The new Somali-American bards

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2012 - 4:29 PM

Tapping into their roots from the "land of poets," Somali-American youths are embracing the art and finding their voice.

Abdifatah Farah paused at the microphone before unleashing his words on the fidgety crowd of high schoolers last week.

"In a world of delusion," he began reciting, "I wait for a beginning, conclusion, a great mental confusion, one that perhaps can be called for a revolution."

The mostly Somali-American audience sat still, mesmerized by the young man's words:

"Put the guns to the side and let's reunite, put the guns to the side and let's reunite," he continued. "Let's cast the past and laugh tonight. Let's cast the past and laugh tonight. Now proceed, for you misconceive. 'Cause the key to life is faith indeed. 'Cause the key to life is faith indeed."

Then he closed his eyes and listened to the room erupt in applause and cheers.

Even before this live performance at Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins, many students already knew of Farah, but by his stage name, Abdi Phenomenal. His face and melodic voice have become fixtures on YouTube videos and on the website thePoetNation.com.

He's a founding member of Poet Nation, a cadre of young Somali-American poets formed two years ago in Minneapolis to unite Somalis around the globe through the power of poetry. Their videos have been viewed by hundreds of thousands worldwide.

The website features Minnesota artists who upload videos of their performances and invite Somali youths to do the same wherever they live. The Minnesota poets also perform around the state, by request, for school groups and at cultural events.

"The Somali communities all over are speaking up. They're getting into the poetry scene," said Phenomenal, 24, a senior at St. Cloud State University.

Today's poets walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, inspired by their homeland's history as a "land of poets," where poetry was used for communicating information and for offering social commentary.

It wasn't until 1972 that Somalia had a written language. Before then, history was recorded and preserved orally. So striking was the musical speech of the people of Somalia that 19th-century British explorer Richard Francis Burton famously wrote: "The country teems with poets."

Their poetry was as powerful as it was beautiful. And its influence was evident in the 1970s when then-dictator Mohamed Siad Barre tried to ban anti-government poetry. But neither Barre, nor the civil war that broke out in 1991 and led to the displacement of millions of Somalis, could extinguish the people's poetic spirit.

Those growing up outside Somalia are embracing their roots, albeit with a fresh spin.

Poets coming of age in Minneapolis, Toronto and London take their cues from the spoken word and hip-hop styles pioneered by African-Americans. Poems from this new generation take on issues that reflect their experiences as children of war, and the struggles that come with trying to make it in a new homeland.

"Being a young Muslim, Somali man, I realized I have a role in my community," said Phenomenal. "Poetry is not just a speech. It's an action."

Becoming Phenomenal

The man with the sleepy eyes and equally tranquil demeanor speaks passionately about poetry's ability to inspire and unite youths.

Born in Somalia, he fled with his family to the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, where he lived for five years. Then he came to New York and later to Minnesota.

In seventh grade, he discovered Maya Angelou's poems. He was especially fond of "Phenomenal Woman," and decided to write his own version, called "Phenomenal Man."

On stage for the first time, he performed his poem before a large crowd at a spoken word event in Minneapolis.

"Right after I shared it, something special happened," Phenomenal recalled. "When I got up there, I felt relieved. I felt as if I was holding a lot of different things inside me. And a lot of the weight dropped off my shoulders.

"I found my strength, and my strength was poetry."

That was also how he got his stage name.

"People just started calling me Phenomenal. I said, 'No it's Abdifatah.'"

But the name grew on him and now, he says, "I'm completely comfortable with that name because that's where my inspiration came from."

Poetry as conversation

He took poetry classes and continued to perform at open mike events around town and at Somali cultural events. It was at one of those events in the summer of 2010 where Phenomenal and his friend, Shirwa Hersi, met Matt Erickson. A former high school teacher who had lived and taught in Somalia, Erickson saw Hersi and Phenomenal perform and approached them with an idea.

He wanted to give the young Somali-American poets a platform where their work could reach more people. Together, they created the Poet Nation website.

"I saw there was a big need to show role models that are out there," Erickson said.

He felt that much of the news on Somalia and about Somali people was negative and ran counter to his own experiences with the people there. "We want to continue to create cool stuff," Erickson said.

Topics the young poets tackle include: the struggles of growing up without a father around, dealing with religious discrimination and the need to help Somalis suffering from a deadly famine.

Hersi is another founding member of Poet Nation. A junior at Minnesota State University, Mankato, he is also an ex-Marine. His poem "Terrorism Is Not a Religion" has generated almost 70,000 views on YouTube to date. That poem is based, in part, on his experience of being his unit's only Muslim soldier.

Some of his fellow soldiers asked him who he would shoot -- "us or them" -- if they were ever in a battle together. The question haunted Hersi, who put it into verse:

"See, I fought for this country and still got condemned," he recites in the video, clutching his dog tags. "Find myself marching with people who hated me, yet I managed to call 'em my friend."

In writing and performing his poetry, Hersi said he's able to put difficult subjects out there and start a conversation. Just as his forefathers in Somalia used to do.

"In a way, that breaks barriers and brings new ideas to the table," he said. "It allows people to discuss things that they wouldn't normally talk about."

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    For the first time since he lived there as a child, Abdi Phenomenal returned to the Dadaab refugee camp in East Africa last August. He and fellow Poet Nation founder...

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