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Somali singer shares talent with Central Minnesota



SC Times — While hair metal was king on the U.S. music scene, Nimco Yasin was performing around the world with some of Somalia’s most talented singers and dancers.

Thirty years and a civil war later, Yasin’s legacy lives on in the Somali diaspora, a displaced population living around the world as refugees and immigrants.

Yasin is performing at the Paramount Center for the Arts on Saturday as part of a residency through the Cedar Cultural Center. In the spirit of Midnimo, the name of her residency which means united in Somali, tickets to the show are free for students with an ID.

In the 1980s, she was part of the Waaberi group, translated as “dawn players.” Sponsored by the Somali government, the group traveled the world and claimed more than 300 members over its 30-year history. As the political situation in Somalia grew more unstable, Yasin and many other artists fled Somalia. Yasin landed in the United Kingdom in 1989. Other musicians weren’t so lucky. Some were arrested or killed as the Somali government collapsed, plunging the country into civil war.

At that time, it would still be a decade before the 2017 graduating class at Apollo High School was born. But as demonstrated by a long line of students waiting to take a photo with her, she’s still well known, said language arts teacher Vanessa VanLaanen.

“If they didn’t recognize her by her name alone, they recognized her music right away — almost all of them. Or they were like, ‘I think my mom listens to that,’ ” VanLaanen said, if they were Somali. “If they weren’t, they had no idea who she was but they were really excited that she was coming.”

She said she hopes her students take advantage of the free tickets and bring their families to the show Saturday.

Yasin met with students performing in Apollo’s culture show on May 5. Some performed for her, including a dance group that’s using some of Yasin’s music. Through local Somali musician Dalmar Yare as interpreter, Yasin said she really enjoyed the performances and many were very talented.

“So far, it’s been my favorite day,” she said, of the residency.

That’s saying something. Yasin has been in Mankato and all around St. Cloud as part of the residency for more than three weeks. In St. Cloud, she’s met with St. Cloud State University students and with students at two Boys & Girls Clubs locations.

On Friday, she visits Hands Across the World, a program that helps refugees and other immigrants learn English and other skills.

Yasin’s visit was a unique opportunity for Somali teens.

“Our school has so many Somali students and we’ve brought in so many different performers … but what’s on stage never really shows us who is in our school. So this program kind of acted like a mirror for us, that it was finally able to put some representation on the stage, to show students, hey, people like you can be on stage. So it gives them some more home and inspiration for sure,” VanLaanen said.

The live public performance serves dual purposes. It introduces St. Cloud’s arts and entertainment community to the Somali community, including Paramount Arts. Some parents didn’t know what the Paramount  was, VanLaanen said.

It also introduces the St. Cloud community to Somali arts and entertainment.

“It’s the reason we have this program called Midnimo,” said Abdul Ibrahim, community liaison and tour assistant with the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. “It means unity … to reach out … not only to Somalis but to other cultures,”

Many Americans dismiss music because it’s in another language or it’s unfamiliar, said Deevo , a musician playing as part of Yasin’s band during the residency.

VanLaanen said her students were ready to take on that challenging, navigating intercultural communication issues that arise and learn from each other. They were, however, worried they wouldn’t understand the music.

“(I said), That’s OK. Listen. You’re going to enjoy listening. You’re going to enjoy watching,” she said.  “While the meaning doesn’t always translate … the music still seems to translate or speaks for itself.”

She gave them a quick example.

“None of my students know Korean but they’re all into K-pop,” VanLaanen said.

Yasin and the mostly Minnesotan musicians playing with her have had to navigate their own communication issues. Yasin doesn’t speak much English, and the musicians don’t speak Somali. But Yasin was able to convey her displeasure with the wave of a hand, they said.

It required some music translation as well. While American music is usually based on an eight-beat pattern, Somali music can vary. But after a day or so figuring out how they’d fit together, the band was able to make it work.

Yasin and the band joined a SCSU class where a student asked a really good question, said DeCarlo Jackson, who plays bass with the group.

“How do you think playing Somali music here in St. Cloud will affect the culture of our community?” he said. “I was like, whoa! That’s a lot in a question. It’s the most effective way this can affect people is that if people who are not Somali come to the show and try their hardest to understand the music of another culture, or just to see the fun, dance around the way everybody else will be dancing around.”

