Somali-Americans confronting cultural and social change in their new home

Friday May 1 2015

From left: Young Somali-Americans show off traditional attire and musical instruments during Somali Day; Osman Ali, founder and curator of the Somali Museum of Minnesota; Nimo Hussein Farah, 30, is a spoken word performer. PHOTOS | COURTESY

From left: Young Somali-Americans show off traditional attire and musical instruments during Somali Day; Osman Ali, founder and curator of the Somali Museum of Minnesota; Nimo Hussein Farah, 30, is a spoken word performer. PHOTOS | COURTESY 


Gulled Ahmed stood on the stage set up on the street and waved to the crowd of several hundred people, fellow immigrants from Somalia who had gathered on the closed-off streets in Minneapolis to celebrate the summer holiday that used to be called Somali Day.

Looking stylish in round sunglasses, a derby hat, slim straight white pants, and a necklace pendant shaped like a map of Africa, Ahmed swayed from side to side, and his shoulders moved up and down as he sang. He seemed wholly consumed by the music he was performing.

So did the audience, as people sang along with him and screamed in delight when he turned the microphone to them. They sang in their Somali tongue — expressions of love, one of which translates roughly as, “Darling Deeqa, I will travel with you to Dhahar, and you will be welcomed by the best traditional dancers.”

But the music was something different, an electrified blend of reggae, hip-hop, and traditional Somali music. It could not be accurately described as Caribbean, African, or African-American. It was something else: The sound of Somalis in America.

Held on July 1, the festival honours the date in 1960 when the Somali Republic was born. Wracked by civil war since the early 1990s, the turmoil led to tens of thousands of Somali refugees being settled in the United States, with the largest concentration in the state of Minnesota, making the city of Minneapolis a mini-Mogadishu. In April, 2014, the Minneapolis city council passed a resolution declaring July 1 Somali-American Day.

The change from “Somali” to “Somali-American” was apparent at the festival. With artists like Ahmed now performing an electronically amplified hybrid form of entertainment, the festival provided a hint of the impact that life in America is having on the Somali community.

Ahmed, who is based in Houston, is only one of a growing group of American-Somalis who are keeping the celebrations alive, and in some cases, challenging and transforming Somali artistic traditions in the United States.

Traditional Somali music is simple. Ahmed Botan Dhakkar, an advisor to the Somali representative to the United Nations, said, “Somalis didn’t have pianos or guitars, they only had their feet and hands. They would clap their hands and stomp their feet in a rhythmic way.”

But the experiences of dislocation, disorientation and re-orientation have had a profound impact on the Somali immigrant community, affecting their artistes.

Somali-American musicians, for instance, are incorporating elements of hip-hop, jazz, and reggae into their work. Emerging poets are not only presenting the modern spoken word in the traditional Somali way; they are also publishing their poems in books, magazines and websites. (Traditional Somali literature is purely oral). Their work clearly grows from their new identity as Somali-American.

The traditional Somali arts have not died in the US but are fading from Somali-American social life. While young Somali-American artistes are honouring their heritage, their music and poetry has a heavy dose of Western influence.

Among the older generation of Somali-Americans who settled in the US in the early to mid 1990s, and who happen to have the deepest roots in traditional Somali culture, the changes are not entirely welcome. The traditionalists are fearful of losing aspects of their oral culture.

In a campaign to preserve Somali artistic traditions, an elder, Osman Ali, founded the Somali Museum of Minnesota — the only museum dedicated to Somali culture — in Minneapolis last year. “Our mission is to educate young Somalis, most of whom have grown up in the United States, about Somali traditional culture,” said Ali.

For younger Somali-Americans, cultural identity is an acutely complicated matter. Much of what remains of their cultural identity is contained in their music, poetry, and other art. As their lives are changing, so is their art, and the consequences of these changes are a matter of considerable debate in community that has just begun to call itself Somali-American.

Oral and poetry tradition

The Somali oral and poetic tradition is the heart and blood of the Somali arts. “Somalis worship, fear, and admire poetry all at once,” explained author Ahmed Ismail Yusuf in his book Somalis in Minnesota. In fact, Somalia is often referred to as the “Nation of Poets.”

