As Spotifys become wrapped and a new year approaches us, 2021 was a wildcard for music. Interestingly in this year’s sonic landscape, the best hits came from the most unpredictable corners of the internet. One song in particular had the entire world in its loving grasp.
With folks like Bella Hadid, Drake, and Cardi B wrapped in its very East African melody, this song shook the globe with it’s familiar and distinct state of groove.
That song was, of course, ‘Isii Nafta’ by Nimco Happy.
To provide some quick background, the song means ‘give me life’ and the hit chorus is sung in four languages: Somali, Swahili, English and Arabic. At first, the song blew up in East Africa two years ago. For a while, the song largely stayed in East African circles until Somali youth, both abroad and at home, began using Nimco’s song in TikTok videos. From there, TikTok did its “thang” and the song caught fire globally – to this day, it’s still trending.
“Everyone loves. Everyone has a loving experience. They get pulled in and can connect to global love”
As an afro-musicologist, Somali femme, and child of the diaspora, it was an absolute joy witnessing the world in Nimco’s awe. For myself and many, listening to Somali music is how a lot of folks learn to reconnect with our language. I was born in Yemen during the height of the Somali Civil War and came to the States as a toddler. Somewhere between the PTSD of war and child development, most of my siblings and I gained heavy speech impediments in both English and Somali. For the economy of time and entrance into grade school, we worked on overcoming the English language issues first. But to this day, though I still encounter some challenges in speaking Somali, I am truly unfettered and undeterred, since it’s only up from here. (Funny enough, as the world attempts to pronounce the same Somali letters I used to struggle with, the greatest advice I can pass on is: don’t try too hard, let the agglutinative language do its thing).
So, one early morning a couple weeks back I hopped on a WhatsApp call with Nimco Elmi Ali who is currently based in Kenya. With my soft Somali skills and the help of Nimco’s translator based in London, we straddled three different time zones and accents, both in Somali and English to get to the heart of what’s on Nimco’s mind.
First, when it comes to her rise to international stardom, she thanks Somali youth for their impact. She “stands by them” and sends her love for “the way they’ve supported” her throughout this time. And though the Somali community is elated for Nimco Happy’s success, many of us aren’t surprised that her music, much like that of her contemporaries, goes so hard.
Thing is, we know Somali music does not exist in a vacuum. ‘Isii Nafta’’s polyrhythmic melody and autotune is a staple in African and Asian diasporas. Nimco, like the country of Somalia, sits in a unique musical triangulation between the Indian Ocean, Swahili Coast, and the Caribbean. These locations specifically have always shared a rich history of patterning music similarly.
“I want to share our values, our culture, our concepts…I want to bring it forth and show other people that it’s okay to bring out their art and rewrite the civil war.”
To either the trained or untrained ear, ‘Isii Nafta’ immediately resonates as music of the sun. With its pentatonic scale and synth-work, Nimco’s art distinctly speaks to the global south. ‘Isii Nafta’ follows a very reliable African musical structure, with dynamic steady states and recurring features that change the song slightly, with Nimco positioned as a griot (poet-singer-truth speaker). On top of that, her tunes remind many people of Calypso and Soca music founded in the Caribbean. Combined with an electronic vocal range that T-Pain and Bollywood singers share, Nimco Happy demonstrates beautifully the art forms that are both hers and shared. Her music exposes a long-known Somali truth that our musical cousins would always find some form of home in our hees (song) structure.
But Nimco knows the true, global connection to her song has happened because we all can relate with love. “Everyone loves,” she says, “Everyone has a loving experience. They get pulled in and can connect to global love.” Nimco explains that Somali artists love to sing about love. And our music in of itself is made out of love.
Growing up Nimco was heavily influenced by artists like Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur and the Somali classics from the mid-century such as Saynab Cige and Maryan Mursal. She grew up singing and playing the guitar. She loves the “fun nature” of singing and says that “without love for the craft there’s nothing” to make.
Sure enough, seared into the cultural fabric of the Somali diaspora is the musical era known as Mogadisco. From the 60s to 80s, East Africa had a vibrant collaborative global funk, rock, and disco scene. From what our elders recite to us about their heyday, the era of Mogadisco was arguably the funnest time to make music.
Like many newly independent African countries, Somalia was under a musical spell – where love, joy and political resistance was all wrapped in an immersive and experimental scene. Music was a “career.” It was “caadi” (normal). The government subsidised and supported the arts by creating labels, radios, and concerts. As well as bringing artists from other countries to perform in Somalia.
However as political unrest grew and the civil war broke out in the 90s, and as the country tumbled so did the entire music industry. Though folks like myself and Nimco do not recall this history ourselves, it is the backdrop as to why Nimco Happy got so popular in the Somali community.
Internet crate-digging has become a valuable treasure for Somali kids. Not only as a means to cope with the past year’s global lockdown, but to reconnect the gaps made from the trauma of war. And to go further and learn the new songs rearticulating life past war.
“I want to share our values, our culture, our concepts,” Nimco explains, “I want to bring it forth and show other people that it’s okay to bring out their art and rewrite the civil war.”
“Wallahi. Even seeing those white kids sing my song brought me so much joy”
Nimco reminds the Somali diaspora that she is where she is at because “Reason is, we love love and we are born in love.” Despite narratives of war and strife, Somali peoples deserve to be known for “the things we love” and that making joy is a true marker of our cultural expression.
“Wallahi,” Nimco says in a giggle, “Even seeing those white kids sing my song brought me so much joy.”
In her retelling of a Somali groove that was never lost, Nimco Happy allows both Somalis and non-Somalis alike to enjoy the sonics of her happydom and welcomes loving imaginations. In the year 2021, where metonymy was perhaps mundane, Nimco sang one of the sweetest calls to afro futures, presents and pasts. Repeating to the mobius band of higher love in all the scripts she knows, for the simple sake that she can, and wants to sing ‘I love you’ to the world.
And the world sang and danced. Saying ‘I love you’ back and to this beautiful Somali Muslim woman. And all I truly have to add is, Mashallah.
So what’s next for Nimco Happy’s reign? With the pandemic and threats she’s received post-stardom, Nimco says, she can’t go anywhere right now, adding that, “jiqq wayeey” (which loosely translates to “it’s not easy”). But make no mistake, music is on the way. Now that she’s signed on to Universal Records, the same major label as BTS and Rihanna, the 2022 music scene is her oyster.
As more people actively seek out Somali music artists, don’t expect any one person to sound alike. If you’re interested in music from the mainland, look into the lyricist Farihya Fiske’s sunny signature. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend Xamar’s Very Own, Suldaan Seerar. If you’re looking towards diasporic musicians, check out Somali-Canadian R&B artist Amal Nuux and if you’re an electronic music head like myself, peep the London based artist Yayoyanoh. ‘Isii Nafta’ was only the beginning and Nimco Happy truly opened the landscape up for other folks like her to rise too: our Somali grooves are going global.