Developing a communications strategy in context

This paper reflects the insights gained from Track Change. Track Change is three year project testing the viability of touring music popular with the Somali Community and the South Asian Communities.

The Somali Community like most others is not homogenous; understanding the reasons behind its existence in the UK and the dividing lines is vital to developing an effective communications strategy. There are features that make CRM different and it needs to be recognised that venues have been developed to cater for existing audiences and that sometimes these features provide their own challenges to new audiences. These can be addressed and this paper along with a second that seeks to address issues with the lack of infrastructure within the Somali community represent the first steps towards improving cultural engagement by UK Somalis.

History of Immigration and it Legacy

The Somali Communities of Britain are amongst some of the oldest black communities in the UK with some dating back to the 1880s. However the greatest proportion of Somalis arrived in two waves, 1987 – 91 and 2000 – 02. Each of these later immigrations was dominated by particular Somali ethnicities, due to the different stages of the civil war and its wider ramifications. This history has a major bearing on the shape of communities in the UK and how people consume culture. Somalis are often highly politicised with the fallout from civil war shaping the different interest groups in the community. There have been three main influencers on Track Change The Clan System, Political Islam and what I shall call Rejectionism.

The Clan System

The clan system can be seen as a long established local political system built around communities and families. It is replicated across much of Somalia and is a part of contemporary political structures in both Somaliland and the rest of Somalia. It is a local legal and political framework which has a long history and a wide acceptance.

The civil war in Somalia began in the late 80’s with a desire to end the rule of President Sidi Barre. This started in the region formerly known as British Somaliland, and ethnically different to the larger part of Somalia that had been under Italian colonial control. The brutal suppression of the Somaliland independence movement led to the first influx to the UK and the establishment of large communities in cities such as Bristol, Sheffield and Cardiff (joining an already established community from the 19th century).

The civil war based on ethnicities lead to the traditional patriarchal community organisation known as clans to increase in power and influence. As the war spread and the Somali state effectively collapsed the Clans increased in importance and for several years ran Mogadishu – the Somali capital. At this time the second migration to Europe took place with significant communities setting in Scandinavia, Italy and the Netherlands. These newer communities tended to be from the former Italian Somaliland. In the early 2000s changes in legal frameworks in Europe led to the second major inter-European migration with large communities coming to the UK. Some such as in Birmingham created entire new communities while in other cities such as in Bristol they joined already existing ones.

However to say that it was just the division was between clans associated with one side of the civil war or the other; the power vacuum caused the failure of the state also led to factions within each area and different clans vying for power. These divisions have become deep seated within the UK, and communities in one city associated with one clan mistrusting others in another city.

The clan system continues to this day in Britain and has a major impact on communities. It is paternalist, often socially conservative and can lead to factionalism within individual communities in a city. It is essential to understand these dynamics if events are not to be compromised by association with one or another faction; if not boycotts of even cultural events may occur.

Political Islam

With the prolonged failure of the state and the continued instability caused by the stalemate between the clans vying for power a new political power swept to power across the country in the 2000s. The Salafist inspired Al Shabaab mounted a hugely successful military campaign that led to international intervention from both the UN and the OAU (Organisation of African Unity). This socially conservative form of political Islam based on interpretations of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism has had a major impact on culture. Music is particularly singled out, frequently forbidden and on occasion singers are assassinated. Musicians fled this persecution and the renaissance of music under Sidi Barre came to an end. This compounded the cultural devastation caused by the civil war and has ended the era of Somali Bands and large cultural groups such as Waaberi – a national institution that fostered theatre, music and dance. Somali culture is disappearing and in the words of a Somali novelist resident in the UK Somali culture is becoming ‘Arabised’ and losing its cultural identity.

