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Somali singer shares talent with Central Minnesota

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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.

Africa

Warlord’s fighters become movie stars as Ugandan cinema booms

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BLOOMBERG — Opio was 16 when he was abducted by a Bible-quoting warlord and forced into a militia notorious for massacres and sexual slavery. Two decades on, he again took up a rifle — this time playing one of his former comrades in an award-winning Ugandan movie.

As the cameras rolled, he and other actors stormed a village set, shot at civilians and were ambushed at a river crossing. It was all for ‘The Devil’s Chest,’ one of two feature films about Joseph Kony and his rebel Lord’s Resistance Army that was made on location in northern Uganda last year and stirred some painful memories.

“I felt it all coming back, the frustrations, the helplessness and how sometimes I would feel that I just wanted to die,” said Opio, who’s now 38 and spent seven years in the LRA before fleeing and accepting a state-sponsored amnesty. “But at the end of it all, I knew it was just a movie — I had already left that real life in the past.”

Uganda, too, has moved on from the chaos sown by Kony’s militia, which may have been responsible for 100,000 deaths in central and eastern Africa in the past three decades. There’s been an investment in oil exploration and infrastructure in the north, which the LRA terrorized until 2005, while the capital, Kampala, is touted as a hot new nightlife spot. Now at peace — and still under the iron rule of President Yoweri Museveni — U.S. ally Uganda is a regional heavyweight, sending troops to Somalia and South Sudan.

The country isn’t a complete stranger to Hollywood: ‘The Last King of Scotland’ recreated the despotic 1970s rule of President Idi Amin, while Lupita Nyong’o played the mother of a chess prodigy in Disney’s ‘Queen of Katwe,’ which takes its title from a Kampala neighbourhood. Recent years, though, have brought a surge in locally funded films. Museveni’s drive to remain in office may have curbed political expression, but it hasn’t dampened creativity in an economy that’s almost quadrupled in size since he took power in 1986.

At least 700 Ugandan features and short films have played at festivals in the past five years, according to Ruth Kibuuka, content development manager at the Uganda Communications Commission, the industry regulator. While quality was initially “wanting,” it has “greatly improved,” partly due to technical training, she said.
There’s still a long way before Uganda challenges Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry that produces movies at a rate second only to India’s. That’s despite the efforts of Nabwana Isaac Godfrey. The founder of Wakaliwood, a studio that turns out scrappy, fast-paced action movies from a Kampala slum, he says he’s directed about 60 since 2005 — at less than $300 each.
Driving Passion

“The industry is growing at a very good speed and it’s passion that is driving it,” said Godfrey. His most famous production,‘Who Killed Captain Alex?,’ showcases the crude computer-generated effects and over-the-top violence that’s won him a cult following outside Uganda.

For director Hassan Mageye, ‘Devil’s Chest’ commemorates the insurgency’s victims while showing that people have moved on. It won best feature at Uganda’s main film festival in September but hasn’t yet been widely released. He estimated about 90 percent of the 400-strong cast were affected by Kony’s rebellion, including some ex-fighters.

Roger Masaba, who portrayed Kony, said he was advised by some of the cast who’d met the real man. The 47-year-old said he was surprised not everyone off the set in the north expressed dislike for the warlord. While he was in costume, some even thought he was Kony.

Kony, who’s been indicted by the International Criminal Court and still on the run, went on to plague South Sudan and the Central African Republic with a much-diminished militia. His former fighters in Uganda were mostly granted amnesty by the government, which has provided counseling and outlawed discrimination against them.

There’s a strong local appetite for stories about Uganda’s past, according to Steve Ayeny, the director of ‘Kony: Order From Above,’ another feature about the rebels and their captives filmed at a northern army base. He said about half his 445 actors and extras were former insurgents.

Reenacting the lynchings and burning of villages “was not easy,” said Ayeny, who had friends killed during the period his film portrays. “Because they were the truth, we just had to deal with it and say, ya, let’s move on.”

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MINNESOTA: Gustavus professor, student to show documentary on Somali-Americans

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Southern Minn — The hopes and experiences of several Somali-Americans are shown in “(Mid)west of Somalia,” a documentary by a professor-student team at Gustavus Adolphus College.

The film will be shown in its first local public showing at 7 p.m. March 1 at St. Peter High School Performing Arts Center.

