On New Year’s Eve, hundreds of Somali youth packed one of the ballrooms at the Minneapolis Convention Center. There were performers from Minneapolis, Rochester, Seattle, and even as far away as London—places that have all developed substantial Somali populations both before and since the Somali Civil War, which began in the early 1990s and continues today. Some women had their heads covered, others had their heads uncovered and were dressed to suit any downtown nightclub. Snippets of both Somali and English conversation could be heard over the sounds of T.I. and Lil Wayne. Though it was a peaceful event, there was a substantial security presence—a sign of the fear and suspicion that unfortunately often surrounds Somali youth.
Most Minnesotans know that their state has one of the world’s largest populations of Somalis—along with other centers of the Somali diaspora such as Toronto, London, and Columbus, Ohio. Some of them may also know that the Twin Cities are home to one of the nation’s most well-known and well-respected hip-hop communities, with a broad range of styles and artists, as well as a commitment to social justice through the wider hip-hop culture. But most are not aware of the various ways these two worlds meet.
In a series of articles for the Daily Planet, I will trace the numerous threads that run through hip-hop and the Somali communities of Minnesota, both in terms of the artists who make hip-hop as well as the music and culture’s relationship to the multiple parts of the Somali community. Somali artists use hip-hop as a way to maintain a sense of what shapes them as Somali, and also to adapt to—and thrive in—a new home.
Charles Dennis, host of the weekly African Roots Connection radio show on KMOJ, sees that many of these youth have struggled through poverty and oppression, and that “when you think of those things, hip-hop fits right in [as] a medium of expression for what they went through.”
This is done through both beats and rhymes. For instance, on a number of songs by Kay, who lives in Rochester, the beats contain the sonic combination of synthesizer and saxophone, a sound often heard in East African popular music. At the same time, many of the beats on his songs and songs by other Somali artists such as Mo-Man and Dem Supa Staz have a sound that is very much in the mainstream of hip-hop—they’d fit right in with what you’d hear on hip-hop radio station B96.
Beyond music, however, the adoption of the hip-hop lifestyle by artists and listeners—a lifestyle that includes body gestures, clothing, language, and other elements of hip-hop culture, including gang allegiances—often exacerbates the very real generational gap felt between older members of the Somali community and youth.
“There’s a lot of people that will say that hip-hop culture is making our kids bad,” says Shukri Adan, who authored a report about Somali youth violence in 2007.
The question of whether or not hip-hop contributes to violence is particularly important given the murders of young Somali men in Minneapolis over the last 18 months. Many of the artists I’ve spoken with knew some of the victims personally and have “R.I.P. Nuur K” or “R.I.P. Snoop” prominently displayed on their MySpace pages, a dedication to two of the murder victims.
Echoing perceptions of hip-hop far beyond the Somali community, Hashi Shafi, director of the Somali Action Alliance, believes that “when we see hip-hop, we think only of gangs. But it’s not gangsters, it’s a culture, it’s a people’s life.” At the same time, some artists’ lyrics contain the same kind of confrontational character and explicit depictions of violence that many—both inside and outside the Somali community—believe contributes to the violence.
Closely tied to these questions is the relationship of hip-hop to Islam, both by those who make it and those who listen to it. Such discussion relates not only to proscriptions against music itself, but also the belief that the dominant images and sounds of hip-hop lead youth away from core Islamic tenets.
Kay quickly responded to these criticisms when I interviewed him at his home in Rochester. “If it wasn’t for music,” he said, “I probably woulda been doing some other stuff. Some illegal stuff, probably, so it just helped me out a lot. I just focus all my energy on music.”
The discussion does not end there. There are questions about how these artists and fans relate to the more established hip-hop community of the Twin Cities. There is also the place of women as both fans and artists themselves, as it relates to questions of education and gender equality. Finally, it is important to understand how hip-hop allows artists and listeners to connect with a community—not only here in Minnesota, but also throughout the worldwide Somali diaspora.
Peace to the legendary MC Rakim, but for these artists and their fans—and for so many like them throughout the world—it’s about where you’re from as well as where you’re at.
Justin Schell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesota’s Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. He’s working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.
Correction 6/22/09: African Roots Connection is broadcast on KMOJ, not KFAI as this article originally stated.