This form of Islam has become the backbone of some UK communities, such as parts of the Bristol community and the majority of the Leicester one. Elders and Imams from these communities are often vocal in their criticism of music and secular events where men and women meet. For example Friday prayers at the Al Basira Mosque in Bristol usually have speeches ‘advising’ against attending Somali music events on the occasions that they occur. A recent concert in Leicester had an assembly of senior members of a Mosque outside a venue watching who was trying to attend. Many fans simply didn’t dare be seen, instead going to a show in another city. For many young people it is easier to avoid cultural events that are on the radar of their community, instead attending music outside of their community, such as RnB or hip hop. Paradoxically this leads to a greater separation of religious and clan leaders from the Somali youth and is at the heart of what I have termed Rejectionism


Many young Somalis like any other group of young people reject the culture of their parents. This is given added impetus due to the impact of conservative clan and mosque leadership pushing them to consume culture away from their community in case they get in trouble. This impact is felt more amongst male Somalis due to the closer ties to both the patriarchal clan system and the male dominated mosques. Women still get together for wedding parties etc and will sing and dance in women only events. This means that female drumming / dance traditions such as Buranbur and Jaandeer are passed from mother to daughter. But most male traditions have already disappeared. The consequence is possibly the disappearance of the distinct identity of British Somali, similar to that being experienced by British Jamaicans only much more quickly.

One way this may be limited is in the fusion styles of some of the newer UK artists who are mixing Somali music with urban music. Additionally the larger cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester young people can hold events as the city allows for a more anonymous life. Cities such as Cardiff, Sheffield, Leicester and Liverpool conservatism limits engagement in music.

Community Profile

Somali community is almost 100% Muslim and growing numbers are embracing a more conservative literalist view of the Koran. It is a family oriented community which feeds into the clan system. Social gatherings are family focussed, with religious festivals, weddings being the focus for get togethers. Weddings are the only place where music may be heard and is one of the prime sources of income for singers. Somali men and women tend not to mix socially.

Women are very active in the community often running businesses and representing the community. With issues around mental health, housing and education featuring strongly in community development many opportunities for leading roles for women are available. In stark contrast to the image presented in recent political debate about learning English, these Muslim women are frequently better speakers of English than their men folk. Women are more concerned with Somali culture, from henna art, to drumming and singing. Cultural events have tended to be more successful if Somali women are involved and in many cases they have the potential to be cultural ambassadors within local communities. But women do not have the opportunities to gather as men, with cafes, mosques and internet cafes being almost the exclusive preserve of men. Instead women gather in health and community centres and women run fabric / perfume shops. This means that good insights into community groups and locations are needed if women’s support and knowhow is sought.

The social focus for Somali men tends to be cafes, mosques and internet cafes. Until recently they would gather to chew the narcotic leaf Khat, but since Britain fell into line with the rest of Europe and banned it one of the main ways that men gathered has gone. Anecdotally some men have become more involved in the mosque other have started to drink alcohol. Despite being easy to make contact with, men have tended to be less interested in a cultural offer; reasons suggested include greater influence of conservative mosque teaching or traditional views that the music is for women or that it’s not the focus of men who are concerned with political and clan issues.

Young people are increasingly rejecting the clan system or tribalism as it is sometimes called; any Somali identity they have is less defined by the recent history of conflict. They are less likely to get involved in factional disputes and so will not be affected by these considerations when deciding to attend cultural events. However the elders system within clans can stop young people attending or participating as was the case when a young person’s leader was forced to withdraw support from an event in Sheffield, despite wanting to help. However young people are increasingly becoming estranged due to issues around language (boys more than girls), and picking up on other popular culture such as RnB and gaming. Although artists such as Ali Dhaanto, Aida’rus Maliboi, Abdi Holland and Maxamed BK are winning young fans many are more interested in urban stars from the USA. However with poetry and spoken word young people are coming forwards and so engagement is possible in these art forms connected to music.

Like most young people Somali youth are active on line but also use shisha lounges as places to meet. Certain Cities such as Bristol and Sheffield have active Somali youth groups around sports and social issues <EXAMPLES>

City profiles

In the UK the largest communities are in the Cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Sheffield. Each community has its particular characteristics and the idea that one size fits all rarely works in culture. Communities often focus on a particular street, such as Church Street in Acton or Spital Hill in Sheffield. These streets are the most public manifestations of the community but much more is happening elsewhere. It is identifying this activity and the individuals (gatekeepers) that is essential to success in communicating with individual communities.

