Cold Specks Is Reconnecting With Her Somali Roots

Somali-Canadian singer-songwriter Cold Specks sits down with Okayafrica during a visit to Johannesburg.

Ladan Hussein recently got a suitcase full of diracs from her mom. One for each show of her Africa tour this month. Last week, the Toronto-based singer-songwriter, known professionally as Cold Specks, stepped foot on the continent for the first time. During the visit she’ll perform in Maputo (Azgo), Johannesburg (Akum Agency’s Southern African Music Festival Circuit sideshow), Durban (Zakifo), Swaziland (Bushfire) and Réunion Island (Sakifo).

At 28, Hussein is returning to her roots. It’s been two years since she put out her layered sophomore album, Neuroplasticity, and four years since her folkier debut, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion. Both projects were shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize and made Hussein the undeniable queen (and founder) of a particularly haunting, enchanted sound in indie music, ‘doom soul.'

With a new album in the works, Hussein’s music is continuing to evolve, and so too is her willingness to explore her Somali-ness. The next Cold Specks album, Okayafrica has learned, will be her most personal offering yet. And now, her first trip to the continent is offering the artist the opportunity to reflect even further. We caught up with Hussein at Okayafrica’s Joburg offices.

Alyssa Klein for Okayafrica: First and foremost, do you mind the ‘doom soul’ label?

Cold Specks: Initially when I first started calling the music that it was a joke, but the media sort of ran with it. From then on I was just always labeled as ‘doom soul.’ Initially I was a bit weirded out by it, but now I see it as a… I understand why people attach the music to that label, because it has soulful elements as well as dark elements.

It’s funny, I was reading an article on The Guardian a while back and they were referring to Lana Del Rey’s music as ‘doom soul.’ I keep seeing it. I saw Ibeyi were labeled ‘doom soul.’ It’s funny to see it around.

And you coined it.

It was a joke, in 2011 or 2010 I put it on my Facebook page and people started referring to the music as that.

How would you describe your music now?

It’s ever-evolving. It changes constantly. Every album is different. The first album was a stripped back sort of folk record. The second record had a lot of textures. And this next record, I don’t know, ‘doom soul’ I guess is appropriate.

Can you tell us more about the new record?

It’ll be out next year. I’m in the process of making it. It has a lot of analogue synthesizer sounds and drum programming. It’s a natural development. If you’ve heard all the records you wouldn’t be too surprised by it. But it’s a different sound. I’m really excited about it all. It’s the first time I’m touching on things lyrically and thematically that have to do directly with my Somali roots, and racism, colorism and things like that. It’s a very personal record.

Photo by Autumn de Wilde.

Could you touch on your Somali roots?

My parents are from Mogadishu. They immigrated to Canada before I was born.

My father was a musician. He was really intertwined in the music scene in Mogadishu. He was actually a founding member of a really popular band called Iftin. They went to Lagos ‘77. Have you ever heard of Festac '77? It was this beautiful gathering in Lagos in 1977 where artists from all around the continent came and performed. And he drove from Mogadishu with the band to Lagos. Now that I live in Toronto I see him all the time and he’s always playing me older Somali female musicians. And he’s very supportive and encouraging. It’s interesting when you’re older and you become a sort of friend of your parents. And they open up to you in ways that they didn’t when you were a child. I only found out my father was in Iftin last year. I didn’t know this before I found out, in Australia, when I met his sister.

That reminds me of Okayafrica’s Respect Your Elders series. Is there an old picture of your dad or your mom that you’ve always seen but you don’t necessarily know the story behind it?

I have a collection of photos from them in the 70s. Somalia has become a much more religious country now. In the 70s it wasn’t that at all. Women didn’t wear hijabs. It was just like full afros and colorful traditional clothing. When my mother moved to Canada she became much more religious. But I feel as though it was her attaching herself to her culture and her religion simply for us. The children born in a different country were surrounded by other things that weren’t natural to her. So when I see old photographs of her in the 70s I don’t know the stories, I don’t know too much about what she was like, how free spirited she must have been. Not to say you can’t be free-spirited as a Muslim, it’s just in my particular case she was much more strict. It’s interesting when I see photos of her in the 70s. There’s this undergarment in a traditional Somali dress that you wear under the dress, but it’s not see-through. And so she would put it over her boobs and wear it as sort of a strapless dress and wear it out. I’ve found photographs of this and been like, “What is this, mother? Who are YOU?”