Communications studies professor Martin Lang said it was project he embarked on, knowing there was more to the Somali-American story than the reports about terrorism recruitment or conflicts with new neighbors.

“As I’ve lived here in St. Peter for a dozen years now, I’ve come to know more and more of the population in St. Peter and the Somali population in particular,” he said. “I’ve come to know diverse sides of them. It was such a contrast with what I had learned and had known about Somali immigrants smashed up against the people I was meeting and I knew I can’t be the only one surprised at what is below the surface here.”

He and student Noah O’Ryan did the bulk of filming in the summer of 2016.

They talked with Somali-American community leaders as well as people they knew personally, and those connections helped them network more widely. The documentary subjects are all at least part-time students with at least part-time jobs. They primarily live in Mankato or St. Peter; a few are from Faribault.

Lang said they didn’t set out for the film to focus on people pursuing education. He suspects that is a product of the location and so many young Somali-Americans are seeking to do their best.

“Education is a really high priority for Somali families, especially for the first generation,” he said. “The millennial generation feels a really strong responsibility to do right by the family’s sacrifice.”

Lang said Somali-Americans are like many Minnesotans. They value education, want their hard work and effort respected and intend to be “fully fledged, contributing members of our communities in a variety of ways,” he said.

Hanan Mohamud is a senior at Gustavus Adolphus College from Faribault. She is pursuing a psychology degree and wants to be a physician’s assistant. She’s one of the Somali-Americans profiled in the documentary.

She was approached by Lang about being in the film a few years after she was in his public discourse class. She agreed to be involved because “It was empowering and I had a lot to say.” She also connected him to two others.

Mohamud said she agreed, in part, to combat demeaning stereotypes.

“Most people honestly have no idea,” she said. “They think we’re living off welfare and whatnot. A lot of us go to school and only came to the country to get an education.”

Education is something that can’t be taken away and can help their home country. She said the documentary shows what she and others have experienced in the U.S., along with their aspirations and their priorities.

“It’s a very good film,” Mohamud said. “There’s some humor in it and, obviously, there are serious parts. It looked well put-together and he made sure the voices of people he was filming were well heard.”

Some of the documentary’s subjects will be part of a panel with Lang after the showing. The documentary, which runs about 35 minutes, has been shown a few times to small groups, but this is the first large public viewing.

The showing comes as part of the first Thursday film series by the Nicollet County Historical Society and Community and Family Education. It is also sponsored by the college, city Department of Leisure and Recreation Services and Senior Center.

“I think this is an important film because it tells the story of people who live, work, and attend school in this area,” Community and Family Education Director Tami Skinner said. “I hope that it will generate conversations in the community which will lead people to reach out to their new neighbors.”

Lang said he hopes it spurs understanding and conversation.

“The bigger picture for me is communication and dialog and in sort of a difficult political time, dialog is so much harder than it used to be,” he said. “It’s so important for all of us to be able to talk and pay attention to each other at least a little bit. I want to inspire conversation across divides that keep us apart.”

I think this is an important film because it tells the story of people who live, work, and attend school in this area. I hope that it will generate conversations in the community which will lead people to reach out to their new neighbors.

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This Somali Culture Zine Looks Amazing

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Photo by Ikram Mohamed via 1991

Safy Hallan Farah’s ‘1991’ zine will feature beautiful images and writing culled from the brightest young minds across the Somali diaspora.

Safy Hallan Farah didn’t think there were enough images of Somali people in media, so she took things into her own hands. In the summer of 2017, she conceived of the 1991 zine to “create the images” she wanted to see in the world. Farah, a writer who’s been in published in The New York Times, Vogue, Nylon and Paper, will release the first issue of 1991 later this year. She co-founded 1991 with Mia Nguyen—”even though she’s Vietnamese, she’s really passionate about the project,” Harrah explained—and is working on the zine with former VICE writer Sarah Hagi, model Miski Muse, Hadiya Shirea, and other Somali writers and artists.

“1991 is a Somali culture zine,” Farah told me in an email. “The name comes from how 1991 was the year the civil war broke out in Somalia, ushering a new beginning for Somalis everywhere. My collaborators and I would like to curate and edit work that plays with time and memory. From collage art that explores forgotten vestiges to writing by modern storytellers, 1991 will be at once a time capsule and an exploration of a Somali futurism that reconciles with the tumult of its past all while highlighting the creativity, style, resilience, and tenacity of Somali youth across the diaspora.”

