This profile was originally published in the Twin Cities Daily Planet and is reprinted with permission.
EVEN THOUGH THE BEST-KNOWN HIP-HOP ARTIST to emerge from Somalia is Knaan, one of the headliners for this years Twin Cities Pan African Festival, Minneapolis has their own rising MC with roots stretching from here to Mogadishu. Abdulle Elmi, better known as MC Free One, performs as part of the Usual Suspects, one of the Twin Cities most promising new hip-hop groups.
Free Ones journey to Minneapolislike those of many Somali-Minnesotanswas neither easy nor direct. His mother, who was doing graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, returned to Somalia for a year to have her son, then returned to complete her degree at Penn. My parents wanted their eldest son to be born in Somalia, no matter what, he told me.
After spending four years in Philadelphia, the family moved to Toronto. His mother took on a number of jobssometimes multiple jobs at oncebefore getting a position at the Ontario Ministry of Energy. They lived in a number of housing projects, including one in the Dixon neighborhood, the one most identified with the large Toronto Somali population. It was here that Free One and his family lived just five blocks from Knaan, the most celebrated MC to come from Somalia. Throughout this time, Free Ones father was working as an importer-exporter, doing business around the globe, returning to settle in Toronto with his family after his wife was injured in a car accident. Having lived in Toronto for eight years, the family moved to Minneapolis in 1998 when Free Ones mother took a position as a community coordinator for a refugee population study at the University of Minnesota.
I wanted to communicate to my peoplemy people being Somalis first, Africans as a whole, African-Americans, all black people, all people of color, all marginalized people. I cant speak for all these people, but I can speak to all these people.
It was around this time, Free One says, that he began writing poetry. Having had a sense of social responsibility instilled in him by his mother, he began organizing at places like Minneapoliss Hope Community, Inc. as part of SPEAC (Sustainable Progress through Engaging Acts of Citizens).
I really got into hip-hop when I realized that it could be an artistic manifestation of what Im trying to do with organizing, he told me. I wanted to communicate to my peoplemy people being Somalis first, Africans as a whole, African-Americans, all black people, all people of color, all marginalized people. I cant speak for all these people, but I can speak to all these people.
Hip-hop can be divisive within the Somali community. The older generation, Free One says, cant stand hip-hop and rap. They think that the kids are gettin spoiled if theyre listening to rap, or rapping themselves. He also believes, though, that not so many are being exposed to all hip-hop. Free One believes that most Somali youth only listen to the most popular, mainstream hip-hop.
Mo Wardi, the owner and operator of Somali Total Music, which sells Somali and Hindi music and films and also rents out DJ and film equipment, agrees. When asked about Somalis and hip-hop, he answered quickly, They love itbut he added that he was mainly talking about Somali youth. In his view, older generations of Somalis think that if youre into hip-hop, youre a bad person. Further, the lack of hip-hop at Wardis store reflects the reality that most younger Somalis are more likely to download music from the Internet than buy it in a store, even a store such as Wardis that specializes in Somali popular music.
Despite the popularity of hip-hop among Somali youth in the Twin Cities, Free One is one of only a handful of prominent Somali MCsnot just in the Twin Cities, but in the entire region. Ive always been looking for serious Somali MCs. Somalis have a different voice [here in the Twin Cities] and itd be nice to hear a lot more.
In the meantime, Free One attempts to realize his own artistic and social goals as part of the Usual Suspects. In addition to Free One, the group comprises the Mexican/Native MC Ak Libretto, the Japanese/African-American DJ Just Nine, and the African-American hype man and producer Greezy Grease.
Our group is probably the most diverse in Minneapolis, Free One says proudly. And no matter what other languages they might speak separately, they all speak the language of hip-hop. I feel like this is a true representation of the city.
The Usual Suspects began in 2003, when Free One met DJ Just Nine while both were students at the University of Minnesota. The two began by transforming records from the collection of Just Nines jazz musician father into hip-hop beats; soon Grease joined in. The line-up was completed in the spring of 2007 with the inclusion of Ak-Libretto, who also was an organizer with SPEAC.
Last March, the group released its debut mixtape, The Awakening, with more material on the way. The release party for The Awakening was held at the Bedlam Theatre, in the heart of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a place that Free One and others have called Little Dixon in reference to the Toronto housing project. The album featured like-minded hip-hop figures from across the racial spectrum: FranzDiego.com, Mavin MC, Columbia Aquafresh, and legendary MC and activist I Self Devine (one of the founders of SPEAC).
The Usual Suspects, as well as many of the artists they collaborate and perform with, see such inter-racial and inter-ethnic artistic collaboration as one of the ways to fight against stereotyping and scapegoating. While the group tries to make music that everyone can identify with in some kind of way or another, Free One says, he also stresses that we make music for our people and the backgrounds that we come from. We reflect on the struggles of our people and try to find a way out, a way forward.
About the author: Justin Schell is a freelance writer and a grad student at the University of Minnesotas Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program. Hes working on a dissertation on Twin Cities immigrant and diasporic hip-hop and plays the washboard tie with The Gated Community.