Photo courtesy of the Cedar Cultural Center
In the wake of the Somali Civil War in the early 1990s, Minnesota found itself with an influx of Somali refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland. Now, nearly thirty years later, Somalia is still plagued with unrest, but we have a vibrant Somali population—the biggest in North America. The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis is where a large percentage now calls home.
Cedar-Riverside also has a long history of arts—there are at least 11 music venues in the small neighborhood, including the Cedar Cultural Center. Invigorated by Somali culture and tradition, the Cedar has developed programming, in partnership with Augsburg College, putting the East-African culture front and center. “Midnimo,” the Somali word for ‘unity,’ is a fitting name for the program.
Fadumo Ibrahim, the program director, said that though the Somali community is tight knit, this program is a great way for all members of the Minnesota community to understand this culture.
“Midnimo means unity, uniting,” she said. “With your neighborhood, friends, community—building unity together. Growing up, your neighbors help with kids and are protectors, like members of the family; you share resources—not just conversation, but even things like borrowing that cup of sugar. Midnimo is very valued, and having that word attached to our program helps us achieve the goal we want to achieve.”
Since 2014 this Cedar-Augsburg program has hosted seven (now eight) Somali musician residencies. For its eighth residency, the Cedar landed one of the most famed Somali artists ever: Nimco Yasin (NEE-mo yah-SEEN). Yasin performed with the Waaberi group in the 1980s, which was funded by the Somali government. She was displaced to London due to the collapse of her home country’s government, and kept performing with other Waaberi members who had lost their homes.
Yasin nearly didn’t get her visa in time for the residency, but finally got to Minneapolis on March 20. For a week she hosted workshops with a group of about 20 Minneapolitans. Students, Somali residents, and members of the public were accepted to work with her to develop a show for her Cedar residency finale, which took place on March 31. On the night of their last workshop, she kindly answered a few questions, as translated by Ibrahim.
First, could you give a synopsis of how you ended up here, hosting this residency in Minneapolis? Have you always been a singer?
NY: When I was a student, I used to love my music class, it was my favorite, and I became good at singing. Every time, I was the winner of that class—prepared, vocals ready. That was my interest, I loved it, and so I did a really wonderful job in school firstly.
Then, after I finished as a student, I became a teacher. Some of us teachers and good students went to do an arts program, and then came back and the President hosted a huge party so they could receive awards we had won. After that, 30 musicians and performers and I did a play together, in which I got to sing.
Ten years later I got the opportunity to go back to the capital of Mogadishu to sing in a play. The composer was very famous, and he fell in love with my voice, and he wrote a part for me to sing, in this highly selective group. My part was written for me, so I didn’t have to audition. From there I joined this musical group, and we toured all over, ending in London.
How would you describe your music to someone who’s never listened?
NY: I would say, the way I’d describe all my songs is simply love and patriotism, with culture and tradition.
How does the conflict affecting your home country inspire your craft?
NY: So, as musicians, we always talk about Somalia. With the famine that’s occurring, we spread awareness to the community through our work, in what we’re singing. And what we do is bring that to the community, and people, and make sure everyone knows about this famine and encourage that community to help their people. As well, when there’s a new president, we encourage Somalis to support him, but we also give advice to the President on how to be a good leader. But, if he becomes corrupted, we send another message: That we’ll break him down. The only thing a Somali artist gets to use is their voice, and that’s very powerful.
What does this word, ‘midnimo’, mean to you personally?
NY: Unity. Midnimo, this program, is a platform for musicians like myself to bring back Somali life and music, culture that was destroyed. I’m known as a very famous singer in Somalia, and everyone wants to get to know me, but in the greater community, no one knows me. So this program and idea allow the greater community to get to know our culture and who we are.
What do you want the greater population of Minnesota to know about Midnimo and the Somali community here?
NY: I want the community, Somali or non-, I want them to come in and support, and know that we are not just one thing. We are musicians and singers and songwriters, and we want to get to know you, too. We would love to see and meet you. That’s what midnimo is really about.
Yasin performed at the Cedar Cultural Center on March 31. She’s now hosting workshops in St. Cloud and Mankato, both of which will have finale shows. You can buy tickets for those performances here. The Cedar will announce its fall midnimo artist residency this summer.