NAIROBI (Reuters) - For centuries, Somalis used poetry and songs to pass protest messages to powerful rulers they were too afraid to confront directly.
Now, some young Somalis are using rap to speak out against Islamists who they say are using religion to wage war in their country.
The 11-member Waayaha Cusub band, currently in exile in neighbouring Kenya, wants its rap lyrics to encourage fellow Somalis to stand up to Islamist rebels known as al Shabaab.
They have handed out at least 7,000 free copies of their newly-released album titled “No To Al Shabaab” to residents in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood, home to many Somali migrants.
“We will wipe out the fear of our people that no one can speak out against al Shabaab. We will show our people that we can challenge them,” said Shine Abdullahi, the group’s founder.
Al Shabaab have besieged Mogadishu’s Western-backed administration and control much of the countryside. The United States says it is al Qaeda’s proxy in eastern Africa.
The rebels have been joined by foreign militants who Western security agencies say are using the country as a haven to plot attacks in the region and beyond.
“They are talking about Holy war, they are training and misleading youth, and we want to stop the spread of those ideas and warn our people there is no Jihad,” Abdullahi, 27, said.
The new album attracted more than 100,000 viewers onto the group’s website, www.waayahacusub.com, in the first three weeks. Abdullahi says it has since been corrupted, possibly by al Shabaab.
“They are unkind, teach terrorism, and worthless lessons, they blindfold, and cause pain, inject drugs, that lead to actions, force them to kill their fathers and relatives,” one of the group’s raps goes.
The group’s only female member, Falis Abdi Mohamud, is a rebel in her own right. In one video, the 23-year-old is not covering her head as most Somali women do, and is wearing tight jeans.
“They criticise me and say ‘she is not Muslim because of wearing a trouser’. I am Muslim,” she said. “I want to reach my people. I will not stop my mission because of fear or other people’s desires. History will tell who is right and wrong.”
Mohamud was born in the southern town of Kismayu that is now an al Shabaab stronghold. The insurgents have banned music in areas that they control and allow only Arabic Koranic chanting.
Waayaha Cusub toured the semi-autonomous northern region of Puntland in July but Mohamud hopes to perform in her hometown one day.
“The trip to Somalia was great. That is when I realised people like our music, and it really gave us confidence not to stop our campaign because a few people who dislike us.”
The group’s youngest member is 15-year-old Suleqa Mohamed, who is a student at an Eastleigh school.
Most of them want to return to Somalia and live off their music when peace returns but currently survive on sponsorships by businessmen and Somalis in the diaspora.
Their songs have angered some people. Even in the relative stability and security of Kenya they have been attacked. Gunmen shot and wounded Abdullahi in 2007.
He believes the attack was because the group released a series of songs criticising Ethiopia’s incursion into Somalia and suicide bombings by the insurgents.
Even mobile phone text message threats from al Shabaab sympathisers in Kenya and Somalia have failed to intimidate Abdullahi.
He says he will never be cowered by what he calls “religious warlords” who present an awful image of Islam to the world.
“The attack was aimed at silencing the group, but that did not work,” he said, showing scars on his stomach from a bullet and the surgery that followed.
“We will not allow anyone to silence us. They misread our religion and kill people. They are cursed,” he said.
It is a difficult time to win the hearts of teenagers who easily confuse their religion with the ideology dispensed by groups like al Shabaab and al Qaeda, Abdullahi says.
However, he is more optimistic that he can win his part of the war, ridding Somalia of al Shabaab.
“This is real war. Those who refuse to honour their prophet cannot win,” he said. “We will have the upper hand at the end of the day.”