Living in America: Shabazz Palaces clears the way for Seattle’s new music royalty

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Malitia Malimob emerges from Seattle’s growing hip-hop scene, telling stories of Somali struggles and pirate tales. Publicity photo. Malitia Malimob emerges from Seattle’s growing hip-hop scene, telling stories of Somali struggles and pirate tales. Publicity photo.

Seattle will probably never rid itself of the albatross around its neck that is grunge, but since at least 2005, the home of Cobain and company has been undergoing a rap renaissance, with a scene that rivals the ’90s era for depth and breadth of talent.

Recently, I read an article that made me rethink my assumptions about the city’s place in the music world—and the morality of Somali pirates.

The article was about a rap group called Malitia Malimob, two young men, “Somali born/Seattle bred,” who use the template of American gangster rap to tell the darker side of the modern American immigrant story. I was intrigued, and liked their music, but there was very little information about Malitia Malimob online, besides a link to its current tour dates as the opening act for two other Seattle hip-hop groups, Shabazz Palaces and THEESatisfaction. Clicking the link, I was surprised to find that halfway through the tour the duo was coming to The Southern Cafe & Music Hall.

In 2011, Sub Pop, the indie record label that first signed Nirvana and almost single-handedly sold grunge to the world, released Black Up, the first full-length album from Shabazz Palaces, one of Seattle Hip-Hop’s biggest stars.

Black Up was named best local album that year by The Seattle Times, got a rave review from Pitchfork and a write up in The New Yorker. Palaces co-founder Ishmael Butler is something of an elder statesman on the scene due to his previous membership in ’90s jazz-rap pioneer, Digable Planets.

Like Digable Planets, Shabazz Palaces’ music is experimental and free-form, except now the jazziness has been filtered through a laptop and digitally shredded. The songs are dark and atmospheric, the lyrics political, yet hard to pin down. Shabazz Palaces is often called “difficult,” which I think probably stems from the relatively simplistic idea most rock fans have of rap.

Labelmate THEESatisfaction is comprised of two women, Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White, who met at the University of Washington, fell in love, and started making beautiful music together—loopy, playfully political, neo-soul/hip-hop—to make a stab at precision.

THEESatisfaction first came to attention in a guest spot on the Shabazz Palaces album, and there’s a clear kinship between the groups, although THEESatisfaction is lighter, more soulful and groove-filled, and, I suppose, more feminist.

But it’s the opening act, the group no one’s ever heard of, that I find most compelling. The Somali Civil War, which began in 1991 and has yet to end, led to a wave of refugees fleeing to the U.S. (124 have been settled in Charlottesville since 1999, according to the International Rescue Committee), and finding themselves living in the worst parts of their new cities, forced to deal with racism, islamophobia, and the myriad other problems that typically beset strangers in a strange land.

There’s an unofficial video for the Malitia Malimob song “Pirates” that traces the story of Somali piracy back to the 1980s, when men piloted their boats into the Arabian Sea in search of fish not hostages. In the chaos following the outbreak of civil war, huge corporate ships started illegally fishing off the coast of Somalia, and barrels of toxic waste began washing up on shore. So the fishermen took up arms and pointed their boats back out to sea.

In many of the cities where they’ve settled, Somali youth have a reputation for above average involvement in gang violence. Guled Diriye and Mohamed Jurato, a.k.a. Malitia Malimob, were carried out of Somalia as children, one of them in a pirate’s boat, and found themselves growing up surrounded by drugs and gangs. Their songs move between both worlds with defiant ease, recognizing that the Somali pirates are mirror images of the boyz in Seattle’s hoods.

By connecting the African immigrant story to the African-American inner city story, Malitia Malimob’s music joins a long tradition of songs, from “This Land is Your Land” to “Straight Outta Compton,” that help define what it means to live in America. Malitia Malimob is less interesting musically than the two groups it’s touring with, and the pair has the same faults as many of their peers (casual misogyny, glorification of violence), but like all great rebel music, they give voice to the voiceless, speak hard truths, and send a shiver up your spine.

Shabazz Palaces with THEESatisfaction and Malitia Malimob/The Southern Cafe and Music Hall/April 29.

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