Visa hassles cause respected Somali Muslim musician to cancel MN shows

Aar Maanta

Aar Maanta Photo courtesy of the artist

Aar Maanta thought he’d be in Minnesota this week.

The Somali musician and his band the Urban Nomads were supposed to kick off a month-long residency of performances and workshops set up through the Cedar Cultural Center.

Instead, the leader of one of the only touring bands in the world that plays live Somali music is home in London and the residency is cancelled. Visa delays brought months of planning to a disappointing halt.

The other four musicians in the band are Italian, French, Nepalese/Scottish and British/Caribbean, and all received their visas with no trouble. Only Aar Maanta -- the band’s sole Somali and Muslim member -- was asked to submit more information.

Aar Maanta’s passport was held by the U.S. consulate and his application was placed under “additional administrative processing.” Despite efforts to change this status (including a request from Congressman Keith Ellison’s office), Aar Maanta could not travel.

“It’s hard not to read between the lines,” Alana Horton, marketing and communications manager at the Cedar, says of the consulate’s actions. Legal obstacles for some touring international artists are increasingly common, creating an environment of uncertainty for presenters and audiences alike. “It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “He brings a really unique voice.”

“This case is a concrete example of how travel restrictions and the travel ban limit artistic voices and freedom,” Cedar program manager Fadumo Ibrahim said in a written statement. “While it’s obviously important for the artists, it’s equally important for the community who had been anticipating this residency. Aar Maanta’s visit to Minnesota would have brought hope and positivity to the Somali and larger communities here, at a time when we all really need it.”

Aar Maanta has worked with the Cedar twice before, performing as well as leading songwriting and poetry workshops for young people, but this trip would have marked his first time venturing outside the metro area. The group was set to visit Minneapolis, Mankato, and St. Cloud through a Cedar program called Midnimo (the Somali word for “unity”), which is designed to increase understanding of Somali culture through music. Augsburg University, the Department of Music Performance Series at the Minnesota State University-Mankato, St. Cloud’s Paramount Center for the Arts, and St. Cloud State University all worked in collaboration with the Cedar.

Aar Maanta is shocked at being singled out, especially given this prior relationship. “The opportunity for communities of different backgrounds to experience each other’s culture is the loss,” he wrote by email. “In my last Minneapolis show in 2015 we sold out the Cedar with Somali community members, Augsburg students and other music fans attending. To perform for a full house of different races enjoying my music despite the language barrier was inspiring.”

Without cultural exchange, Aar Maanta wrote, there’s “a risk that the country could become less inspiring locally, nationally and internationally. Cities and countries with melting pot cultures and communities always lead the way in innovation and the new development of music, art and other fields. Not having international artists could also lead to segregation of communities.”

And the musicians in Aar Maanta's band have lost work due to the consulate’s actions. “Some of us also have families to provide for,” bass player Ruth Goller said in a written statement. “There is a lot of collateral damage around a decision like this."

According to Jane Oxton, director of education and outreach at the Paramount, 11 sites and 1,000 students in St. Cloud were prepared to participate in workshops and performances, the culmination of years spent building trust and partnerships in a community where Somali residents have encountered particular resistance. She is working with Ahmed Abdi (from Somali radio station KZYS-LP 105.1 FM) to continue some activities and keep up momentum.

“I’m not going to let this crumble at my feet,” Oxton said by phone. “This is a teachable moment and I want to make it productive so students can learn from it. They have been preparing and they were excited – now they are confused. We have to put this into context and encourage the students to seek out more information.”