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The Cedar Cultural Center

Friday, July 15, 2016

The 100 or so different languages spoken in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., testify to the many waves of settlers who have made the Twin Cities their home, from Scandinavians who came in the late 19th century to Hmong and Korean immigrants who arrived decades later. Today, an estimated 30,000 Somali immigrants and refugees, a quarter of the total Somali population in the U.S., also reside in the Twin Cities.[1] The concentration is especially striking in Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, also known as “Little Mogadishu” after Somalia’s capital city. However, even as the Somali community flourished there, the staff of The Cedar Cultural Center, a music venue locally known as “The Cedar,” noticed little interaction between their Somali and non-Somali neighbors. They wondered if their unique role in Cedar-Riverside could improve this fragile social dynamic.

Founded in 1989, the Cedar’s mission is to promote intercultural appreciation through music, out of the belief that it propels community cohesion, economic development and public health. The Cedar sought to bring Somali music artists to Minneapolis to try to bridge the seeming disconnect between Somalis and non-Somalis. They soon learned that featuring Somali artists would require adapting their usual strategy. Across its 27 seasons, the Cedar typically connected with new artists through their representatives and agencies—a system that Somali artists did not or could not access. Longstanding civil war in Somalia starting in the early 1990s led to social unrest and, ultimately, a ban on music and artists, whose role as community leaders had threatened the military leadership.[2] Outlawed for decades, the Somali music scene that resulted was fragmented, as vocalists grew unfamiliar playing with bands and were discouraged from performing. Given these circumstances, Somali celebrations, such as weddings, typically featured lip-syncing as opposed to singing. At first, The Cedar followed suit, inviting talented artists onto the stage to lip-sync to a CD playing in the background, but failing to entice Somali audiences. 

“‘Well, let’s try something,’” Adrienne Dorn, executive director of The Cedar, recalls of her and her team’s response to the obstacles. “Let’s work with Augsburg College and their jazz band group: maybe they can learn some of the songs, do a few rehearsals and perform this music with the singers on stage.” 

From that idea came a new pilot program The Cedar called Midnimo, the Somali word for “unity.” In December 2013, the organization won a grant to launch Midnimo through the Building Bridges: Campus Community Engagement funding competition, which is administered by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) with the support of DDCF’s Arts and Building Bridges Programs. The Cedar’s plan was to collaborate with the music department of Augsburg College, a Lutheran college nearby, and local musicians to host Somali musicians on their stages.

The program’s potential influence was immediately clear. On January 1, 2014, a fire decimated an apartment building in Cedar-Riverside, killing three and injuring dozens of residents. The Cedar responded in the way it knew best: a benefit concert by two Somali musicians and Augsburg JIVE, the college’s student jazz band. More than The Cedar predicted, the music sparked a sense of togetherness after tragedy, with effects that went far beyond Minneapolis.

“People, Somalis and non-Somalis alike, went crazy. It was like the coolest thing that people had ever seen, and it went viral. People in Somalia were calling these artists saying, ‘How did you do that? How can I get a gig there?’” says Dorn. “That was a groundbreaking moment for us.”

However, relationships are not often built overnight, and The Cedar found that connecting with Somali community members would require real understanding of their existing comfort with music. Organizing more musical programming and distributing free tickets was not enough. This fact was reinforced when The Cedar invited Maryan Mursal, a popular performer who was banned from singing in Somalia in the late 1980s.[3] Fadumo Ibrahim, The Cedar’s first Somali staff person, explained to colleagues that the Somali women elders, despite being an important part of Mursal’s fan base, might hesitate to attend an entirely music-centric event. The Cedar responded by incorporating a strong component of storytelling into the event. By its end, the Somali elders were on their feet, singing and dancing with Mursal. The success of the event had hinged on its gentle, more familiar passage to the art form and The Cedar’s acknowledgement of the Somali community’s complex history with music.

