In Somalia, the lack of professional musical training opportunities, a conservative culture and strict Islamic practices that discourage music often leave budding musicians with few options. To combat this, some young people who aspire to careers in the music industry are using cafes and digital media to train and perform.
Said Qalinle, a 25-year-old singer from Somalia, is trying to follow in the footsteps of many great Somali singers and climb to the top of the music charts in Somalia. Qalinle sings in one of the cafes in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, an unrecognized state in northern Somalia. Global Voices recently spoke with 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 seen as immoral. Islam is the main religion in Somalia and young people often grow up in a strict Islamic culture. Since the collapse of the government in the early 1990s, the popularity of music, dance and movies has declined in the country. in fact, just last year the country hosted the first film screening in more than three decades. In some areas where Islamist groups operate, music, movies, and playing or watching football are forbidden.
But these restrictions are not deterring 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, has become a global sensation on TikTok. Her song has been viewed over 67.1 million times on TikTok and featured in over 100,000 videos. Global celebrities such as Trevor Noah, host of the popular comedy Daily Show have downloaded videos dance to her song.
Defy the odds to become a singer
Isse also hopes to defy the odds like Nimo Happy. At first he convinced his family, then sought mainstream 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 wanted to pursue a career in singing, they were very worried. My dad is religious, and he didn’t like the idea.
There’s a perception that if you become a singer you’ll do a lot of bad things like drink alcohol or take other drugs, but I keep telling my dad that I won’t do any of those things. I used to sing in small gatherings and private parties. It was easier for me to do it and I was able to earn some money.
I may not be a specialist in religion. But I believe what I do is something that I love to do and people love it.
For many like Qalinle, Hargeisa offers a safe place and home to develop their talents. It is a bustling city, and it is the center of an area known as cradle of Somali art. The area is home to some famous singers and songwriters like the late Mohamed Ismail Hudiedithe father of Somali Ouda very popular type of music in Somalia, and Mohamed Warsame Hadrawi, known as Shakespeare of Somalia.
Hargeisa and breakaway Somaliland
Hargeisa has a polarized and controversial history. Hargeisa is now the capital of the separatist region of Somaliland. In 1988, he witnessed a brutal civil war between the Somali Armed Forces and the Somali National Movement (SNM). The armed rebel group eventually took control of the town and declared the region’s independence from Somalia. However, the region has not yet been recognized as an independent state.
These events led to the decline of the Somali music industry, but Hargeisa is still the powerhouse of Somali art. Unfortunately, like in many other Somali towns, there are no schools to help young people learn the arts, but publicly listening to and being interested in music is less taboo than in some parts of Somalia.
During the evening hours, residents flock to restaurants that offer live music performances. From time to time, famous Somali singers exiled during the civil war return to the city to organize musical events. A 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 for dinner and to listen to music. People come from all over Hargeisa. It is one of the few places to offer this type of service.
Residents of Hargeisa frequent these cafes, but many people come to Hargeisa from other parts of the Horn of Africa for holidays. Sadiq Salaad is one of them. He was from Jijiga in the Somali region of Ethiopia. He traveled to Hargeisa for a business trip and decided to stay for a few days to enjoy the music in Hargeisa. During an interview, he told Global Voices:
When you first hear about Hargeisa, you think of music and other art forms. However, there are also famous songs that would tell you the same about Hargeisa.
Digital Media and Music
Omar Serbiye is a television producer working for AstaanTV, a local cable television network based in Mogadishu and widely broadcast throughout the Somali region. The group produces music programs known as Qaaci Show. The name Qaaci refers to old songs recorded in the 1970s when Somali music was at its peak. Omar and his team say the program helps young people who aspire to a career in music. In a phone interview, Omar told Global Voices:
Somalia has a long history of conveying its messages through art. Poems, songs, drawings and the like were used to fight colonialism, promote nationalism, inform citizens and entertain them. So, I wouldn’t say that digital technology has spearheaded popularity, but it has given young people a space to spread their work and claim their digital right.
He believes that songs like “Isii Nafta” are becoming very popular due to the increased use of digital media in Somalia, which brings many people to see Somali songs.
Historically, Somalis have had polarized views on music. Omar argues that this polarization dates back to colonial rule. He says religious scholars declared the music and songs un-Islamic, which had lasting effects even today.
Qalinle agrees with Omar’s assessment that Somalis have polarized views on music. He said his parents feared he would drink alcohol and leave religion if he became a professional singer. Qalinle said:
My dad told me that people who seek a career in singing do a lot of bad things like drinking alcohol. They told me not to pursue my dream, but I knew I wouldn’t do any of those things. They seen that my behavior is the same and that I don’t drink and do nothing wrong. My dad is always against singing, but he doesn’t care if I drink alcohol or anything bad.