Somalia's Songbird: Saado Ali Warsame
Sagal Sheikh Ali
I was inside a local bank branch on a busy street in Mogadishu when I heard three gunshots. It was about 3pm on July 23, 2014, a day like any other. My initial reaction was that it was probably soldiers firing in the air to clear the traffic jam on the main road. A few seconds after the gunshots, a man ran into the branch screaming that a member of the Somali Parliament had been killed. No one in the bank that day could have imagined that the victim was Saado Ali Warsame, one of the country’s most beloved singers.
Warsame was also a member of the Federal Parliament (MP). She and her driver were gunned down by unknown assailants in Mogadishu as she was being driven to a hotel. She was the fourth MP killed in Somalia in 2014 in militant attacks targeting members of Somalia’s Parliament. The President and Prime Minister of Somalia and diplomats from several countries expressed condolences to Warsame's family and condemned the assassination for which Al Shabaab claimed responsibility, as part of its assassination campaign against Somali legislators.
Investing her art for social justice
Saado Ali Warsame is a name that evokes powerful emotions in practically every Somali. Born in the 1950s near Buuhoodle, she found fame in Somalia’s capital city Mogadishu as a singer, after being discovered by a family friend. A young, skinny girl with the most beautiful afro, Warsame stood out not just for her vocal chords but also for her beauty and demeanour. In 1973 she joined the band Waberi, one of the most famous in the country, which was made up of prominent musicians. She was one of the few Somali female musicians to go on stage without covering her head and she sometimes wore trousers, an unusual act for women in Somalia at the time. Women during that era copied her style and swagger. She was considered the Sophia Loren of the Horn of Africa. Theatre roles for musicians were common in Somalia in the 1970s and Warsame also starred in many plays.
Warsame, who often attended international art festivals, receiving prestigious awards and representing Somalia, soon became a household name for not just her acting and singing but for her political activism against the hard-line rule of then dictator Siad Barre, who was toppled in 1991. This event triggered the civil war in Somalia.
During the Siad Barre regime many artists in the country either faced jail or exile for their stance against the communist government. The young and famous Warsame played one of her most pivotal roles as the voice of her people. Her first brush with the law came after she joined a poetic movement with other prominent Somali artists, called “Deelley”. She wrote poems about injustice in Somalia and used the opportunity to defend the cause of northerners from the increasingly authoritarian southern-based regime. When the government found out about the long running serial poem, Warsame was arrested and sentenced to death. The sentence was eventually overturned and she only served six months in jail.
In the late 1980s, Warsame released Laand Karuusar gado which translates to Buy a Land Cruiser. The song criticises the kleptocracy and wealth of the military and government officials in stark contrast to the abject poverty of the ordinary Somali people. A memorable part of this song goes: “Buy a land cruiser, beg for maize, whilst showing off that you are someone with calibre, in the horn of Africa”2. The lyrics speak about a country begging for maize while government officials cruise around in imported luxury cars. Warsame was arrested again. During her interrogation she asked the police officer at the station for a glass of water but he told her they did not have water. The station’s air conditioning unit did not work because there was no electricity. Warsame asked the officer why he had arrested her for merely stating the obvious in regards to the situation in the country where the government was pocketing tax payer’s money and leaving people without the basics – the police station was no exception.
A fearless leader
In the early 1990s, Warsame spent several years in exile in the United States during Somalia's worst years of fighting. She returned in 2012 to serve in the newly established Federal Government based in Mogadishu, and represented the northeastern Puntland regional State’s constituency in Parliament.
She was critical in the secessionist administration in Somalia’s north-western Somaliland region, bravely accusing the leadership of a separatist agenda. In particular, her song Libdhimeyside Laas Caanood, Laba maahaa Waddankeennu hails the city of Las Anod for its nationalist, anti-colonial historical role. Somaliland troops began occupying Las Anod in 2007. The song title translates as “Oh Las Anod, you will always remain a part of Somalia, our country is one.”
She humorously satirised political infighting and also supported former Vice President of Somalia, Muhammad Ali Samatar, during a civil lawsuit that had been filed against him in 2009, believing that he was being unfairly singled out as a member of the former regime. During her parliamentary tenure, Warsame was very vocal against the inability of the Parliament to fulfil the promises made to the very people it claimed to be serving. On several occasions she spoke out against alleged corrupt politicians and called for more accountability. Despite many death threats she received, Warsame soldiered on working for her constituency and speaking out against injustice.
Even though Warsame is no more, she will forever be remembered for her voice both on stage and in politics. To me she was both the song my mother played in the kitchen when she was cooking our dinner, and the woman my mother spoke of with pride when she wanted to make us realize that being a woman and being Somali was something to be proud of. Somalia needed her.
A fearless human rights advocate, she was a role model for women and is described as a born leader, who bravely stood up against corruption and injustice and used her fame to ensure the public knew what sort of government was in office. To most Somalis she will be remembered as the voice for the voiceless – speaking out for them despite the odds against her.
First published in Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)