Photo: Jake Simkin

Lighting up Nairobi’s roughest neighborhood with three “stop-the-violence” shows after a chain of bombings and riots, the Somali hiphop group Waayaha Cusub glides into its comfort zone.

Eastleigh, an urban grid of muddy, broken streets on Nairobi’s east side that currently reigns as the global home of Somali music, has been so overpopulated from the influx of refugees and migrants that even taxi drivers sigh painfully when asked to travel there. Leaving downtown eastbound into Eastleigh, just as the music playing from radios in traffic changes from Kenyan reggae-fusion to the more Eastern dance beats of Somali pop, there are more pedestrians, more cars, and worse roads. Rather than markets lining structured arcades, they now spill over the street with hawkers leaning out into the traffic jam ankle-deep in mud to offer you shawls and shirts. Two weeks ago, to add to Eastleigh’s social intensity, extremists here increased their rate of terror from monthly grenade attacks to sending a bomber into a Swahili Kenyan-filled matatu mini-bus just as it was crossing Eastleigh. They bombed another car last week, and a mosque this week.

Dikiryo Abdi. Photo: Daniel J. Gerstle

But musicians like Waayaha Cusub believe the community has to react to terror not with fire, but with love. It is their attempt to reduce the cycle of retaliation extremists seek to cultivate. Here, last Sunday night at the packed, hidden hotel lounge, there was tall Dikriyo Abdi out front, reversed baseball cap, mic up, dimple in, and free hand conducting the audience to sing along, “Dhibaatada waa, liska dafaa…” Violence gotta stop, to move ahead…, he raps, the audience echoing the song by heart.

Joining him were Falis Abdi, the adored songstress who has transformed in half a decade from groovy young dancer to idolized vocal legend and mother of two; Lihle Muhdin, the eleven-fingered rapper known for his single “Kaca kaca wada kaca…” Wake wake wake up and fight for your rights…; Burhan Ahmed Yare, the laid back, shy singer; and Shiine Akhyaar Ali, the sage poet who survived an execution-style assassination attempt just a couple years ago.

The crowd was livelier than even most Nairobi concert crowds. The kids knew all the songs, the lyrics, the dance moves. The cause of trying to warn against further fighting in their community is dear to them. Even in the back, rows of girls were dancing on some higher plain. Somehow in the midst of this, trying not to get danced on, I crouched with camera, attempting to take it all in. This is as accurate a portrait as one can get of what kinds of nightlife you can find on the Somali side of Kenya.

While rappers from JayZ to Pharoahe Monch rhyme on Western airwaves about growing up in tough streets, this humble collection of rappers, singers, and poets — and even many of their fans — have taken bullets, stab wounds, beatings, threats, and stalking by those who oppose their messages of peace, love, and reconciliation. On top of that, they are refugees who fled Somalia’s bloody war and still stand up and rap against an al Qaeda-backed extremist rebel force of a hundred thousand guns called “The Youth,” aka al Shabaab, who even banned music as part of their failed strategy to conquer the minds of Somalia.

The three “Stop-the-Violence” concerts, including this one plus two recently concluded at the Kwani Literary Festival December 9th-16th, are rallies to call youth to turn away from extremism, to imagine what their future could be like with reconciliation. Sure, since it’s a “stealth,” aka surprise show, they are relatively small and take place hidden behind walls and guards, but still they’re packed. The rappers are singing with a Somali DJ; in future, bigger shows heading back to Somalia, they plan to bring along their Kenyan partner band Afro Simba and any others willing to risk their lives to bring the music back.

Waayaha Cusub

Where extremists who want to twist culture back a thousand years and put ladies on leashes are able to command millions of dollars of rockets, rifles, and explosives, and a legion of propagandists invoking God to preach hate, the guardians of the middle, the government, backed by African Union troops, struggles to barely, just barely get enough resources to push back. Meanwhile, cultural leaders like Waayaha Cusub and their allies who spin songs, lyrics, and talks of reconciliation scrounge for pennies but push onward. They are the bravest artists I’ve ever heard of, much less gotten to meet and jam with. I’d like to invite any gangsta, punk, or metalhead banking on badass to come join the group on their ongoing tour to bring their musical message back to the world’s most dangerous city, Mogadishu.

Enjoying Somali Nairobi is all about knowing which street is which. Even as I write this, Shiine, the head of Waayaha Cusub, calls me to share that more fighting broke out on one side of town; within the hour I meet him at a hospital to find a kid with stab wounds front and back, others killed just a few streets from where they ran this tremendous peace concert.

Over the long run, to enjoy the peaceful Somali culture in Nairobi, the best place to start is to follow Waayaha Cusub and their Somali Sunrise Concert Tour for Peace and see when their shows are coming. You should try to meet up with a Somali friend who can show you the sweet spots or bring you to a show, or failing that, head to the Laico Regency Hotel Cafe downtown, where you may easily meet a Somali journalist who can advise you before you head to Eastleigh, or even to northwest Kenya. The Somali side of Kenya is full of rich frankincense and cardamom culture, and in the northeast you can walk amid herds of giraffe or witness one of the largest open livestock markets in the world.

Waayaha Cusub

If you do decide to learn more about Somali music in Nairobi, first, try to attend this week’s Kwani Literary Festival, which will feature not only two performances by Waayaha Cusub, but also poetry readings and talks by celebrated author Hadraawi and UK-based poet Warsan Shire in the safer side of Nairobi. Then, travel with a Somali guide / translator and grab a cardamom and camel milk tea at the Gulf Palace Hotel Restaurant overlooking the markets at Jam Street. Slip into the labyrinthine tunnels of shops inside the arcades and underground. And then check out the Waayaha Cusub Music Studio & Store. Imagine what Somali towns — and dance clubs — will be like when peace finally comes to this neighborhood and many of its inhabitants’ home country, Somalia.

“Nabad waa muhim, nolasheena waa, naruurada eebi hiyo naxariista waa,” raps Shiine in the group’s latest song, meant to keep the community’s spirits high. “For everything we want in this world, first we must achieve reconciliation and peace.”

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