“The energy is contagious,” VanLaanen said.

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Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri named young people’s laureate for London



THE GUARDIAN — The 24-year-old Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri, who has been chosen as the new young people’s laureate for London, is hoping to spend her year in the role convincing young people “to see poetry as part of their every day, rather than in some dusty tome, or academic niche interest”.

Mehri, who has a background in biochemical science and wrote the poetry chapbook sugah. lump. prayer, has been shortlisted for this year’s Brunel African poetry prize and won last year’s Out-Spoken Page poetry prize. As laureate, Mehri hopes to encourage young people to voice their concerns and experiences through poetry.

The poet, from Kilburn in north-west London, was selected for the role by a panel of arts organisations and poets, and is, according to Spread the Word’s chair of trustees Rishi Dastidar, “an inspired choice” and a “poet to watch”.

“For young people to have an artist who is an ambassador for them, who brings their concerns, struggles and joys to those in authority, and the wider world, is vital,” Dastidar said. “Her poetry is precise and powerful, and rich with images that are haunting. She is not afraid to tackle the biggest of subjects, which, combined with her talent, is going to give the role a renewed sense of purpose and visibility.”
Mehri said she was exposed to oral forms of poetry by her family when growing up, but only began writing for publication around four years ago. “Over time I honed, or found, my voice, and that allowed me to feel comfortable, finding the poetic voice I felt was most suited to me. Obviously at the beginning you’re very much inspired by your influences,” she said. “I think the poetry I write is interested in questions or ideas around disruption or movement, whether it’s movement of people or places, movement between different ideas, between how things change over different generations, and in themes of migration and urban spaces.”

During her time in the role, Mehri will be looking to amplify the voices of Londoners aged between 13 and 25, “to let them lead conversations, to be as inspired by them as hopefully they can be inspired by me”. She will work with writer-development agency Spread the Word on youth-focused residencies across London, head a tour to six outer London boroughs, and co-host a special project for young London poets called The Young People’s Poetry Lab.

According to research from the National Literacy Trust, 84% of teachers who participated in a poetry programme for disadvantaged children in London schools over a five-year period said their writing skills had improved.

Outgoing young people’s laureate for London, Caleb Femi, said that “poetry has the potential to play a vital part in self-expression and artistic enjoyment in the lives of young people”.

“We need a dedicated person who can assist in integrating the joys of poetry into the everydayness of young Londoners,” he added. “We are extremely lucky to have a talented and dedicated poet such as Momtaza Mehri appointed as the new young people’s laureate for London. Her tenure is sure to be an extraordinary one.”

Mehri said that she wanted to: “Reach everybody, to allow people to see poetry as part of everyday living in London, and all the different poetry traditions that people bring to London.”

“I am very much aware of the fact that I came out of a very different poetic tradition, and what that’s brought to my writing of the English language. So I want to be aware of the fact that people are carrying different poetic influences, whether they consider themselves poets or not,” she said.

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‘I grew up in a refugee camp, now I’m on the cover of Vogue’



BELFAST TELEGRAPH — Halima Aden is used to firsts. She was St Cloud, Minnesota’s first Muslim homecoming queen, and St Cloud State University’s first hijab-wearing student senator. She was the first hijab-wearing contestant to compete in Miss Minnesota USA — she wore a burkini in the swimsuit round — and the first to be signed to a major agency, IMG, the industry colossus that also represents Miranda Kerr, Karlie Kloss and Cara Delevingne.

And last week the 20-year-old became the first hijab-wearing model to appear on the cover of British Vogue. “It’s taken 102 years for there to be a hijabi model on the cover,” Aden says. “People are very proud of this moment.” Indeed, by the time the issue appeared on news stands last Friday, the cover had already gone viral.

Alongside Aden, a Somali model born in a Kenyan refugee camp, appeared other faces rarely seen on the cover of a mainstream, European fashion magazine — the mainstream European fashion magazine — including South Sudanese Adut Akech, Indian Radhika Nair, Korean Yoon Young Bae and mixed-race, plus-size Paloma Elsesser. “I think the cover really was true diversity,” Aden says. “Not a matter of ticking boxes but really people from different religions, different ethnic backgrounds, all thriving in an industry that has brought us together.”

