Somali pop idol offers escape to Somali youth

Deeqa, a contestantSomalia’s arts and entertainment industry is in dire need of revival following two decades of conflict

Monday, December 23, 2013


After more than two decades of conflict, some semblance of normality is returning to the Somalia capital, Mogadishu. A UN-backed government is consolidating its control of the city, and services such as rubbish collection and traffic lights have been restored. Now, a TV reality show has been launched, as the BBC’s Kate Forbes reports.

A small and rather terrified girl shuffles up to the stage and stands there, mute, as the host rather hurriedly rushes up to introduce her. The audience claps along to the rhythm of the music as an electronic drum roll marks the entrance of contestant number one.

A standard start to any TV talent competition. But this one is filmed in a small studio in an anonymous neighbourhood, inside a compound with armed guards on the outside.

The contestants here have grown up knowing nothing but war, at times unable to leave their homes because of gunfights in the streets.

But right now, that is as nothing compared to facing Somalia’s answer to Simon Cowell.Judges of Somali's Show Your Talent show


This is Somali Pop Idol, or in direct translation: Show Your Talent.

“We can’t really use the word ‘idol’ for religious reasons,” confides organiser Ahmed Nuur.

“These contestants are already a target for religious extremists simply by taking part.”

But far from the sarcastic comments of judges on Pop Idol in the UK, the three judges on the panel call out encouragement and lead the clapping.

“Somalia wasn’t just destroyed physically in the civil war,” says one judge, Sugaal Abdulle, a former theatre director.

“Our performing arts scene was also destroyed. Musicians left, or were killed. There were no venues to play in.”

Far from dashing the hopes of contestants, here they are trying to make them come true.

“Somali culture has a deep affinity with music and poetry and we are trying to rebuild it,” explains Mr Abdulle.

What started as a small project by youth workers, to help give young people a safe, creative outlet has become a phenomenon – and is being filmed for Somali TV.

The pilots for the show have aired, and the organisers hope to scale up production to a full season.

“We expected a few entries and a couple of recording sessions with young people who don’t have anywhere to perform or sing,” says organiser Ahmednur Hassan Abdulle.

“Suddenly we had 800 contestants and over 1,000 entries.”

But there is no glamorous record contract on offer for the winner here.

Just being here is a small victory.

‘Security checks’

The level of fear when we launched initially was enormous,” says Jabril Abdulle, a director at the Centre for Research and Dialogue (CRD), the organisation behind the project.

“Young people were asking themselves: ‘Am I going to get killed, what might happen when I come back at night, what about my family?'”

“The amount of security checks we have to do is enormous,” he continues.

“We too are at risk of a young person who has been radicalised slipping through the net and blowing themselves up right here in the studio.”

The threat he refers to stems from Islamist militant group al-Shabab, which used to control much of Somalia, and still holds many rural areas in the south.

They believe it is un-Islamic to perform, targeting musicians and venues even now.

They were behind a suicide bombing of the National Theatre last year which left 10 dead and many injured.

“We had just finished renovating a music studio at the theatre when the bombers struck,” says Mr Abdulle.

“We had originally hoped to hold the whole audition process there.”

Like American Idol and Pop Idol, each audition is filmed, as is the reaction of the judges.

The grand final of Show Your Talent is planned for a few months’ time, in the very same National Theatre that was targeted.

“I’m not scared. I’d definitely go,” says Istar, 18, who has been singing for about two years. 

Her bravado causes raised eyebrows around her.

“Really? Not scared at all?” she is asked. She says not, but no-one is convinced.

With her next breath, Istar makes everyone fall about laughing when she admits that she perfects her moves at home, with a hairbrush in front of her bedroom mirror.

Slow change

It is clear that astonishing bravery sits side by side with mundane normality in Mogadishu.

Up on stage, another contestant, Deeqa, 18, starts singing.

Quiet at first, but soon a strong clear voice emerges, her hands pointing up to the sky with moves reminiscent of classic soul singers from the 1980s.

None of the girls draw inspiration from western singers.

“Do you like the singers on American Idol like Britney Spears or Mariah Carey?” I ask.

“Not at all,” they laugh.

Despite the ongoing threat to performers, organisers and contestants credit an improvement in the security situation in Mogadishu for making it possible to have a competition like Show Your Talent in the city at all.

Al-Shabab pulled out of Mogadishu in 2011 and there is no longer a front line running through the city.

Forces from the African Union’s mission in Somalia, known as Amison, continue to push to control more and more of the country.

However, so far they aren’t able to stop asymmetric warfare like suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices, and analysts say that as more territory is lost by the militants, these attacks could increase.

But confidence is improving, business is reviving and walking along the street feels much safer than even a year ago. You can see Somalis enjoying a revival of cafe culture in makeshift tea shops along roads where once they wouldn’t dare linger.

“It has been difficult for a young woman like me to have freedom in Mogadishu,” explains contestant Deeqa.

“But over the past year the security situation has been improving – that is one of the reasons I can even come out and say ‘I want to sing’,” she says.

“But you still need to be cautious if you want to sing songs somewhere. You still need to cover yourself up completely and wear a full veil. You have to be careful,” she warns.