Historically, poets in Somalia have acted as social mediators, religious leaders, entertainers, and educators. “Somali poets enjoy a status that combines the role of prophet, intellectual, and rock star,” writes journalist and Columbia University professor Alexander Stille in his book The Future of the Past, a narrative study of the impact of recording technology on Somalia’s poetry, which traditionally is transmitted orally.

Oral traditions are the basis of Somali arts partly because of the nomadic culture and partly because of the Islamic faith. The nomadic lifestyle was not conducive to the creation of art that required a fixed location to produce and thus architecture, visual arts, theatre and other kinds of art that call for a grounding were not practical in Somali culture.

The Islamic faith also has significant bearing on Somali art, since Islam forbids the use of figurative art such as paintings and statues to represent living things. For all these reasons, poetry has been the pre-eminent Somali art, and it has permeated Somali life.

Poetry has been used as a means of communication, applicable for everything and anything, from state briefings to settling disputes between clans, to blessing of newborns, praising a healthy camel, to lamenting the drought, rebuking a cow that is producing less milk, to praising a prospective wife, to declaring war and to celebrating the onset of the rainy season.

Though the institutional culture in Somalia has tended to valorise male poets, women have also always practised poetry. Much of the poetry created by women constitutes savvy, multilayered commentary on issues in the social and domestic realms where Somali women’s authority has been relegated.

“Traditionally, men and women have had separate poetic traditions, and only men gained prestige and political power through their skill in poetry,” explained the late Said Sheikh Samatar, a Somali scholar at Rutgers University. (Dr Samatar passed away shortly after this interview was conducted.)

The best known of all Somali poets is Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, “The George Washington of Somali nationalism and the Shakespeare of the Somali language rolled into one,” in Samatar’s words. Hassan was a beloved religious leader, a statesman, and also the most esteemed poet in Somali history.

Whether he was praising a camel, flattering a woman, or condemning the British, his poetry was well known throughout Somalia by way of his orations and was spread by the word of mouth. Hassan’s admirers memorise his poems and recite them to each other. (Hassan did not write down his poems, for Somali was not a written language until the 1970s.)

Unfortunately, Somali poetry and music — along with every other mark of normalcy in Somali life — stopped in January, 1991, when the government of Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown. Civil war broke out and in 1992, President George H. W. Bush ordered US troops into Somalia, at first on humanitarian mission of securing supply lines for the safe delivery of food and medicine for the victims of the civil war.

By late 1993, the American mission had expanded into one of restoring a national government in Somalia. This mission failed spectacularly, as now immortalised in the Hollywood film Black Hawk Down, based on journalist Mark Bowden’s account, and the horrors of the war in Somalia were etched into the American consciousness.

The US administration from then on took an active interest in Somalia, and in accordance with the immigration policy, which allows the resettling of refugees who face persecution, waves of Somalis began migrating to cities across the US in the mid-1990s.

Minnesota ended up with the largest number of Somali immigrants, hosting a population that has risen to more than 100,000, according to Osman Ali.

Why Minnesota, an icy northern state wholly unlike Somalia? The migration to the state began in the mid-1990s, and word of the economic opportunities in Minnesota’s manufacturing and assembly factories soon spread to other Somali refugee communities in other states, who were finding it hard to get jobs.

“The more their numbers grew, the larger the pool of employment opportunities, and the better their choices became,” explains Yusuf of Somalis in Minnesota.

Osman Ali, founder and curator of the Somali Museum of Minnesota, moved to the United States with his family in 1995. He first lived in New York, then moved to Texas. He relocated to Minessota in 2001. “I got a driving licence in six days. The same week, I got a job, and within two weeks I had my second job. Every adult Somali I knew was working,” recalls Ali. “The weather was bad, but the healthcare, school system, housing and Minnesotans were good.”

Somalis in Minnesota helped one another, in accordance with their tradition. As a nomadic people, Somalis are adaptable and ingrained to work with strangers. To Somalis, moreover, no other Somali is really a stranger; they see each other as all related by blood.

