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Nimco Happy and the rise of Somali music in Britain

London, the United Kingdom – When Nimco Happy’s Isii Nafta (Love You More Than My Life) went viral on social media last year, many saw it as a significant step towards Somali music entering the mainstream.

The multilingual song, sung in Swahili, English, Arabic and Somali, spread across the internet after finding fame on TikTok.

For Fauzia, a British-Somali DJ and artist who goes by one name, the virality of the song by Nimco Elmi Ali, better known by her stage name Nimco Happy, is a sign of something more.

She told Al Jazeera that “seeing this sort of rise with Somali artists is really amazing because I feel like now it can be seen for what it really is”.

Fauzia herself stepped up her contribution to the popularisation of Somali music when she debuted her self-released EP record Flashes in Time at the Purcell Room – a concert and performance venue – at the historic Southbank Centre in December last year.

“Initially, I wanted to build an installation. I wanted to focus on the history of Somali music, and build an installation using Somali instrumentation and rhythms but using the sounds of electronic music from the UK to build this crossover of sounds,” she told Al Jazeera.

Somali music journey

Fauzia’s Somali music journey began through her parents as a child, but it was not until a few years ago that she started discovering artists by herself and incorporating that into the NTS Radio show she has had for the past four years.

“I think the last few years, I just started listening to Somali music properly, intentionally as opposed to my parents having it on,” she said. “And I was like, wow, this is absolutely incredible. Then I did a mix last year of just all Somali music, which was really well received, and I really enjoyed doing the show.”

As the musical connection of Fauzia’s British and Somali background developed and fed into her installation, she took it one step further.

Trying to find an intergenerational connection she could create with the Purcell Room, she hit upon the Dur Dur Band.

Formed in the 1980s, Dur Dur Band is one of the most famous Somali disco-funk bands.

Their performances, based on the popular Somali oral tradition, rocked the famous Jubba Hotel in the Somali capital Mogadishu – fusing jazz, reggae and funk with songs about love and hardship.

But as the civil war broke out in 1991, musicians fled the country and groups disbanded.

The new start

Dur Dur Band reformed in 2011 with one of the original members and artists from other Somali bands and is now performing across the UK and Europe.

Its music now features Awesome Tapes of Africa and the 2017 Grammy-nominated compilation album, Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn.

Hassan, an assistant manager and singer who joined during the coronavirus pandemic, told Al Jazeera that the band was doing well despite being heavily affected by the pandemic with “24 jobs cancelled, including festivals”.

Hassan, who came to the UK at the age of 13 from Djibouti, told Al Jazeera that watching the rise of Somali music has been “great”.

On sharing a stage with Fauzia, Hassan said: “I’m proud of what she’s doing. It’s out of context and out of everything that we know. So to be on the same platform, it’s a fusion that was not like any other night for me.”

Somalia singer Nimco HappySomali singer Nimco Happy [Courtesy: Creative Commons]

On Nimco Happy’ song, he told Al Jazeera: “The clever thing that she did was add on the Arabic and Swahili then the English, which is great. It’s great. It’s simple. But, I love it.”

Now, Hassan says the band has plans to work with younger Somali artists, such as Sudan Serar, and continue performing.

For Fauzia, the rise of Nimco Happy and performing alongside Dur Dur Band signals a change for the better.

“I think a lot of people are realising what a lot of people have known in the past … that this music is incredible. So it definitely feels like a really special time,” she said.

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