A popular singer-songwriter emerging on Somalia’s entertainment scene brings his musical talent to Minneapolis this month, where he’ll perform two concerts and mentor local youth.
Sharmarke Abdinasir Mohamed, better known by his stage name Sharma Boy, arrived earlier this week to participate in an annual summer festival that brings hundreds of Somali Americans together in the Twin Cities for a week-long soccer tournament and musical entertainment.
“I’m excited to visit Minnesota,” Sharma Boy, 23, told Sahan Journal on a recent afternoon in Minneapolis. “It feels great to finally visit and perform for the people who have followed my art and supported me from afar.”
Sharma Boy, who has amassed hundreds of thousands of admirers, will perform a live concert Saturday night at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall, and on July 1 at Minneapolis’ famed First Avenue. It’s his first visit to the United States; he lives in Somalia.
The West Bank Athletic Club (WBAC), a youth development group, has organized a soccer tournament since 2008, drawing in dozens of teams from around the United States. This year, the WBAC Summer Festival expanded to include music performances and cultural activities featuring Sharma Boy as the artist-in-residence.
In addition to performing at the much-anticipated concerts, Sharma Boy has already hosted workshops introducing young Somali Americans to the power of storytelling, and his approach to composing and producing songs.
Becoming Sharma boy
Sharma Boy was born in 1999 in Burtinle, a town in Somalia’s northeastern region of Puntland. As a child, he followed his mother to the capital city of Mogadishu after his parents divorced. He attended dugsi, a Quranic school, and completed his primary school education.
Economic hardship became more pronounced at home while he was in high school, and Sharma Boy was left to fend for himself. He dropped out of 10th grade to work.
“I did various jobs,” Sharma Boy said. “I worked as a technician at a garage. I also worked for a small baking company that produced bread.”
By this time—in the 2000s and 2010s—Somalia had sunk deep into economic turmoil and political chaos. The country had no strong central government since the 1991 civil war. Mogadishu served as a battlefield for warring clan-based militias and violent extremist groups. Droughts killed off many who had survived flying bullets.
Throughout his childhood years, Sharma Boy took note of the perilous situations that engulfed his world. By 2020, at age 20, he began to make songs that reflected the everyday life of people in Somalia. He published the songs on YouTube, which has become a preferred platform for many Somali entertainers.
In his 2020 song, “Shahaadada Micno Maleh” (The Degree Has No Meaning), which he performs with Saalim Kaskeey, Sharma Boy gives a commentary on the country’s social problems, including unemployment, poverty, and corruption.
In this song and his other hits, Sharma Boy breaks away from the conventions of traditional Somali songwriting, which often references a pastoral lifestyle and camel husbandry—a distant world to the urban dwellers. He uses simple language and street slang that speak to the soul of his followers—mostly Millennials and Gen Zers—at home and abroad.
Likewise, Sharma Boy’s music videos don’t always present picturesque backdrops some of his counterparts use to conceal bullet-riddled walls or dirt roads that punctuate the East African country.
In the video for “Shahaadada Micno Maleh,” Sharma Boy and collaborator Saalim Kaskey feature a mountain of garbage in the foreground as they sing about a jobless world where young people are broke, and college degrees feel meaningless.
“If you’re singing about love and happiness, your video should show hopeful images,” Sharma Boy said. “And if you’re singing about tough conditions, like poverty and unemployment, then you should find a way to paint that for viewers. That’s why we chose that garbage background. We didn’t just want people to hear the song–we wanted them to see it, to feel it.”
This unique approach to music production has made Sharma Boy one of the most talked about artists among Somalis at home and abroad. His YouTube Channel has garnered nearly 830,000 subscribers and more than 135 million views since he joined the platform in October 2019.
Sharma Boy is known for his rap songs, but he also composes and sings in other genres, including a style similar to hip-hop. Last year, he collaborated with the celebrated Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan, releasing a bilingual song, “Waayo Waayo,” which has reached nearly 5 million viewers.
“Yes, I sing in Somali, but I strive to keep up with international musicians and to bring their styles to Somali music,” Sharma Boy said. “I do that by writing and producing my own songs.”
Bringing Sharma Boy to Minneapolis
In 2018, Adrienne Dorn, executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches , started working with WBAC Founder Ahmed Ismail, who’s known as Coach Ahmed. Soon after, Dorn noticed that WBAC’s annual soccer event is “very, very popular.”
“And we thought, ‘If we have this huge audience, why don’t we bring the arts into it?’ ” Dorn said.
Dorn and Ahmed wanted to bring Somali and American artists together on one stage. They successfully applied for a grant at the Minnesota State Arts Board in 2018, which helped bring Sharma Boy from East Africa.
Inviting Somali entertainers to the state is a familiar story in Minnesota. Dorn spent 13 years working at The Cedar Cultural Center, where she led projects that brought several classical Somali singers to Minneaoplis, including Abdulkadir “Jubba” Omar Yusuf, Maryan Mursal, and Nimco Yasin.
“I’ve worked with Somali musicians and in Somali music for over 10 years now,” Dorn said.
Ahmed has worked closely with Sharma Boy to bring him to the United States. Ahmed described him as a “talented” and “humble” person who survived “a tough life on the streets” of Somalia. Ahmed compared Sharma Boy to Tupac, the influential Black musician who died in 1996.
“People are not understanding–a kid who came from the streets became somebody,” Ahmed said.
During his month-long stay in Minneapolis, Sharma Boy will perform at two major live concerts with local musicians “to make robust” Somali music performances, Dorn said. He will also lead a series of workshops to create music with young Somali American boys and girls.
“Sharma is very, very popular,” Dorn said. “He has the attention of the youth. I think there’s a real opportunity here to send a positive message, and to engage people in a positive way. I also just think, more broadly, that the arts are very important to our communities. They bring people together. They promote community cohesiveness.”
For Sharma Boy, his visit to Minneapolis and collaboration with American artists will enhance his ability to produce music and open up more opportunities.
“If I can come to the U.S. for performance,” said Sharma Boy, who has traveled to Djibouti and Zambia for work, “I don’t think I will ever face any difficulties visiting any other country in the world.”