Shine Ali doesn’t scare easily. If he did, he would not be with his band in a basement studio in Nairobi, rapping lyrics that challenge the Islamist rebels who control much of his homeland, Somalia — and whose reach extends deep into the Kenyan capital.
Ali is well aware of the risks he is running. Three years ago, members of militant group al-Shabaab broke into his home in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood and shot him.
“They said: ‘Your message is anti-jihad. You are telling the youth to give up jihad,’” the 29-year-old said in halting English.
Ali edged down his baggy checked shorts, pulled up his hooded sweatshirt and showed a scar on his right hip. He had another one on his left arm.
“When they shot me, I knew that if I stopped the music, they would win, but if I continued, my power would win,” he said.
Ali is a founding member of Waayaha Cusub, an 11-member hip-hop group that includes Somalians, Kenyans, an Ethiopian and a Ugandan. The band is, in its composition, a defiant challenge to the al-Qaeda-linked rebels of al-Shabaab and to the thorny political realities of the Horn of Africa.
He started Waayaha Cusub, which can be translated as New Era or New Dawn, in 2004. They have produced several albums since then as well as making waves with the 2010 song No to al-Shabaab.
Waayaha Cusub’s songs are recorded in Nairobi, but find their way home on pirated CDs, and through the radio and Internet. As well as calling for peace and condemning al-Shabaab, the band deal with traditionally taboo subjects such as AIDS and clan rivalries.
Ali and his group have angered conservatives with their lyrics and because their videos show women dressed in trousers and dancing.
One of their female singers was slashed across the face in Nairobi a few years ago and is still in hiding. In the concrete-floored studio lined with the bottoms of cardboard egg boxes, Ali and fellow singers in the band, Lixle Dikriyow and Burhan Ahmed, belt out lyrics from a new song about piracy. Two women, wearing headscarves and long skirts, sit silently in a corner. They will join in later.
Other members of the band were too afraid to come to the rehearsal.
Ali, who was born in central Somalia, came to Nairobi when he was a child, joining hundreds of thousands of people fleeing decades of violence that started when warlords overthrew former Somalian president Mohamed Siad Barre after more than 21 years in power.
However, the Kenyan capital is no longer the haven it once was.
“Nairobi or Mogadishu: It is the same now,” Ali said.
He knows what he does is risky, but said that the only way to fight the Islamist group was by raising awareness among the Somali youth.
He tapped his head to make his point.
“Awareness,” he said. “These youth have bad ideology. If we give them good ideology, talk to them about life, marriage, children ... If we show them these things, we can stop them.”
“You cannot fight someone who wants to die, you can only save them,” he said.