“And I love you more than my life”: how Nimco Happy made global Somali groove
As Spotify draws to a close and a new year approaches, 2021 was a wildcard for music. Interestingly in this year’s soundscape, the best hits have come from the most unpredictable corners of the internet. One song in particular had the whole world in its loving grip. With people like Bella Hadid, Drake, and Cardi B enveloped in its very African melody, this song rocked the world with its familiar and distinct state of groove.
This song was, of course, ‘Isii Nafta’ by Nimco Happy.
To give a quick overview, the song means ‘give me life’ and the hit chorus is sung in four languages: Somali, Swahili, English and Arabic. At first, the song exploded in East Africa two years ago. For a while, the song remained widely in East African circles until young Somalis, both abroad and at home, started using Nimco’s song in the videos. TikTok. From there, TikTok did their “thang” and the song caught fire around the world – to this day, it’s still in style.
“Everyone loves. Everyone has a love experience. They are drawn to and can connect to global love.”
As an Afro-musicologist, Somali woman and child of the diaspora, it was an absolute joy to see the world with awe of Nimco. For me and for many, listening to Somali music is how many people learn to reconnect with our language. I was born in Yemen at the height of the Somali Civil War and came to the United States as a young child. Somewhere between the war’s PTSD and child development, most of my siblings and I had severe speech problems in English and Somali. To save time and start primary school, we first worked on overcoming the English language problems. But to this day, although I still find it difficult to speak Somali, I am really free and undeterred, as it is only from here. (Funny enough, as everyone tries to pronounce the same Somali letters that I had a hard time with, the best advice I can give is: don’t try too hard, let the sticky tongue do its job).
So one early morning a few weeks ago I hopped on a WhatsApp call with Nimco Elmi Ali who is currently based in Kenya. With my general Somali skills and the help of Nimco’s London-based translator, we straddled three different time zones and accents, both Somali and English to get to the heart of what Nimco has in mind.
First of all, when it comes to her rise to international stardom, she thanks the young Somalis for their impact. She “stands by their side” and sends her love for “the way they have supported her” throughout this time. And while the Somali community is thrilled with Nimco Happy’s success, many of us are not surprised that his music, like that of his contemporaries, is so harsh.
The point is, we know Somali music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The polyrhythmic melody and autotuning of “Isii Nafta” are a staple of the African and Asian diasporas. Nimco, like the country of Somalia, sits in a unique musical triangulation between the Indian Ocean, the Swahili coast and the Caribbean. These places in particular have always shared a rich history of structuring music in the same way.
“I want to share our values, our culture, our concepts… I want to make them known and show others that it is normal to bring out their art and to rewrite the civil war.
Whether for the trained ear or not, “Isii Nafta” immediately resonates like the music of the sun. With its pentatonic scale and synth work, Nimco’s art is clearly aimed at the global south. ‘Isii Nafta’ follows a very reliable African musical structure, with dynamic stable states and recurring characteristics that slightly modify the song, Nimco positioning himself as a griot (poet-singer-orator of truth). On top of that, his tunes remind many people of Calypso and Soca music founded in the Caribbean. Combined with an electronic vocal range shared by T-Pain and Bollywood singers, Nimco Happy beautifully demonstrates the art forms that are both hers and shared. His 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 that the real worldwide connection to his song has happened because we can all relate to love. “Everyone loves,” she said, “Everyone has a romantic experience. They are drawn to and can connect with global love. Nimco explains that Somali artists love to sing about love. And our music itself is made of love.
Growing up, Nimco was heavily influenced by artists like Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, and mid-century Somali classics 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 is nothing” you can do.
Indeed, the musical era known as Mogadisco is etched in the cultural fabric of the Somali diaspora. From the 1960s to the 1980s, East Africa had a vibrant funk, rock and disco collaborative global scene. From what our elders tell us about their heyday, the Mogadisco era was arguably the most fun time to make music. Like many newly independent African countries, Somalia was under a musical spell – where love, joy and political resistance were all enveloped in an immersive and experimental scene. Music was a “career”. It was “caadi” (normal). The government has subsidized and supported the arts by creating labels, radio stations and concerts. In addition to bringing artists from other countries to perform in Somalia.
However, as political unrest escalated and civil war erupted in the 1990s, and as the country collapsed, the entire music industry collapsed. Although people like me and Nimco may not remember this story ourselves, this is the reason why Nimco Happy has become so popular in the Somali community.
Internet crating has become a precious treasure for Somali children. Not only as a way to deal with last year’s global lockdown, but also to renew the loopholes caused by the trauma of war. And to go further and learn new songs re-articulating life before the war.
“I want to share our values, our culture, our concepts”, explains Nimco, “I want to make it known and show others that it is okay to bring out their art and rewrite the civil war. “
“Wallahi. Even seeing these white children singing my song brought me so much joy “
Nimco reminds the Somali diaspora that she is where she is because “reason is, we love love and we were born in love”. Despite accounts of war and conflict, the Somali people deserve to be known for “the things we love” and that bringing joy is a true marker of our cultural expression.
“Wallahi,” Nimco said with a laugh, “Even seeing those white kids singing my song brought me so much joy.”
In his tale of a Somali groove that has never been lost, Nimco Happy empowers Somalis and non-Somalis alike to enjoy the sound of his happiness and welcomes loving imaginations. In 2021, where the metonymy was perhaps commonplace, Nimco sang one of the sweetest appeals to Afro futures, present and pasts. Repeat to the mobius group of higher love in every script she knows, just for fun 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 forth to this beautiful Somali Muslim woman. And all I really have to add is, machallah.
So what’s next for Nimco Happy’s reign? With the pandemic and the threats she has received after fame, Nimco says, she can’t go anywhere right now, adding that “jiqq wayeey” (which roughly translates to “it’s not easy” ). But make no mistake, the music is on the way. Now that she’s signed to Universal Records, the same major label as BTS and Rihanna, the 2022 music scene is her oyster.
As more and more people actively search for Somali music artists, don’t expect someone to sound the same. If you’re interested in music from the mainland, take a look at the sunny signature of lyricist Farihya Fiske. And I would be remiss if I did not recommend Xamar’s very own, Suldaan Seerar. If you’re looking for diaspora musicians take a look at Somali-Canadian R&B artist Amal Nuux and if you’re an electronic music enthusiast like me take a look at London artist Yayoyanoh. “Isii Nafta” was just the beginning and Nimco Happy really opened up the landscape to others like her: our Somali grooves are going global.