Just weeks ago, Mohammed Abdi Jamal's job was to extort money from people at roadblocks in the rubble-strewn streets of Mogadishu, Somalia. His tool: an AK-47.
If the people didn't pay up fast, he says, he had to do "whatever was necessary."
"Since the day we were born up to today, we've been fighting, and we didn't know if it was right or wrong," he says, explaining that he was forced to help man roadblocks since he was a small boy by the warlords who've been fighting for control of the country for the past 15 years.
But when he heard the unique sound and message of a hip-hop fusion group composed mostly of young Somali refugees living in the hardscrabble "Little Mogadishu" neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, he was inspired to sneak across Kenya's border to join the group, which he did last month.
Now his weapon is a microphone. He's spitting out lyrics aimed at promoting peace, HIV/AIDS awareness, and women's rights, and tackling other issues on the minds of young Somalis. His rap group Waayaha Cusub, or "New Era," is gaining the ear of Somalis from as far away as the US and Europe, but their controversial message is challenging traditional norms and attracting threats of violence from older members of this conservative Islamic Somali diaspora.
"The music is different now, we are bringing a change to the youth," says the group's founder, manager, and main song writer, Shine Abdullahi. "The big change is that we have inspired young kids in Somalia who were carrying guns and doing drugs."
Mr. Abdullahi says his group is one of the first groups anywhere to make Somali music for young people. The older generation only makes traditional music about their problems and old-school love songs, he says. But, besides the main theme of reconciliation among Somalia's warring clans and peace in the region, Waayaha Cusub sings and makes videos about how badly AIDS has ravaged their society. It's a taboo subject among Somalis, many of whom prefer to think of AIDS as a disease for Christians, especially white people, say group members.
Sending a message to Somalia
Aside from music, the group now makes a 20-minute comedy radio program for youths that is broadcast every Friday in Somalia. The United Nations Development Program recently tried to organize a benefit concert in Somalia featuring Waayaha Cusub, but it was too dangerous. They couldn't go.
It doesn't matter, says Abdullahi, because the radio reaches Somalis in Somalia. But the group's growing fame in restive Somalia has also become a problem. Days after receiving a threat from someone claiming to be an Al Qaeda member a few months ago, band members say a teenage boy was killed in Mogadishu for promoting their music.
The threats and violence hit closer to home as well. One female member of the band had her face slashed on the streets of Little Mogadishu one evening, a day after receiving anonymous phone calls saying she would be attacked. She has since quit the band and is in hiding.
These attacks proved to the band that the nearly daily threats were serious. But band members say they refuse to stop what they're doing, and want the world to know what they're facing.
"The government doesn't help us. The government doesn't know anything about us," says Abdullahi, who says he is asking anyone who will listen to help provide security.
Until then, the group keeps churning out hit singles and videos from their ramshackle studio on the top of a concrete shell of a building. They are due to release a new album next month.
Waayaha Cusub: Practicing what they rhyme
The group's lead rapper, Quincy Brian – who goes by the name Q. Rap and attempts an American-accented "How ya doin'?" with the appropriate rapper-style head-nod followed by a shy smile – came to Kenya years ago as a political refugee from his native Ethiopia, a bitter historic enemy of Somalia.
Q. Rap says he gets hassled by Ethiopians for "selling out his country" by making music about peace with Somalis. And after Ethiopia invaded Somalia in December to root out Islamists who had taken over wide swaths of the country, the Somali band members faced increased pressure to kick Q. Rap out. But they never gave in.
"They showed me love, even though I'm Ethiopian," he says, after horsing around with one of the band's Somali female members. "The youth can learn from us."
The lead singer, Falis Abdi, who fled Somalia for Kenya in 2003, says she doesn't only educate people about peace and HIV/AIDS: "I tell them how love goes," she says.
One of the group's hits songs stars Ms. Adbi singing about how a woman should choose whom she wants to love, rather than being forced by parents or society to be with someone because of wealth or clan identity.
For her, the song is personal, because her mother chased away the boy she loved. But now, Abdi is forced to walk the streets of Little Mogadishu with a head scarf and veil. If she's recognized, she fears people will make good on threats to throw stones at her. What makes her so brave? First of all, she loves making the music, and second: "Somali culture will change if they listen to my song."