It was not my dream to be an artist. How could it have been? I thought artist, much like a leader, was something you either were or weren't. Never something you set out to be. And as a boy in Mogadishu, Somalia, although art plainly encapsulated the world as I knew it, what I really wanted to be was an optometrist. But there weren't any doctors in my family. My father, they explained, was a civil servant of sorts, who then moved to New York for reasons all the poets in my life would fail to articulate. My mother, was by nature a poet but above all the distraction of talent, she was a mother. Her father was loved by all, a poet who's nickname was Ahyaa Wadani, meaning something like "The Passion of the Country" or, "the Soul of the Country" or, "The jewel..."
The Somali language into English is like an oversized person into a fitted shirt, always needing some stretching to make sense. One day when I was about seven years of age, my mother took me along for my grandmother's appointment with an eye doctor. Her eyesight, much like the prospect of the country, had been slowly dimming. I remember clearly, the glory of his entrance in to the waiting room where we sat. A white overcoat, a pen hugged by the cartilage of his ear, poking through what use to be a proud army of hair, now retreating in defeat. Everything about him suggested some incorruptible dignity. I must have wondered if he looked as impressive to my mother as he did to me. I wanted to be him. He searched for fugitives with the light thing into grandma's prisoner eyes for a while, like tolerable interrogation. Then with a great big sigh meant to proof his empathetic efforts, the sound of finality from someone who'd seen it all, he said, "I'm sorry but there's nothing I can do, it's just old age". I remember how overcome I was with disbelief. I thought, if I was he, a doctor entrusted with that overcoat, I would fix grandma's eyes. Suddenly I went from wanting to be him, to HAVING to be him. I realize now, music in my life came in similar form, much more of a need than a want: an antidote to a poison as appose to a recreational drug.
I was a teenager in Toronto when it first hit me. The intolerable fear of insanity. You see, as Somalis, the fine art of psychoanalysis is not something we've learned to appreciate; you're either a crazy person or you're not. And since I didn't really know any Canadians, there was no one to explain to me the sudden flood of anxiety attacks, depression and insomnia. It's fitting, I thought. I've escaped a war with minor injuries, adopted a new country where even laziness could be transformed into an opportunity for success, and I thought I would get away clean? Of course there had to be some tragic balance to this overbearing fortune. God, I thought, did I really have to choose between peace and insanity. I remember having these thoughts alone in a living room, pacing up and down, opening and closing windows in a frenzy, but one mid afternoon when I ended up in a bathtub still half dressed, I decided that I should tell someone. Mom said that the answer was in the Qur'an. My answer to her was, didn't the Qur'an say to seek help from professionals? And so we did, doctor after doctor, blood test after blood test, and they would all conclude that I was fine, almost blushing about how perfectly healthy I was. It went on this way for a while, but the un-summoned tears continued, the voices in my head were getting more opinionated than my speaking voice, a school bully sun, so I made excuses to hide from it, it was all beginning to be too painful to live with. At this point I was already fancying myself as someone with some musical talent. I could often find a little poetry in me if I needed to, kids in the neighborhood thought I could rap, and if on a good day, I went to the mall with friends, I would spend all my time inside Radio Shack playing their little keyboards until they kicked me out for not buying it.
My first songs were written in this condition. One song called "Voices In My Head" I remember writing during a particularly torturous anxiety attack. I had gotten the news of a Somali boy who was a friend in Toronto, leaping to his death from the 20 something floor of an old high rise we once lived in. Another song, a kind of a happy one actually, titled "In The Beginning" was written and recorded on my way to check in to the Emergency. A minor stop to a major event, I thought. In reality, all my life was in the minor key, but it was out of defiance that I wrote it all on major.
And where am I now? I suppose they're right to say that I'm flying high. I was recently honored with two Juno awards for these songs of desperation. And at the moment, I'm writing this on a plane from China where I had just performed at the World Expo. But once again, it seems that the great balancing act is in motion. Somalia is worse now than it was when I left at age 13. And while my career has some mentionable highs, my romantic life is adorned with the quiet lows. So I suppose this all means more songs.
I didn't turn out to be an optometrist. But I do hope that, in some way, my music opens an eye or two, to a great continent of both immeasurable beauty and struggle. And to my own life, written as a country disguised as a person.
The Morning Email helps you start your workday with everything you need to know: breaking news, entertainment and a dash of fun. Learn more