The new “Africa Rising” narrative propagated largely by a globally-connected middle and upper class diaspora, often obscures the grittier stories of the African immigrant experience. This is partly due to an instinct among African immigrants to want to counter the history of one-dimensional and negative portrayals of both Africa and immigrants in the mainstream Western media. While it’s understandable that they’d want to shy away from being associated with crime, fraud, war, lack of employment, social welfare, or some other scourge that the West associates with immigrants and Africa, the struggle that most Africans immigrants go through is real, and sometimes the less glamorous stories of global migration are the ones that most need to be told:
Malitia Malimob, comprised of two twenty-something Somali immigrant youth living in Seattle, are a Rap group that both represent for their community, and manage to expose the less glamorous side of immigrant survival in America. Fleeing their war-torn homeland as children, the two made their way to Kenya and eventually found themselves settling down in one of Seattle’s rougher neighborhoods. Beyond these general facts, their public biography is pretty thin, but this is where their music, and the little I know about the recent history of the Somali diaspora starts to fill in the blanks.
The Somali community in North America is concentrated in seemingly unlikely locales like Minnesota, Ohio, or Maine. There is also a significant population in Ontario, Canada. Whenever I tell people about the Somali community in Minneapolis, the reaction is always along the lines of, “how did they end up there?” Regardless of the circumstances behind their settling in any one place (refugee resettlement policy or migrants settling in places where there’s already a community presence), I would argue — as I have before — that such communities add a much needed diversity and a wealth of culture to places that would otherwise be cut off from the realities of a globalizing world.
However, as the majority of Somali immigrants have arrived only since the 1990’s, and remain concentrated in ethnic enclaves, as a community they are still finding their footing in North American society. When I visited Toronto last summer, I was told that the highest gang activity in that city was amongst Somali youth. Growing up in the American Midwest, I was aware that the same association between Somali youth and gang violence exists in Minneapolis. What these rumors and reputations signify is that various places have simultaneously developed a distrust of their local Somali community, signaling a general stigma attached to the community contributing to their social marginalization. Add to that the fact they make up significant proportion of the black population in some of the places they have settled, and the community perhaps ends up having to stand in as targets for the latent forms of American racism that may persist there. Besides North America, tensions persist between the Somali and the local community in places like Nairobi as well. This is partly due to that city’s proximity to Somalia, and the fact that its civil war has had a significant effect on the East African region.
As if facing stigma in their local communities wasn’t enough for the Somali diaspora, they have also had to face a persistent demonization in the international media. In the news, Somalia is consistently portrayed as a backwards and lawless place that is a breeding ground for threats to the rest of the world (Western capitalism), such as islamic militancy and piracy. This reputation extends far beyond any of the places where Somalis actually live. The situation for the diaspora becomes even worse when this global fear gets transplanted and fused back onto the already existing stigma associated with them in their local communities.
A few years ago, several Minneapolis born Somali youth disappeared, and were found to have been recruited to join the ranks of Al-Shabaab, a militant Islamic group back in Somalia. Perhaps disillusioned by their continued marginalization in Minnesotan society, these American-born youth decided to abandon the American Dream and go do something for their homeland. At a youth development conference a few years ago, one community worker from that neighborhood told me that the FBI subsequently swarmed upon the Somali neighborhood in central Minneapolis, and the tight-knit community was being watched by the highest concentration of agents in the country.
The perpetual marginalization of these youth in their local context is most likely a factor in their ability to be recruited into the Al-Shabaab network. However, the American fear of domestic radicalization that such stories bring out is perhaps just a fundamental misunderstanding of the role informal networks play in constructing Somali culture, society, and national identity. (Read this post by Mats Utas for an intriguing illustration of this point.) Al-Shabaab is only one of many of the networks that hold the Somali diaspora together. Even while dispersed across the globe, the diaspora remains tightly-knit and are highly connected to home. Informal networks of business, communications, and finance retain central importance in Somali culture, and serves as a means of retaining a sense of cohesion in the face of so much displacement. In Utas’ introduction to the book African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks, he mentions that the strong informal network of finance in the diaspora allowed the Somali currency to retain its value on the international market, while the state itself was disintegrating.
Somali rapper K’naan has attempted to address the demonization of that other Somali network that seems to come up a lot in the international media: piracy. Throughout the course of several interviews, K’naan has attempted to debunk some of the myths surrounding piracy in the Indian Ocean, and shed some light on the motivation behind it. He claims that he’s with the pirates because they are just coastal fisherman who’ve had to turn to alternative means to provide for their communities after their livelihoods were destroyed by overfishing from international fleets. But for rap MC’s Malitia Malimob, the pirate label hits home in ways beyond just a theoretical engagement with the issue. It was those same Somali fisherman who saved one of the rappers during the war, and ferried him off to safety in Kenya.