With time and effort, Midnimo’s music-based programming has become a powerful conduit to amicable ties between the diverse Cedar-Riverside residents. For this reason, DDCF’s Building Bridges Program, which supports efforts to advance relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, awarded the program additional funding through its 2015-16 open grant competition to broaden the reach of its benefits in the community. Over time, the relationships between the Augsburg College students, Somali community members, and visiting artists and audiences have moved forward through the arts, which Dorn calls “a stepping stone” into conversations with new and maybe still unfamiliar neighbors. In the midst of myriad misconceptions and stereotypes about Somalis, Midnimo has provided the platform for often disparate groups to connect and get to know each other in authentic ways. One student trumpeter at Augsburg was moved when a Somali musician told him that “you’re one of us now.” His experience in Midnimo, said the student, had been “the best five months of my life, being able to do this work with the Somali musicians.”

The lasting effects of this program extend beyond the students and Somali musicians and into Somali cultural heritage, as well. Early on, the Augsburg Music Department had realized that to best accompany the Somali musicians, they needed to create written sheet music not present in Somali culture. This compelled the Augsburg Music Department to embark on transcribing as much of it as they could, inadvertently beginning a process of documenting and preserving Somalia’s musical tradition for generations to come.

Equally important has been the creation of physical spaces in Cedar-Riverside where everyone feels welcome. The Cedar recently renovated their outdoor property into an open, public plaza. The grand opening in early 2016 celebrated, all at once, how much Midnimo had put the meaning of its name into practice. The Cedar’s artists in residence led the community in the dhaanto, a Somali folk song and dance of celebration traditionally performed at weddings. A Latin band performed, and a variety of speakers explored the deeper meaning of that communal space.

Dorn says, “When you looked around, there were people of all races, ages and abilities. You stood there and you’d go, ‘There’s something really different about what’s happening here.’ We’re creating these spaces where disparate communities are coming together, not just at The Cedar but in other spaces as well.”

Midnimo has influenced the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in palpable, positive ways and is expanding outward in Minneapolis. In tandem with the changing demographics nationwide, the population of Minneapolis continues to diversify, especially with regards to the Somali community, which is also growing in smaller towns nearby. Somali and non-Somali residents and leaders in those communities have informed Dorn of their desire for the kind of Midnimo programming that has benefited social cohesion in Cedar-Riverside and the Twin Cities. This October in St. Cloud, Minn., for example, Midnimo will be will be doing a full residency featuring Waayaha Cusub, an Amsterdam-based hip-hop group. Altogether, these local leaders share the belief that society can only prosper when all residents are respected, included and involved.

“It’s really important for organizations and leading institutions to celebrate and build upon the advantages that come with a diversifying community to address these challenges we’re having of segregation and cultural difference, misunderstanding and inequity,” says Dorn. “The work that we are doing now is making an impact that is going to build strong and inviting communities, which is what we need in order to be an effective society.”

The Cedar’s vision of a community mirrors DDCF’s own holistic conception of societal well-being, leading DDCF’s Child Well-being and Medical Research Programs to collaborate with the Building Bridges Program to grant further support to The Cedar to quantitatively and qualitatively evaluate Midnimo’s effects on the mental health of the community. This data will help inform its continued work forging meaningful relationships and unity.

Dorn says, “The ripple effect of this continues to be, just, profound to us.”


[1] The New York Times. “Finding Somali Life in Minnesota.” (Mar. 18, 2016). Available at: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/03/18/somalia-minneapolis-arthur-nazaryan-photos

Star Tribune. “Women drive success of Somali mall in Minneapolis.” (Aug. 31, 2015). Available at: http://www.startribune.com/women-drive-success-of-somali-mall-in-minneapolis/323386601.

[2] BBC News. “Somalia country profile.” (Feb. 4, 2016). Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-14094503.

[3] MTV. “Maryam Mursal: biography.” (2016). Available at: http://www.mtv.com/artists/maryam-mursal