Birmingham has the largest Somali community under a single local authority in the U. Estimated at 35,000, until 2001 it was one of the smallest, at around 2000. Changes in immigration and benefit regulation across Europe lead to migration within the EU / EFTA, with many Somalis living in Netherlands, Italy and Scandinavia moving to the UK. Many settled in Birmingham. These Somalis were more from Somalia than Somaliland. The community is spread widely in the City – Cape Hill (French Walls) to Kingstanding and Balsall Heath, but with the largest groups living in Newtown, Nechells (Cromwell Road), Sparkbrook (Farm Park) and Small Heath (Parliament Street). It’s a young and dynamic community, but with little organisation and local govt. cuts have reduced community networks further. There are Somaliland communities in the city such as that in Nechells but there are many more from Somalia. The community is diverse socially with areas such as Small Heath being socially conservative, but young people in Newtown are much more cosmopolitan frequenting many of the new shisha lounges popping up around Highgate and Balsall Heath.

Bristol’s Somali community dates from around 1987 . It is well organised and connected within the city, nationally and internationally, but is more factional. The original community was from Somaliland, but after 2000 the community began to expand again, reaching an estimated 18000 – 24000 people. The new arrivals included more people originating from Somalia. There are two main concentrations of Somalis – new arrivals tend to gravitate towards Stapleton Road and the older Somaliland community tend to gravitate around Barton Hill / Lawrence Hill. There have been tensions between the two sections of the community and these reached a peak in 2014 during the campaign for local government recognition of Somaliland The community is not particularly conservative, although some mosques do have socially conservative teaching on issues such as music. There is an active youth community which organise some cultural and sporting events. However events have tended to result in one section of the community attending or the other. Bristol has a small number of shisha lounges on Stapleton Road, and Trinity Arts hosts some community events as does the Barton Hill Settlement.

Cardiff is home to the UK’s oldest Somali community originating in Sailors who settled in Bute Town in the 1880’s. The community has expanded but is relatively small – around 8 – 12,000 and is socially though not religiously conservative. The community has been active in culture, producing several exhibitions around Somali culture and a phot book. The have hosted visits by poets and authors. However their social conservatism means that they are not supportive of music performance.

Leicester’s community mostly grew during the 1990s and is based around two areas; St. Matthews / Manitoba Road and Evington Road. The community has a strong religious ethos and its social conservatism has not proved conducive to arts activity. On a number of occasions, the religious authorities in the city have appeared at events – K’Naan at the Peepul Centre in 2005 and Fahiya Fiska at de Montfort Hall in 2014. On the first occasion many attenders left in a hurry once it was known that the authorities were there, and on the second their presence outside the gates meant people drove past and did not enter, even though in the afternoon before many fans had queued up for photos with and autographs from the artist. It has been the most difficult community to work with due to the concerns of its leaders regarding the dangers to the moral and spiritual welfare of the young people that could attend events. It is not impossible to stage cultural events but the context is very challenging and requires close involvement of community leaders and focus on a narrow range of activities such as literature.

Liverpool is another of the older communities, again started by a small group of sailors who settled above the port in Toxteth. The community expanded in the late 80s and 90s and is largely from Somaliland although there is a small community from Somalia close to the Mosque on Selborne St. The largest part of the community is based around Lodge Lane at the Sefton Park Road end. Various community groups have been active for years, such as the Somali Women’s Resource Centre and the Liverpool Somaliland Association (men), although recent cuts have reduced their impact markedly. Various ad hoc groups of women are active and these have proven effective in marketing and selling tickets.

