Mogadishu, Somalia – Cabdalla ‘Rasaas’ Mohamed is an artist famous beyond his tender years.
On the streets of Mogadishu, his piercing voice can be heard blaring from the speakers on the back of the numerous tricycles ferrying passengers to different parts of the Somali capital. He just turned 14 but is one of the most famous faces on the city’s rap scene.
“I have been doing this since I was 11,” Rasaas, meaning bullets in Somali, told Al Jazeera. “I rap to express myself and share my feelings about everyday things
Everywhere the rapper goes, the city’s young stop and ask if he is really him, because of his unassuming figure. Interestingly, Saudi-born Rasaas looks younger than his age and says he has lost a few pounds since filming a recent music video. So he often jokes with his fans that “[this] is not Rasaas but a copy of him.”
“I’m their voice because I talk about things that they can relate to. They have no one else expressing their voice or speaking on their behalf. It is left to me,” he added.
Until recently, rap was a genre that had a bad reputation in Somalia – a deeply conservative society – and was associated with school dropouts and drug abusers. Radio stations used to avoid playing rap songs for fear of incurring the wrath of older citizens.
But that is changing now with the youth embracing it as their genre of choice. And this is significant, because more than 75 percent of the East African country’s population is under the age of 35, according to the United Nations.
The genre has become so popular that politicians now hire top rappers to compose songs for them during election campaigns.
Somali rap artists are also travelling abroad to countries with large diaspora communities to hold shows in cities like Dubai, London, Toronto, Nairobi and Minneapolis.
“Most of us do it as a hobby, not to make money or become rich. Rap in Somalia is not like in America where you can become a millionaire quickly. It is a new industry with potential [but] we hope it will become like the industry in America,” Rasaas said.
Resonating with the youth
Still, the older generation is unmoved.
“Old people don’t like our music. But we don’t rap for them, so it is okay,” Rasaas said, laughing.
Most of the big-name artists in the Somali rap scene are under the age of 25 and speak directly to the youth.
Sharmake “Socdaal” Hassan Abdullahi says he was surprised by how much his songs resonated with the youth.
“There is no feeling like when you are on a stage and you see the impact your words have on people. There is nothing I can compare it to,” Socdaal, meaning traveller in Somali, told Al Jazeera.
“Some of my fans cry and some get very happy depending on the song and the words,” the 23-year-old father-of-three added.
The city’s youth say it is the message the songs carry that attracts them to the genre despite the reservations from the older generation.
“If you listen to other songs that the older generation like and listen to, it is all about love. Every song is about love and romance. There is more to life than that,” Ahmed Noor Ali, a university student, told Al Jazeera.
“Rappers sing about everything. You will find a rap song about exam results, lack of jobs [and] corruption and about everything else,” Ahmed, 21, added.
Others say they like listening to rap because it is the music of their generation.
“I don’t want to be listening to the same song my dad was listening to or songs that are the same style that mum used to listen to when she was young,” Amina Abdi Mohamed, 19-year old undergraduate, told Al Jazeera. “Rap is the music of our generation. Yes, it will not be to everyone’s liking. But there should be space for everyone to listen to what they like.”
The rise in the popularity of rap music has also been noticed in the country’s corridors of power.
“In the last few years, rap music has been like a storm which has swept our youth,” Abdirahman Mohamed Fiili, director of marketing at Somalia’s national theatre told Al Jazeera.
“A lot of youngsters have picked up the genre and learnt how to use it to express themselves,” Abdirahman, a lyricist and poet behind some of the country’s most popular songs of the last decade, added. And because it is the genre that is the most popular with the youth, every young person who wants to become a musician gravitates towards rap. It is the golden era of rap here.”
But Somalia is still deeply conservative and religious leaders have a massive influence. Some have been calling on the public, especially the youth, to stop listening to rap music.
“There are many reasons why our people should not waste their time listening to this music,” Sheikh Abdirahim Sheikh Adan, an imam and religious scholar in Mogadishu, told Al Jazeera.
“It is against our religion. It is also not our culture. They are copying what they see foreigners like Americans do, thinking it is good. If they want to copy Americans, copy how they make technology like phones and planes,” Sheikh Adan said.
“They are singing about fighting each other, threatening each other and the language they use is extremely foul,” he added.
For Socdaal, he hopes everyone accepts that rap, like other forms of music and art, will not be to everyone’s taste.
“I know we are not everyone’s favourite but there is space for everyone. We need to co-exist,” he said.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa