Africa is a Country ran a profile on Somalia-via-Seattle rap duo Malitia Malimob two years ago. On the heals of the release of their latest album, Seattle-based journalist Devon Leger sat down with rapper Chino’o, touching on everything from immigration to police brutality in the U.S., and the future of Somalia.
It’s a two-story blue house tucked back from the street in the South end of Seattle, in the kind of neighborhood that tourists don’t go, and locals from the more affluent North end avoid. There’s a busted car out front, a cluster of taxicabs on their off hours, and groups of Somali men scattered about talking and laughing. Grills on the windows, and inside the only menu in the place is above the counter and reads simply “Welcome to Paradise restaurant. We have all food and juice.”
Standing outside the restaurant, young Somali rapper Guled Diriye (aka Chino’o Capo Gaddafi) looks out proudly as he declares, “This is our street. We eat our food at this restaurant. That car wash is where we wash our cars.” For Somalis in Seattle, there aren’t many welcomes to be had outside of their own community. No matter how liberal Seattle may think it is, seeing 3-4 Muslim men together is cause to look twice. “In general, being Muslim, we’re looked down on at any cost. We’re Muslim, we’re black, and even being African, we’re not accepted in the African-American community. We have nowhere to run to. You ask yourself, ‘Why are Somalians on the news? Why violent? Why this?’ What other choice? We’re the bottom of the bottom. We get treated like shit. These people, they push us.”
That’s why “Perception”, one of the latest releases from Chino’o’s hip hop duo Malitia Malimob, takes aim at the hypocrisy that sidelines Somalian communities in one of the most liberal cities in America. “Come smoke with us, come ride with us, come chill with us, instead of sittin’ there just judging us” goes the refrain of the song, and we’re here at this Somali restaurant to meet up with Chino’o and his friends and do just that. And does Chino’o ever have a story to tell! He doesn’t stop talking from the moment he sits down, excitedly spinning stories about life on the streets in Seattle and Somalia, all with a noticeable hopefulness that is perhaps the mark of a true survivor. “We try to not let it affect us,” Chino’o explains, talking about the psychological damage of surviving a war zone, “…we hold ourselves down in the culture and in the way we grew up. Like in America, people will be like, ‘I did this and I did that because my parents divorced at a young age.’ But man, that pisses me off. My friend’s dad was bodied up. Cut up in bags and delivered to his house. His mom is psychologically messed up [from this]. We go through so much shit and we come here and it’s no luck. I’m tough on the interior but when I speak about my people, my religion, and the concept of what we speak about, it’s not just rap… It’s not all ‘bitch nigga’ and ‘trick nigga’, it’s deeper than that. I’m trying to let you know what’s going on and pay attention to what’s really happening here: what’s happening to our people, what’s happening to our culture… When me and J [J. Krown, the other half of Malitia Malimob] are rapping about this, we’re on stage and we’ve got the Somali flag. We come in with the cultural thing to let you know, ‘Yes, it’s a part of who we are. We’re going to stick to being who we are regardless you all like us or don’t like us. We’re good people.’”
A week before our restaurant meeting, I’m in the basement of Neumo’s in Seattle, watching Chino’o stalk the stage with the Somali flag waving behind him. I go outside after his set to get some air and meet Mohamed aka “Magic,” a diehard fan of Malitia Malimob who’s stationed outside the venue on the street, bumping Malimob music out of his car stereo. He can’t get in the venue since he doesn’t have any ID. So he’s missing the show, but sharing this music and sharing his culture with anyone who’ll stop to listen, even for a moment. He’s got the same kind of desperate hopefulness that Chino’o does, this burning need to tell his story and this underlying frustration that no one seems to want to listen. He shares with me a Somali proverb that translates to “When milk spills, grab what’s left.” Meaning, life pours out fast, so grab what you can when you can.