The music Malitia Malimob make reflect all these social realities. It takes on the role of social criticism in that it brings to the forefront the global marginalization of the Somali people, and the limits of the American Dream. At the same time, their music serves as a galvanizing force for pride amongst Somali youth. With 50,000 views and only comments of praise from fans on a self-released YouTube video, the group have obviously touched a nerve amongst their peers.
Connections through informal networks to pirates and Islamic militants get channeled through a sonic palette that will inevitably be characterized as Gangsta Rap. And, this is what sets them apart from their countryman K’naan. Their latest EP, the Idi Amin Project (produced by Tendai from Shabazz Palaces), takes its cues from the West Coast Hip-Hop tradition with Seattle falling underneath the sphere of influence of the nearby Northern and Southern California scenes. This makes them part of a lineage that connects them directly to Gangsta Rap legends such as N.W.A., Too $hort, and E-40. But, the Malimob also engage sonically with neo-Gangsta Rap acts like Chief Keef and Waka Flocka Flame. However, instead of only talking about the highs and lows of life in an American ghetto, Malimob add elements of a people displaced by war, a disintegration of the formal state, and those underground networks that are portrayed as globally threatening in the mainstream media. (Interestingly Malitia Malimob aren’t the first African immigrant rappers in America to make Gangsta Rap. Mainstream rappers French Montana and Wale are two notable examples of predecessors. But, if they are able to reach the heights that those two were able to reach, they will definitely be the first to do so by tying their tough image to a distinct national identity.)
As Malimob’s profile grows, their rebellious spirit, and their appropriation of American gangster aesthetics may ruffle a few feathers. Mainstream American audiences in particular might not know what to do with African Gangsta Rap. In his essay ‘Of Mimicry and Membership,’ Stanford University’s James Ferguson describes a moment of embarrassment that mid-20th Century anthropologists faced when the natives imitated Western culture. Ferguson places this reaction in our contemporary moment and seeks to deconstruct this as a distinctly privileged reaction to the cultural production of a group of people who would otherwise be cast as exotic other. I take Ferguson’s ideas to mean that the moment of embarrassment really should serve as a mirror rather than a judgement call. I believe that Malitia Malimob’s music is a perfect example of Ferguson’s idea of Africans’ engagement with notions of global membership. They re-appropriate the pirate and Islamic militant images propagated in the media, and turn their outsider social standing into a form of empowerment by channeling the aesthetics of the art form that their Black American predecessors innovated a generation before.
Another group that the Malimob may have to face criticism from is the elders in their own community. In the United States, elder members of immigrant communities tend to look down on those youth members of the community who become too Americanized, especially those who find themselves entangled with the less savory sub-sections of American society. For elder members of African immigrant communities, the biggest source of embarrassment are those youth who take on attributes of Black American culture up to the point where they “loose their own culture” and their African-ness becomes unrecognizable. Assimilating racist notions of the place of Black Americans in American society, there is a strange contradiction in conservative new arrival African immigrants’ judgements of Black Americans. They end up thinking that the new generations of youth assimilate the wrong aspects of American society, and are in danger to end up just becoming one of them. But more often than not, those who deride this form of assimilation don’t understand the modes of survival and inventiveness that such a social strategy signifies.
In the end, perhaps this really is the story of Africa rising. If the Malimob can find success in their careers in many ways they will embody the American Dream, surpassing the limits set for their community. My real concern then, would be if Malitia Malimob received critical praise too quickly. A non-self-reflective praise for Malimob from music writers will have the danger of trivializing Somali realities in America, much like what happened recently with the violence on the South Side of Chicago. Inevitably they will have to deal with the fact that Gangsta Rap, black violence, and the public expression of black sexuality in America, formerly a form of expression that gave voice and visibility to the marginalized minority populations, is now fully acceptable as a commodity for consumption by the privileged.
The Malitia Malimob will be on tour in the U.S. with Shabazz Palaces and Thee Satisfaction this Spring. I’ll be playing with them as part of a Dutty Artz showcase in Seattle on April 3rd. Look out for news on a collaboration between the Malimob and myself soon. For some more on Somali Gangsta/Pirate Rap, read Johan’s piece on this site, and check out these artists’ videos: