by guest reporter ZACH ROSENBERG
On March 31st, the Somali militant group Al Shabab released a propaganda video with a new and interesting feature: hip hop. The song has no beat, the rapper’s delivery is unsophisticated, the lyrics are uni-dimensional, the production quality is low, it might not even be hip hop — but if not, hip hop’s flavor and influence is there.
This guy is not the first person to rap about Somalia, and a thriving Somali hip hop community ensures he’s not the best – or only – voice on the topic. Though it appears that most Somali rappers are descendants of US-based refugees, the diasporic tradition of sending ideas back home, coupled with the ease of the internet, makes it very, very likely that, somewhere in Somalia, hip hop is growing local roots.
Of course, a lot of hip hop has heavy political content, it’s been a platform for social and political criticism since it began. While its traditional use by members of oppressed groups remains globally prominent, it’s no longer an exclusive domain. People on all sides now participate in the argument through hip hop.
To the best of my knowledge, Al Shabab is the first real political institution to officially present themselves to the world by rapping. State Department-sponsored tours and judges writing in verse are the closest examples I know, but there are degrees of difference. Maybe Shabab isn’t the best example: only a few thousand strong and deeply divided, their achievements in taking over parts of southern Somalia haven’t earned them much more than American ire.
Yet those conditions — territorial control, holding residents accountable to a legal system and gaining recognition on the international stage, along with the potential to further expand — seem to warrant them seriously as a political group, and rap is the PR they chose.
Shabab’s PR machine isn’t great, but that video got great play. The MC is American-raised (or born), and rapping in English clearly suggests that the target audience is English-speaking, most likely the Somali-American youth that regularly join up.
As far as I know, there are no government has any official policies specifically on hip hop, and officialdom has displayed suitably unpredictable reactions, ranging from acceptance to puzzlement to hostility. While corporations have long since discovered the genre for both subtle product placement and direct advertising (even Common, who wrote a great extended metaphor about commercialism, starred in a Gap ad), the use of rap by governments to spread political messages is an uncharacteristic and worrying possibility.
While governments are often among the last to adapt to cultural shifts, government PR machines can sometimes be very, very good. Is it possible that one day we might see government sponsored hip-hop artists spinning carefully crafted talking points to the youth? Rap songs from both sides of a conflict aimed at gaining support abroad?
One reason hip hop is heard from Arica to Zanzibar is that you don’t need specialized instruments — you always carry them. And because the major focus is usually words, rappers have a lot of space to express their opinions. Almost anyone can identify with love, sex, cars, making money, getting away with things, good times, where you’re from, etc. But you can talk about anything you want. Why hip hop isn’t used more for sending crafted messages is a mystery to me.
The music itself can be an active force for good. There’s some quality music out there on topics from human rights to environmentalism, with a lot of the suggestions being implicit in the nature of the words (Mr Lif never actually says ‘don’t invade Iraq,’ Aesop Rock never says ‘revolt’ but the meaning is clear). If an angry Canadian can write a funny country song that makes a huge impact, imagine what a widely-distributed rap video could do: an NGO could raise awareness and money; specific political arguments could be presented; educators could make political science seem interesting.
There’s potential there, and Shabab knows it.
(Screen capture: Shabab)
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