation. Sadiq Salaad is one of them. He came from Jijiga in the Somali region of Ethiopia. He visited Hargeisa for a business trip and decided to stay a few days to enjoy the music in Hargeisa. During an interviewe told Global Voices:

When you first hear about Hargeisa, you will think about music and other forms of art. However, there are also famous songs that would tell you the same about Hargeisa.

Digital media and music 

Omar Serbiye is a TV producer working for AstaanTV, a local cable television network based in Mogadishu and widely viewed across the Somali region. The group produces music programmes known as Qaaci Show. The name Qaaci refers to the old songs recorded in the 1970s when Somali music was at its peak. Omar and his team say the program helps young people aspiring to a career in music. During a telephone interview, Omar told Global Voices:

Somalia has a long history of conveying its messages through art. Poems, songs, drawings, and others were used to fight colonialism, promote nationalism, inform citizens, and entertain them. So, I wouldn't say digital technology has spearheaded the popularity, but it has given space young people to distribute their work and claim their digital right space.

He believes songs like “Isii Nafta” are becoming very popular because of the increased use of digital media in Somalia, which leads to many people seeing Somali songs. 

Historically, Somalis have polarized views on music. Omar argues this polarization dates back to colonial rule. He says religious scholars declared music and songs un-Islamic, which has had lasting impacts even today.

Qalinle agrees with Omar's assessment that Somalis have polarized views on music. He said his parents worried he would drink alcohol and leave the religion if he became a professional singer. Qalinle said:

My father told me that people who seek a career in singing do a lot of bad things like drinking alcohol. They told me not to go after my dream, but I knew I would not do any of these things. They have seen that my conduct is the same, and I do not drink or do anything bad. My father is still against singing, but he is not worried about me drinking alcohol or anything bad.

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