Officially she works in this industry: she has walked Milan Fashion Week catwalks for MaxMara and Alberta Ferretti, and for Yeezy, Kanye West’s fashion line, in New York. She has appeared on the front cover of Vogue Arabia.

Unofficially she is also a full-time ambassador for her faith, and for the hijab. This is inevitable, as Aden observes, matter-of-factly. “I’m the first high-fashion hijab-wearing model. Automatically, I know there are a lot of girls looking at me. I need to be a good role model, a good representative of my faith, a good ambassador to my community.”

Being this in the hyper-visual, exposed and exposing world of fashion does, though, invite scrutiny — from within and outside her community.

Aden admits she recently cleansed her Instagram (where she has 577k followers). “I really wanted to explore a new look,” she explains.

“But I noticed that my younger followers were messaging me and saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t stuff I can wear. You’re the only person in fashion that I can look to, and you’re wearing stuff I can’t wear’. When I noticed that, I was like: ‘OK, it’s true’. I was still covered head to toe but I was trying out shorter dresses with knee-high boots. Those pictures got 60,000 likes but I wanted to stay true to my original followers. There are a million other models who can rock the same outfit but there’s not anyone besides me who can say, ‘I’m going to wear modest fashion’. I owe it to these little girls.”

Aden was born in Kakuma camp, in Kenya, in 1997. “I grew up in a refugee camp — there weren’t really many highlights,” she deadpans.

“I remember having malaria what felt like every other week. I remember scorpion bites and my mum having to apply Colgate toothpaste. It had a cooling effect.” She shrugs off any sense of victimhood. “I remember a lot of good things. When you don’t know ‘the other’, you tend to appreciate life.”

When she was seven her family went in pursuit of this ‘other’ life: Aden, her mother and younger brother were granted refuge in St Louis, Minnesota. “It was such a big deal,” she says. “A lot of Africans have the misconception that in America money grows on trees. But the neighbourhood we were in was very impoverished. You heard gunshots at night. The school I went to didn’t have an English language learners’ programme so I just went to school and listened and went home.”

After six months her mother moved the family to St Cloud on a word of mouth tip. There, teachers “would always help me, after school, during my lunch hour”. Her English is natural, her accent American.

“My mum made this quick call,” says Aden. “’I raised these kids, I went through hell and back for them, and I don’t want to risk them ending up in gangs, or in prison, or not getting a proper education’. It was really brave. African mums — I’m telling you,” she laughs.

Being crowned her school’s homecoming queen was “a big deal”.

“I’d never seen kids who are Muslim up for that, so I didn’t even think it was a possibility.”

And indeed, symbolically, it resonates: a prom is the gala event for the all-American teen experience, and she is a young Somali-American wearing a hijab.

She’s diplomatic about racial politics in contemporary, supercharged America. “Because Muslims are such a small number — one per cent in America — a lot of Americans never get to interact personally with a Muslim person.

“If you see horrible stories day in and day out on TV, you’re going to have this deep psychological fear of Muslims. It’s not right but that’s the hardest thing to show people — we’re not all the same. But fear is also human nature.”

She entered Miss Minnesota USA partly because there were scholarships up for grabs, but: “I also wanted to show other women in my home state that I didn’t conform in order to fit in. I wore a bathing suit — but it was a burkini.”

What happened next is one of those star-crossed fashion coincidences: Carine Roitfeld, former French Vogue editor, saw the pictures of her at Miss Minnesota USA and asked her to appear on the cover of CR Fashion Book, her new project and an influential countercultural industry tome. Roitfeld’s endorsement led to the IMG contract, which led to everything else.

Still, Aden was “shocked” to get the call from British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. “I met him at the British Fashion Awards in December. He was like: ‘I know we’re going to work together’. But I never imagined it being a cover story.”

For her portrait inside the magazine, Halima’s aesthetic is arch fashion: she slouches and pouts, staring down the camera in a mohair cape and woollen trousers — both Dior — and Altuzarra cowboy boots. She says it is “one of the biggest blessings that has come in my career” — though her favourite moment of the two-day shoot was off-set, shooting the breeze with fellow cover star Adut Akech.

It transpired the pair had been born in the same refugee camp. “We had a moment like The Parent Trap: ‘How old are you? What do your parents look like?’ And it was our first time meeting. Just imagine — these two girls from this camp, reunited for the first time on the cover of British Vogue. I can’t make that up.”

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