My father has very interesting stories about the music scene. He was friends with this musician named Saado Ali Warsame. She was a famous singer in Somalia and she ended up relocating to Minneapolis, but then moved back to Mogadishu and became a politician. When she would come to Toronto my dad would pick her up from the airport. We were family friends. She was murdered by al Shabaab last year.

Stories like that, Iftiin, all these really interesting musicians from the country, their stories are never heard in the west. Even us, the children of the diaspora, there are all these memories that aren’t ours. And when this generation passes in the next 30, 50 years, all those memories will go with them. It’s kind of sad.

On this new record, what about your roots are you exploring?

Lots of things. It depends on which particular song. There’s a song that deals with being a female from my culture, pursuing things that are frowned upon. I reference this ancient Somali queen named Arawelo. At one point I just start hollering, “Arawelo, Arawelo.”

What do your parents think about your career as a musician?

They’ve come to accept it. Initially they were a bit weary of it, but they’ve come to accept it. I’ve played them some of the songs and explained to them what some of the songs deal with. Like me navigating cultural duality, being a child from the diaspora whilst dancing between two worlds. They find that incredibly interesting. They’re always wide-eyed and wanting to know more when I speak to them.

Can you tell us more about this trip that you’re on now?

I’ve never been to Africa before, and so for me it’s very special. It’s interesting, I notice there’s quite a lot of similar issues with race and colorism in Africa. And I already knew this before coming. To be in Mozambique was really interesting. In Toronto I grew up with a bunch of Jamaican kids and western African kids, and you know, we were all the same kind of nigger. And when I came to Mozambique, I noticed, the women were quite curious. With the men it was an instant recognition that I was different, you know. Which I didn’t expect coming to Africa. But it’s such a vast and beautiful continent. There’s so many different cultures. So many different people.

On another note, what do you make of the Somali banana incident?

[Laughs] It’s really funny. Somali Twitter is really funny. It’s because we all ended up in different countries. When I go on tour, in Europe especially and Australia, I always have dinner with a family member who ended up in a different city. We’re so spread out. And then you have all of the children who were born in all these different cities who are connecting on the internet, on Twitter. I have all these internet friends I’ve never met. It’s wonderful.

Do you have any good Somali Twitter stories you’d like to share?

The banana thing was particularly funny, but there are things the Somali Twitter community will raise. Recently hundreds of people died crossing the sea. Young people from the north of Somalia and Ethiopia. It wasn’t reported in the media at all. Until Somali Twitter started posting about it. Finally all these publications started writing about it. But it was only because we were speaking about it. Things like that, for me, that’s what I appreciate about it.

Do you have fans from the Somali diaspora?

Recently, now. When I put out my first record I didn’t particularly talk about my roots too much. It wasn’t something that ever came up in interviews. It was never discussed. Part of me I think was hiding it, because I didn’t think I would be accepted. There was a little bit of backlash when I first came out in my little community, only because I was a female who was doing something that wasn’t exactly something to be respected in my community. So I didn’t speak about it. Only because of this culture shame. I started to speak out more about it a couple of years ago, and noticed a lot more Somali kids at my shows. Young kids in their early, mid 20s. Which is pretty badass.

Have any Somali kids come up to you and said something like, “I want to be a musician and you’re inspiring me”?

It’s been happening quite a lot actually. I really appreciate that. It’s one of the highlights for me. I was really fucked up as a teenager and in my early 20s. To know that my music may be touching someone going through something similar is really quite special for me.

Keep up with Cold Specks on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram.

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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The Nairobi-based artist is now sharing the new music video for "Pawa," the album's leading track, which we're premiering here today. Directed by Chris King, the beautiful new clip sees Maia & the Big Sky taking over the TV airwaves and minds of all of those watching, freeing them from the "power" that controls them.

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Photo: Mídia NINJA

The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

The violence in Rio de Janeiro right now is akin to a war zone, with per capita death tolls resembling those from Afghanistan and Syria. Two weeks ago I traveled there for business and stayed in the relatively safe and trendy neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Each night of my stay, was abruptly awaken by long streams of gunshots and also fireworks from the nearby favela of Falett. The fireworks—as I learned from my local friends—were not a result of any celebration, rather a signal that either drugs, guns, or the police have arrived. This is the norm for many of the 763 favelas in Rio which houses nearly 25 percent of the city's population.

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