It’s a mentality that Chino’o echoes later during our interview. “This is survival,” he says, leaning forward. “At the end of the day, it’s survival. One thing that we’re good at is surviving. You can take a Somalian anywhere. He’ll adapt because that’s what we’re used to. Straight A, straight adapt. When I first came to America [as a kid], I was dressed in all pink. Light up pink Lisa Simpson shoes and all that. I swear to God. We don’t know. I’m coming up, I think I’m fresh as shit. I go to school and they make fun of me and shit. The next day, I wear my green outfit and no one fucks with me. I’m like, ‘Alright, man, what the fuck’s going on here?’ I figured it out. I figured out the whole thing. I figured out the codes… I remember when we first came to America, my mom and I were at the welfare place. We were trying to apply for welfare. Mom’s over there; they give me a little note pad to draw with. So, I start drawing. There’s other kids that are drawing. So, the lady calls me up and she’s like, ‘Let me see what you guys are drawing.’ So, she looks around everywhere. The girls draw a princess and the kids draw something and then, they come to me and you see a guy with a Toyota truck with a big gun on him. Wild shit! We’re young. But it’s what I see. What I’m coming from is what I see.”
We’re back inside the restaurant and we’re all splitting a heaping plate of delicious Somali food. Amidst the spicy roast chicken and goat dishes you might expect from the cuisine of the Horn of Africa, there’s also a bewildering mound of curried spaghetti, a throwback to the Italian colonization of Somalia. We grab handfuls of food, dripping onto the floor, eating without utensils as is the tradition in Somali, all of us brought together by the universal act of breaking bread. And though there’s a unity to the group, throughout the interview, there’s a presence missing, a voice missing. That’s Mohamed Jurato (aka J Krown), the other half of the Malitia Malimob duo. Krown’s not on the new album from the group, and he’s not at the interview and he’s not at the table with us. Because he’s in jail. Shot in the back in the streets of Seattle by cops just about a year before the protests in Ferguson and the shooting death of Michael Brown changed everything. Back then no one in the media gave a shit about a black man shot down by police. So now he’s cooling his heels in jail in Walla Walla, WA, communicating only occasionally by phone with his longtime friend and musical partner. “With him being locked up, I try to keep his name alive,” Chino’o says, “try to keep his picture up, like he’s still here. We could put out music–we had a lot of music to put out–but I want him to be here. It’s something between me and him. It’s ours.”
Chino’o relates the story of how Krown was shot in the back by Seattle cops. “We were at a club; everybody was just hanging out. It was right before the NFC Championship game when we beat San Francisco. J. Krown was wearing all red, he just happened to be. He’s not a 49ers fan. He was just wearing red and we were all hanging out. We come out of the club and as soon as we come out of the club, smoking a cigarette, usually we sip [lean] a lot. That day I didn’t sip; I was chilling. He was like, ‘Oh, I love you like this. You’re sober as shit.” I say, ‘Yeah, I’m chilling.’ He’s kicking it. We were smoking a cigarette, and he’s like, ‘I’m going to get a hot dog and I’ll come right back.’ I was like, ‘Alright, go ahead, bro.’ While we were standing outside, in a matter of seconds, all we hear is POP, bam, bam, bam, bam. Within 5 minutes, 10 minutes. What happened was…. I guess there was an altercation with some other people and Krown just happened to be there. He just happened to be in that situation. When the guns went off, everybody ran their way. When everybody ran their way, there was a lot of people in red. Krown was wearing red. As Krown was running, he was shot. He was shot in the lower leg, a little bit lower than the buttocks, in the upper thigh. It hit and then, it went down. When he got shot, they took him in and they charged him with a pistol charge.”
Whether or not Krown had a weapon on him is a point of contention. He was found with a weapon, but one never knows in this era of police brutality and there’s certainly no trust for the cops in Chino’o’s community. Talking about Krown’s shooting, Chino’o confesses that he was recently picked up for a suspended license and was abused by the cops while in custody (they stomped on his back). He’s got a guy to help sue them, but is thinking twice about it. “We get out and it’s like, ‘Is it really worth it? We ain’t gonna get nothing out of these motherfuckers. We’re not going to win. We’re never gonna win.’ That’s what it comes down to. You can’t fight them. What can you do?”