The number of Somali residents grew and Minneapolis came to be nicknamed Little Mogadishu. “Probably due to their nomadic survival instinct, Somalis found the right state at the right time in which to survive,” Yusuf wrote.

Somali art was not immediately visible in Minnesota. Making new art was simply not a priority for the immigrants. The struggle to make a new life in a complex environment occupied them full-time.

“As a newly settled community we’ve been busy with life’s basic requirement of shelter, employment and health to make art,” explains Nimo Farah, a spoken-word artist, writer, and community activist.

Over time, the Somalis began to see each other and their new home in a new way. The younger generation, most of whom came to the United States as babies or young children, naturally felt more comfortable than their elders in their new home — and at the same time were fascinated by their parents’ stories of their homeland.

Heritage — as something both received and imagined — emerged as a part of the immigrants’ experience, and it took form in tension with the appeal of assimilation, much like happened among other groups of immigrants in the US, a nation was founded by immigrants.

With increased availability of resources, there has been an active effort by the Somali community to harness and organise their arts.

Interaction with American culture has resulted in a new cultural phenomenon and through poetry and music, Somalis are confronting poverty, discrimination, cultural differences and the novelties of 21st century. They are also dealing with the stereotype image of Somalis as being pirates and the negative image of international terrorism that has rocked their community.

While some artists, such as the musician Abdulkadir Said, strive to remain connected to their heritage by working in traditional ways, others are experimenting with new hybrid forms. The contemporary Somali-American music and poetry practised in the United States is a fusion of influences from Western, African and Caribbean cultures.

Younger Somali artistes such as Deeqa Miire and Nimo Farah choose to incorporate Western forms of art as an expression of their changing awareness and evolving identity: Somali-American.

In Minnesota, there is a brigade of Somali elders who are pushing for the preservation and continuation of traditional Somali arts in their original form. The de facto leader of this group is Osman Ali, the curator of the Somali Museum of Minnesota, who bemoans that the glory of Somali poetry and music is waning.

Osman Aziz, a Somali painter, points out that traditional Somali poetry is disappearing because the younger generation is not keeping it alive. “The new generation are doing Westernised poetry,” says Aziz.

The Westernised poetry that Aziz is referring to is the spoken word recited or read in English or Somali. Traditional Somali poems were chanted, never written down. A prominent poet would sit down, and people would mill around him to listen to him. They composed the poems on the spot.

The older generation is fearful that there is no one to carry on the mantle of Somali traditional arts. “Before we pass away, we want the second generation to take our role,” said Abdulkadir Said a Somali traditional musician.

Persuading young people to uphold Somali culture is proving to be difficult, because many of the young people came to the United States when they were children and some were born in this country and grew up under the influence of American culture. “They don’t know what we are talking about,” said Ali.

Kajoog, a non-profit youth organisation established by young Somali-Americans, has created a platform for young Somali-American artistes. It holds arts and culture workshops for Somali-American youngsters.

Abdimalik Mohamed, Kajoog’s director of international affairs, says young Somali-American artistes have no hub to express themselves, and there is no chance of the young collaborating with the old.

“There is a generation gap. They are still stuck with the Somalia mentality. Even the people in Somalia don’t think the same way as they did 20 years ago,” says Mohamed about the Somali elders.

Nimo Farah shares Mohamed’s sentiments — a point of view that is more forward-thinking. “The narrative of when things were great and nostalgia is wonderful, but we should not live there,” said Farah. She feels that there is more than tension between the older and the younger generation. There is a disconnect.

“Younger people are trying to figure out how to exist in America, and the elders are mentally in Somalia — only physically here,” she says. Farah believes that it’s difficult to get an appropriate forum where honest exchanges can take place on the situation of Somali arts between the two generations.

The young Somali refugees raised in America are not Somali, but Somali-American. Their art constitutes authentic representations of what being Somali-American is — no longer Somali and yet not wholly American.

Moreover, it is not only the Somali traditional art scene that is changing. The Minneapolis art scene has been shifting in recent years, through the rise of Somali influence. Just as America is altering the character of Somali art, Somalis are altering the arts scene in America.