MOGADISHU, Somalia — Fueled by the high-volume music and fast-talking rappers, the Somali crowd danced, shouted and sang. Mogadishu’s first music festival in decades acted as another step in moving past a city soundscape once filled with gunfire and mortar shells.
The Reconciliation Music Festival was organized by a Somali rap group that moved overseas, Waayaha Cusub. The recent performances attracted international artists to a capital city that until recently was music-free.
The militant group al-Shabab ruled Mogadishu from 2006 until the fighters were forced out in August 2011. No lyrical stanzas were allowed in al-Shabab-controlled areas, and the al-Qaida linked militants banned music as a “sin” punishable by public flogging.
Two years ago, an al-Shabab representative threatened Waayaha Cusub after it produced a song disparaging the militants’ rule and its penchant for killing civilians.
“We want to change the world’s impression toward Mogadishu as a dangerous city,” rapper Shine Akhiyar said to the crowd from the stage. “Mogadishu is more peaceful than many cities considered peaceful. Through music, we are committed to fight extremism.”
For the cheering audience in this seaside capital, the winds of change were audible.
“It’s a great night,” said Abdishakur Ali, 17, who was standing among his dancing peers. “I have never seen something like this. It’s nice. We are tired of war.”
Music is gradually returning but Somalia still has a long way to go to regain its rich cultural past. The packed open-air venues of the 1980s have been bombed to rubble or occupied by squatters. The music has changed too. Gone are the songs about love and romance. Instead, new tracks explore the struggle for peace.
The foreign and Somali musicians also had a private showing with an audience that in the past may have wished them dead — a group of militant defectors now participating in a government-sponsored rehabilitation program. To the musicians’ surprise, many former fighters — some of them still in their early teens — immediately began to dance.
“The most important achievement of our festival really was to rap and sing alongside former fighters and child soldiers,” said Daniel Gerstle, an American musician from Ohio.