Krown is in jail now, but he’s slated for release next summer, though there’s hope of an early work release. “I’d love to have my boy with me,” Chino’o says, “but, since he’s not here with me, when he comes out, I want to give him freedom. I want him to express himself for all the time he’s been inside because that’s what I would want to do. I’d say, ‘Go ahead. Pick on the topics you want to speak about, what’s in your heart. What do you feel? He’s in there right now, he’s writing, he’s working, so he’s got all these ideas for us, he says ‘Man, we’re going to do this, Chino’o, and I’m gonna spit this and as soon as I spit this, you get on this and you start spitting this and you talk back to me.’ I’m like, ‘C’mon bro, you’re going to do all of that shit. Whatever you want to do, we’re going to do.’”
Talking with Chino’o, you can sense there’s a multitude of stories he carries underneath the surface, but the wounds of his past are hard to bring up. Even within the first five minutes of our interview he pulls back, realizing the emotional toll our conversation has started to take on him. And whenever he pulls back to cover up a story (how he himself got shot on the streets of Seattle, how he left Somalia with AK-47 rifle shots echoing after him), he pushes forward with a kind of survivor hopefulness, that hard-won hope so few people in the West understand that comes from beating the odds.
Finally, after a bit of coaxing, Chino’o opens up about his childhood in Somalia. He came to America at 7 years old, a refugee child. But in Somalia, in the capital of Mogadishu, before war broke out, his family was powerful. “My parents were successful, very successful… They lived in a fat mansion. Life was good. I had the best life in the world that any kid could ask for. I’d get toys sent from America. Life was great! Then, all of a sudden, [clap, clap, he claps]–in a matter of a second, everything went boom, boom, boom! ‘It’s time to go, hit the road.’ I went from the mansion to living in a hut with no shoes. I got no shoes, nothing to play with. I remember playing in a broken down tank.” I ask him what caused this, and he replies a “clash of power. Us Somalians, we’re very, very hard headed. It was a clash for power. Everybody wanted power because… if me and you are related and come from the same tribe, if you have power, it’s good for me. I’ll be in a good place. But if you’re not, you’re going to give it to your people. Everybody wanted to be chiefs.”
Chino’o’s mom and dad came from two different tribes that wanted nothing to do with each other, a kind of Romeo and Juliet story. I ask him which tribes they were and he pushes back, “I don’t like to talk about it. That’s the thing that kills us. I don’t even like to consider myself as a part of a tribe. I’m an American, I’m a Somalian, I’m an African. It’s a movement where we try to put that behind. I don’t want people to be focused on what I am, I want them rather to be focused on what we’re trying to do.” Later, we loop back on his childhood and he opens up about living in Kenyan refugee camps, the next step for his family after fleeing Somalia’s fighting. “When the war struck everything, we found routes [out of Somalia]. Some take trucks, a boat. Go that way, whatever way you can to try to make it out and try to go to Kenya. We lived in Kenya; we lived in a refugee camp, me and Krown. We both lived there. I lived in Utanga [a well-known Kenyan refugee camp]. Like I said, we went from having a good life to coming there with nothing. In a hut, living in a hut.”
The hut brings to mind Malitia Malimob’s song “Perception,” where Chino’o raps hard “Man, I came from the slums, bottom of the bottom, bitch, I came from the slums. Lived in the huts and I played in the mud. Ran from a war we was born in, nigga.” “Yeah, we lived in a mud hut,” Chino’o explains when I express surprise. “I got pictures… You’ll see me, like a little kid, I’m sitting right behind the hut where I sleep. I got no shoes, no nothing. You go walk around; you get these worm thingies that get in your feet and you go get a little metal thing to try to poke them out. That would be fun, believe it or not, that would be our source of fun. You take your big toe; you put it on your knee; you poke it out. Make sure it comes out because all you do is itch. Ain’t nothing to do. We’d go to the mosque and eat some food. After we eat some food, go read the Koran, go run around. Even over there, we weren’t wanted.”
