Make Some Noise

One young rapper's struggle to break into Djibouti's hip hop scene

By / September 2015

Fahmi the Rapper and I tried to meet at the Nougaprix café in Djibouti City, but it was a Thursday evening, the Djiboutian weekend, and kids were swarming. They screamed and ran and threw plastic balls, and we wouldn’t be able to concentrate. So we went to the Sable Blanc restaurant across the street. Sable Blanc was closed, the space now used as a machine parts shop. We walked to the end of the block to go to the café there. This was also shut down. We drove to Fahmi’s favorite restaurant. It was permanently shut down. Finally, we drove to the cornice and found a small plastic table on the water’s edge where the only items served were shisha pipes and lukewarm Cokes.

Fahmi put out a cigarette before we started talking. He said that he was out of sorts this evening. He occasionally stared off into the distance and the green lights of a minaret reflected into his eyes off the water while I waited for him to return to the conversation. Sometimes he stopped talking and broke into rap or spoken word poetry. Sometimes he apologized for his use of crass language, and though he had no need to apologize, I confess that I was surprised at his mastery of English curse words.

“I learned English from American rap,” he said and I understood. “I’m trying to clean up my language, though. So I say ‘mother kisser’ instead of ‘mother fucker.’ Most of the time.”

I call the 17-year old, Fahmi the Rapper, that is how I entered his number in my phone, but he calls himself Norelnmam. Its an acronym for Number One Rapper Ever Little New M and M. That’s his stage name. He would like to become Djibouti’s next Tupac or Slim Shady or Lecrae. He has his work cut out for him and he knows it. After telling me his stage name, Fahmi broke into the opening verses of his favorite rap:

Life is just a game that we all play.
So I think its hell, you really think it’s a pain.
You struggle and you fight.
You better find a better way,
No matter what you face, just don’t be late.
Say what you wanna say,
You’re an eagle in a dead space.
Light love life, death waits.
Change is coming, light is coming, just wait.
So taste all those troubles, even if it is a waste.
So isn’t it all about loving God and people?
Why is my brothers turning against each other?
Africa is shouting, crying, screaming.
She says, “Oh please.
Moaning this moment.”
But this is life.

“My friend died yesterday,” Fahmi said. “That’s why I’m not myself tonight. He was killed in a car accident.” I suggested we cancel the interview and that Fahmi go to the funeral, which would run for three days, but he refused.

“I want to forget,” he said. “I don’t want to see all the people sad. But I can’t forget him, you know? Like I am sitting here having a Coke and I want to share it with him but I can’t.” He grew quiet for a moment and then changed the topic back to rap and the music scene in Djibouti.

“I’ve wanted to make music all my life but it is hard in Djibouti,” he said. “There aren’t many people who will buy a CD and it is complicated to put songs on the radio.” Sometimes Fahmi performs at the Arthur Rimbaud Cultural Center. He was part of a choir made up of mostly expatriate adults. He was willing to sing with anyone, just for the chance to perform. Sometimes as many as one hundred and fifty people came to a performance. But there was never any follow-up, no booths in the back selling CDs, no contracts to sign, no other concerts to perform.

In Fahmi’s opinion, the Djiboutian who had made the most strides in music locally was Don del Tafa who had performed at the cultural center, the Salines Theater, and Camp Lemonier, the American military base in Djibouti. Maybe someday Fahmi will perform there, too.

“There is a lot of competition between rappers here, even though there aren’t very many of us,” Fahmi said. “And a lot of people take lines and music from YouTube. But I try to write my own and I don’t know if there are others who rap in English or not.” He prefers the rhythm of English rap to French and says the flow of French rap doesn’t feel quite right. “Why not rap in Somali?” I asked.

Photograph by Rachel Pieh JonesFahmi performs under the name Norelnmam. Photograph by Rachel Pieh Jones. 

“K’naan is the only one I know who uses Somali,” Fahmi said, referring to K’naan Warsame. K’naan is best known for his song “Wavin’ Flag,” the anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. “Here it is hard to grow because there aren’t many opportunities to perform and to practice being on stage. I saw a band from Kentucky come here to perform at the US embassy and to them, man, it was like a religion. Like they were so good and so devoted to it. And they can do that, I get it. They can do that in America.”

Sometimes Fahmi feels supported by his family and other times he feels discouraged. His family doesn’t mind him rapping until his mother gets tired of the noise in the house and tells him to go outside. And the neighbors encourage him, telling other people when he has a new song ready to perform. But then others, who don’t know him as well, will say to his mother, “Hey, what’s your kid doing? This isn’t good, this is haram, a sin.”

“Some people really think that,” Fahmi said. “That music is a sin. Okay, I understand that if you have a dirty video clip with naked girls, that’s a sin. That’s not okay. But when you’re rapping about life and truth and reality, it isn’t a sin. You’re trying to advise people, you’re trying to make sense of life.”

Fahmi believes he has a message and the best way to get that out is through rap. “My message is to help people live better, to fight for truth, to love people.” He spoke of one of his friends from high school, a boy whose family lived on $100 a month. Every day his friend wore the same clothes, the same shirt. Fahmi wanted to give him one of his own shirts but the friend was too tall and Fahmi was too embarrassed to take him to the market to buy something new. Another friend lost his mother and his father and lived with his uncle.

“Life is strange,” Fahmi said, “so strange. These people have nothing and they still live, they still survive. And we all believe in God. That’s why I’m a good writer, with my lyrics. They come from deep feelings and deep thoughts.” Then Fahmi started talking about his friend again, the one who had died.

Man, I love you,
I can say it’s true.
Can only remember the hard past you lived
From the first part of my life maybe we’re not through
I could even give myself as a ransom for you.

He paused and looked at me, his eyes watery. “But I can’t, can I? A ransom is an important thing for a life but I can’t pay it for him.”

I told Norelnmam that I hoped he found success, that I hoped he would be able to perform and record, and that I hoped he would keep writing down his thoughts and reflections on life. I don’t know anything about rap, or any kind of music really, but Fahmi struck me as a young man with vision and compassion and I wanted him to find joy in his music, maybe even a career.

We finished talking and I offered to drive Fahmi back to town. It was Ramadan and after dark now so he planned to join his friends for a meal, hopefully at a restaurant that wasn’t shut down. As we got into the car, Fahmi said, “Rachel, did you ever try to rap?”

“If I rapped,” I said, “it would be so bad, you would cry.” He laughed and invited me to try it out at his small studio sometime. I don’t plan on taking him up on the offer.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a contributing editor for EthnoTraveler, lives and writes in Djibouti City.