Safy Hallan Farah | Photo by Nancy Musingguzi
VICE caught up with Safy over the phone to talk about her inspirations, growing up Somali-American in Minnesota, and Somali futurism.

Safy Hallan Farah | Photo by Nancy Musingguzi

VICE: Why did you title the zine 1991?
Safy Hallan Farah: I didn’t want people to project onto the name. I also didn’t want to marginalize the project by giving it an obscure Somali word as the name. And I like numerals. When things are in order, they tend to come first. 1991 is a palindrome, so it’s very stylistically interesting to look at. I was keen on not having something look ugly on the magazine because I think some words are ugly, some words won’t look beautiful to the wrong audience, and we want to cultivate a diasporic audience that isn’t necessarily Somali. Having it be called 1991 would be an interesting way to get a message across and have people ask us [about it instead of asking], “What does that word mean?” They’ll ask, “What is the significance of 1991?”

What is the significance of 1991?
We had this dictator named Siad Barre and he was ousted by people who were really mad at him, for good reasons because he sucked a lot. Then a civil war broke out, and that’s why there are so many displaced Somali refugees in countries like the United States, England, Australia, and pretty much everywhere. Somalis are everywhere.

Why is it important for you to have a zine that represents Somali voices?
It’s about [Somali] images. There aren’t images of Somali people that I want out there in the world. A magazine project can help create the images I want to see. Something I’m always thinking is, “Where are the Somali photographers who shoot in the particular styles that I happen to gravitate toward?” Through 1991, I’ve been able to connect with really amazing photographers I didn’t know existed and models. I’m interested in putting more diverse images out there of Somali people, particularly women and youths.

Tell me a little about your personal journey. How did you reach the point where you decided to create 1991 and felt the need to boost the voices of other Somali writers and artists?
I always felt like it was in my best interest to keep my head down and do my work and not create anything of my own, and keep doing what I have been doing, which is publishing articles at different publications, mostly because I felt like I didn’t necessarily know if it was the right time in my life to helm a project like that. I was inspired by my friend Kinsi Abdulleh who runs an organization in London called NUMBI Arts. She started this amazing Somali zine in 2010 called Scarf and she gave me a bunch of issues when I met her in Wales in 2015. Had I not been introduced to her work, I would not be doing this kind of project. It really got me thinking about creating community and creating spaces for Somali people and through just thinking about that over the course of the last three, four years, it’s gotten to the point where I am now, where I can focus on a project like [ 1991].

Image by Ikran Abdille via 1991

Can you tell us about your upbringing as a Somali-American in Minnesota, your relationship with your ethnic identity throughout your life, and how it led you to creating this zine?
Fun fact: I didn’t really speak Somali until I was nine. That’s because I only spoke Somali as a kid and my parents didn’t teach me English, but they taught me how to read [in English] before I was four. When I started kindergarten, I actually realized, “Oh shit, people speak English, I’m a weirdo, I don’t know how to communicate with anyone.” So I learned English really quickly, and I graduated from ESL class after the first couple months of first grade, and then I didn’t speak Somali for years. I completely disassociated from speaking Somali. This is something that happens with a lot of immigrant kids. When I moved to Minneapolis [from San Jose] when I was nine-years-old, I learned Somali because Minneapolis has a huge Somali population. I was going to pretty much all-black, all-Somali schools, and then I learned how to speak and write in Somali. Now I speak pretty fluent Somali. I think my relationship with my culture changed when I started being around more Somali people.

Why did you gravitate toward the medium of collage?
There are going to be a lot of written pieces, but I just like the idea of having that DIY aesthetic that a lot of zines have with collage. But also being design-minded. I really love Apartmento Magazine and The Gentlewoman. I want to strike a balance between good design and DIY.

You’ve mentioned “Somali futurism” in your description of the project. Can you explain what that is?
I remember when I was a senior in high school—most of my friends were Somali and most of my classmates were Somali—and everyone would be like, “Well, I’m gonna study this because then I get to go back to Somalia and do this.” Everyone would say stuff like that. Even though a good chunk of those kids weren’t actually born in Somalia, but everyone was always thinking of Somalia’s future and what’s next for us and what we can do for Somalia. What really interests me is what kind of voices will emerge in the diaspora that will push toward more progressive politics, more interesting sounds and textures and visuals. I’m more interested in the ideas that are going to go back to Somalia, rather than the people and the jobs.

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