That’s another key to Chino’o’s worldview, the shame of fleeing a place where they lived like nobles, and ending up scattered across the world and unwanted by their new communities. He turns his gaze inwards for this, blaming Somalians themselves for these predicaments. “We put ourselves in this predicament. We come from a great country; we should’ve stuck to each other and now, everywhere we go, we get massacred… At the end of the day, when you look at it, we did this to ourselves…. Us going through this shit, J. being booked [in jail] and all this other shit, we did this to ourselves. We could’ve been back in our own country, just living life and being comfortable.” That’s a heavy weight to bear, and you can see it in his face as he talks about this, but much of the weight to be born falls on the shoulders of his parents, Chino’o says. They’re the ones that started the conflict, and they’re the ones keeping it going. “I feel like their feuds and their fights and their bullshit, this is what did this to us. Why the fuck do I have to come over here and be a second class citizen when I could have been back home and been regular and been good?” Now, young Somalis wait for the older generation to die off, for the old grudges to be forgotten before they can hope to return home. Chino’o believes it’s the melting pot effect of living abroad that will bring Somalis together. Overseas, they’re all one, there’s no differentiating between tribes or clans. When young Somalis in Somalia start seeing that historical enemies are joined together in friendship overseas, there’s hope it might show them another way, a different way from the way of their parents. “But it’s taking too much time,” Chino’o says, “and time is what we do not have.”
Still, these quotes are some of the very few complaints that Chino’o voices. There’s a positivity to his speech that’s catching, and it’s grounded in a very Muslim idea. The idea of “imam”, or having fulfillment. “I’m sitting here, my life is not bad,” Chino’o explains. “My life is good. Even if I was living here [homeless] and I lived under them stairwells right there, and I didn’t have nothing in my life, it would still be a lot better than a billion people back home. We’re blessed, for us to be here eating this meal, me drinking this bottle of soda, this is a big deal. That’s another thing that I’m always going to say, “I’m blessed.” For example, my mama, she always says, “Imam?” Imam, in Muslim, means having fulfillment, being able to say, “I’m blessed,” even though you’re not. You are really. What’s blessed? You’re alive, you got a meal, you sleep, you wake up, so, for that, it builds your imam. My mom will tell you, “Pray, so your imam can be built.” It comes from all the shit we went through, you build your imam, meaning you accept whatever situation that God throws at you. You’re able to sit back and say, ‘I’m blessed’…We’re living, we’re breathing, we’re together, we’re good. That’s really a big thing to us. In Somalia, our parents weren’t really big on religion like they are now, ‘til all those bodies started dropping and the war… Back then, they were chilling, that’s why the way they talk to us now is crazy…. Back then, it was chilling, wearing bikinis and shit. Everybody was chilling: white folks, everybody from different worlds. It was nice!”
I interject that Mogadishu must have been an amazing city before the war. “Yeah,” Chino’o agrees. “But then, it all changed. When the people started dying and all the death toll… people really started sticking to their religion. That was really big. When everything goes ugly and everything is dark, you turn your faith to God. If you have nothing to that, you have nothing to live. You gotta have something to fall back on. It could be religion; it could be family… You gotta have something that grounds you; it holds you; it tells you, “You’re going to make it through.” That’s why religion is so big to us in Somalia. Just being Muslim in general, is big to us. It got big, big, big to us after what we have seen.” Despite this, there are many challenges to being Muslim in America. Coming from a country and a religion that forebade alcohol, Chino’o says, the bottle to Somalis is a new world. A place to lose themselves. And America itself puts forth a very different set of values from the predominantly Muslim world they came from. “[In Somalia,] if you’re outside and everybody’s at the mosque praying, and they see you outside, you’re in some shit. They grab you by your ear, ‘What’s you doing?’ Then a smack. ‘You better get your ass in the mosque.’ It’s not like that here. No one expects it. Everybody was so confused, so we end up being confused on life and what is our role and God… We get confused on these things. Then we just want money. We come to America, it’s money. Money is power. You forget about the bigger things in life: family, spending time with family, spending time with loved ones.”
Africa is a Country is happy to premiere the latest video from Malitia Malimob, “1350 Without Liberty”, directed by Seattle filmmaker Futsum Tsegai, and shot both in Seattle and in Chino’o’s childhood neighborhood Capitol Park in Columbus, Ohio.