London overall has the majority of Somalis in the UK although they are spread across a number of boroughs. Significant communities are in Old Southall, West Ealing, Acton, Shepherds Bush, Kentish Town, Tower Hamlets, Harlesden / Park Royal and West Harrow. There is also growing communities around Streatham Hill and Greenwich. The communities vary enormously.
Tower Hamlets is old and in a way similar to those in Cardiff and Liverpool. However it is also home to the most dynamic Somali Arts organisation in the country. KAYD hosts the annual Somali Week Festival in July and has unparalleled knowledge of the Somali community nationally. It also works at an international and political level, hosting East Africa’s most important literature festival, The Hargeisa International Book Fair. A recent partnership with Way Art West has resulted in the most successful music tour of Somali music ever. This has also expanded the organisations reach.
Royal Oak is young with a dynamic night time economy around DJ / PA nights in shisha lounges that regularly attract several hundred people. Its young, fast moving and anarchic.
Shepherds Bush has a cosmopolitan night time economy based around several restaurants, particularly Savanna. Visiting dignitaries from the Horn of Africa often come to this area for meet and greets.
Acton (Church Street), Streatham (close to Streatham Hill Station), Old Southall (The Green) are fairly quiet, although there have been a number of violent crimes in Acton, that are possibly gang related.

Manchester has a growing and diverse community mostly around Moss Side, although there is no single street where all Somali businesses can be found as in most other cities. However there are a number of young enthusiastic promoters who have run a few successful music events. These are possibly the most promising group to develop as event producers. Consequently several were recruited to assist with event production on the Somali Stars tour. Positioned equidistant from Sheffield and Liverpool and with a dynamic young out going demographic Manchester represents the best prospect for a successful Somali music scene in the North.

Sheffield has a long established community mainly around a single clan. It has stayed constant since the 90s and is socially conservative. Some young Somalis have been successful outside the community for example one became President of Sheffield University Student Union, another has moved on to become a councillor in Bristol, another an internationally respected beautician based in London. The community is also has a number of community activists, who have worked with groups such as Sheffield Theatres, the City Museum on arts and crafts projects such as Durbaan. There is also an active women’s folk dance and drumming group. The community is based in two areas in the city; most prominently in the Spital Hill area of Burngreave and a less visible community around Broomhall. The community respects its elders and very much follows their lead; for example another student activist who initially supported the work of Track Change, withdrew following pressure from elders and a local mosque. This mosque has an effective youth policy and runs a gym and so with the right approach they can be a strong ally.

Community contacts

Way Art West has assembled a directory of useful contacts within the UK Somali Communities and this will be available shortly

Communication Channels

The Somali community has a number of dedicated media services in addition to those familiar with all other communities in the UK

TV and Radio

Most Somalis have access to satellite TV through the Hotbird service. There are several Somali channels available through this service include
Horn Cable is one for the most popular channels and currently the best for music. Based in Wembley
Somali National TV mainly focussed on news from the perspective of Mogadishu is popular with the Somalia community more that the Somaliland community.
Universal Channel was the most popular channel and was located in west London. It has declined in popularity and has reduced coverage of music.
Royal TV has tended to have the most religious programming
Somaliland Channel similarly to SNTV tends to focus on News relating Hargeisa and Somaliland. Popular with the older generation.
Also popular is Al Jazeera Arabic service. These are usually on in most Somali cafes.
There is no discernible schedule to the channels and content varies. The stations are international with studios in many countries, particularly the UK, where all companies have a studio. Most of these are in West London although a couple, notably Universal Channel is in East London. There are also freelance agencies working on behalf of the stations in cities such as Bristol. All are run on a tight budget and are staffed part time. Due to scheduling uncertainty advertising is patchy. The most effective way to communicate through TV is by paid for editorial. With many cities having local agencies that have access to all TV channels, it may simply be a case of making contact with the local studio. 15 minute news articles with interviews interspersed with clips of activity are wanted by the stations as they always need content.
A marketing budget for TV of around £3000 in the immediate run up to a tour in 2014 delivered
• 15 minute networked article
• 5 screenings a day
• Three channels
• Two days

Not all channels feature music, but this can vary over time; for example in 2013 Royal TV did not feature music, now it does and the reverse is true of Universal channel. However channels that do not feature music will still interview artists. Recommended channels to use are Horn Cable, Universal and either of the ‘national’ channels depending on target audiences.

On line

Websites for Somali culture written in Somali, including many music file sharing sites are fairly common. However they do change often and are often poorly maintained. There are very few written in English, and for many of the young Somalis in the UK who do not understand written Somali they are of little interest.
Facebook is extremely important within the Somali community and connects a global diaspora. There are many artist pages and interest groups as diverse as taxi driver associations and music fan pages. A word of warning though; many artist pages are not sanctioned by the artist and can sometimes be malicious spoof ‘official’ pages and as most of the content is written in Somali language support may be needed to ensure that content is understood. Additionally individual profiles come and go and people may not be located where they say they are. In other words targeting is not as simple or effective as it would first appear. It is worth creating long term pages that are not specific to an individual event as likes continue to grow months even years after the event! Face book ads work well especially when geographically targeted. There are a number of UK based opinion shapers on facebook who are useful to work with. Some of these are listed in the directory. Photos, videos and click through to event notices are the most popular, although writing on significant issues are also good ways to engage. Like most social media campaigns it is worth establishing the hot topics and posting appropriate material. For example the Somali Stars tour was seen as a positive response to the negativity surrounding Muslims following the Paris attacks.
Youtube is one of the main ways that Somali music is consumed. Anecdotally, sharing links and advertising on popular artist videos is the second most effective means of advertising cultural events.
Google ads were trialled with little discernible impact for one tour. Further research into this is needed.
Twitter is increasingly being used by the young, although recent campaigns by twitter to restrict content relating to accounts alleged to have sympathy to ISIS may have a negative impact if it is felt this censorship was unfair or heavy handed.

Marketing materials

Traditional methods of marketing such as leaflets, posters, banners and journal advertising are more problematic, particularly in more socially conservative communities. It is advisable to work with a local Somali to distribute material, but in case of music many businesses are reluctant to display advertising and posters leaflets often inexplicably disappear. In an attempt work around this banners were also used that were attached to fence railings within the community. These were often taken down or defaced by those who were against cultural events taking place. Leaflets offer the best means of distributing information about events particularly if access to networks is available


Ticket pricing is always a contentious issue, but evidence from the most recent tours suggests that a price of £17 – £20 in the regions and up to £25 in London is acceptable.

How people buy tickets varies from community to community. Some communities or sections of communities prefer to be able to buy tickets from trusted people within the community. However increasingly Somali audiences are as happy to buy tickets on line as anyone else. For example for the first tour of Track Change between 70 and 80% f tickets were bought through community outlets and contacts, whereas on the most recent tour only Liverpool maintained this level and Bristol was the only other place that sold tickets within the community and then only 15% of tickets were sold this way.

Most sales are now online with walk up accounting for around 15% when this was possible. One issue that did occur on the most recent tour in Bristol and Birmingham was online card fraud, with payment on around 70 tickets across the tour being declined by card issuers for this reason.


Somali audiences are visiting our leading arts venues for the first time, in many cases attending a performing arts event for the first time. With the exception of Track Change there is no touring activity aimed at Britain’s 450k Somali community and nor has there ever been. Consequently audiences are unfamiliar with venues working and have certain concerns about what goes on.
Alcohol As has been mentioned Somalis are 95% plus Muslim, and concerns such as alcohol availability can be an issue, particularly if it is in a bar that is specifically for that event.
Show running times can prove a challenge to audiences with rigid and early performance start times not always having the desired outcome with an audience that isn’t amongst the most punctual!
Young people who have attended have tried a number of ways to get in without paying, the most common way being to pass round a single ticket to gain multiple re-entry.
Use of ticket scanners / self-contained venue spaces, having alcohol free bars and having pre-performance events will address many of these concerns.