Music
1:04 pm
Wed February 19, 2014

Years After Tragedy, Norwegian Pop Star Returns To World Stage

Originally published on Thu February 20, 2014 8:36 am

Back in 2011, Mohamed Abdi Farah, who goes by the stage name Mo, seemed to be Norway's next rising pop star. Success on his country's version of The X Factor led to a record deal and the release of several singles, all before his 18th birthday. But then, Mo found himself in the middle of a national nightmare: a mass shooting on the Norwegian island of Utøya.

There's something a little ethereal about Mo. He's dark-skinned, but — thanks to some striking contact lenses — blue-eyed, with hair that is both short and long and a big laugh that belies a life filled with tragedy.

Mo came to Norway with his mother at the age of 7 to escape the civil war in Somalia, a conflict that cost most of his family their lives.

"I don't remember so much about it," he says. "But I don't want to go into that sad stuff.

Nor does Mo like to talk about Utøya, where, in 2011, he and hundreds of politically active young people were targets in the shooting rampage of a right-wing extremist named Anders Breivik. Mo escaped, but his best friend — whom he'd met in a refugee camp as a child — was among the 69 people murdered.

What Mo will say about the tragedy is that there's one song that helped him get through it.

"Heal" was written for Mo before the shooting took place. It's not that the song holds any secret cure for grief; it's essentially about having patience. But that's what worked.

"I really connected with the message behind the song, especially after all the things I went through over the years," he says. "I took a break and I finally feel ready to move on and to just be me again."

And for Mo, a lifelong performer, that means getting back on stage. Soon, he'll compete against 14 other Norwegians for the chance to represent his country at Eurovision, that glittery tribute to song that, for a few days each year, seeks to unite Europe around a musical popularity contest.

Laila Samuelson, who wrote "Heal" for Mo, admits it's not a typical Eurovision entry.

"I mean, the sound is darker, and also the beat is slower than the usual winning song of the whole thing," she says.

And although some discourse will inevitably tie the song to Utøya, Samuelsen says that's become something of a taboo subject in Norway these days.

"It's not cool to bring up in any political discussion," she says. "So it really kind of now feels like people are really afraid to talk about it."

And starting a public discussion about Norway's national tragedy was never the point. Mo says the song is meant to be much more universal.

"Everyone that lives in this world, they have gone through a thing or two," Mo says. "And so when they listen to this song it could inspire them to just get right back there and don't lose their strength, and just never give up."

When it comes to Eurovision, it's about the performance as much as the song — and that is likely to be a major point in Mo's favor.

"My strength, being an artist, is that I'm real. And I just pour my heart out," he says. He adds, "Mo style," and that big laugh returns.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In 2011, Mohamed Abdi Farah was a rising pop star in Norway. His stage name is Mo. He got a record deal after success on Norway's version of the TV talent show "X Factor." This led to the release of several singles, all before he was 18 years old.

That same year, Mo found himself in the middle of a national nightmare, the massacre on the island of Utoya. For the next few years, he slipped into the shadows. But now, he's back in the public eye and setting his sights on one of the biggest stages in the world. Sidsel Overgaard has his story.

SIDSEL OVERGAARD, BYLINE: There's something a little ethereal about Mo. He's dark-skinned but thanks to some striking contact lenses, blue-eyed, with hair that is both short and long, blond and black. And his big laugh belies a life filled with far too much tragedy.

MO FARAH: There's always a light under the tunnel, isn't that what they say?

(LAUGHTER)

OVERGAARD: Mo came to Norway with his mom at the age of 7 to escape the civil war in Somalia, a war that cost most of his family their lives.

FARAH: And I don't remember so much about it, but I don't want to go into that sad stuff, so...

OVERGAARD: Nor does Mo want to talk about Utoya, where he and hundreds of politically active young people were targets in the shooting rampage of the right-wing extremist Anders Breivik. Mo escaped. His best friend, who he'd met in a refugee camp as a child, was among the 69 people murdered.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAL")

OVERGAARD: What Mo will say is that this song, written for Mo before the tragedy, is part of what helped him get through it.

FARAH: (Singing) Take your time to heal - the chorus - (Singing) not going to take forever. Here, you know the hurt is going to go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAL")

FARAH: (Singing) You crash and burn, but it's going to turn. Oh...

OVERGAARD: It's not that the song holds any secret cure for grief. It's essentially about having patience. But that's what worked.

FARAH: I really connected with the message behind the song, especially after all the things I went through over the years. I took a break, and I finally feel ready to move on and to just be me again.

OVERGAARD: And for Mo, a lifelong performer, that means getting back on stage. Soon, he'll compete against 14 other Norwegians for the chance to represent his country at Eurovision, that glittery tribute to song that for a few days each year, seeks to unite Europe around a musical popularity contest. Laila Samuelsen, who wrote the song "Heal" for Mo, admits it's not a typical Eurovision entry.

LAILA SAMUELSEN: I mean, the sound is darker and also, the beat is slower than the usual winning song of the whole thing.

OVERGAARD: And although there will be inevitable links to Utoya, Samuelsen says that's become something of a taboo subject in Norway these days.

SAMUELSEN: This thing that it's not cool to bring up in any political discussion, so it really, like, kind of now feels like people are really afraid to talk about it.

OVERGAARD: And starting a public discussion about Norway's national tragedy was never the point. Mo says the song is meant to be much more universal.

FARAH: Because 100 percent of everyone that lives in this world, they have gone through a thing or two. So when they listen to that song, it could inspire them to just get right back there and to don't lose their strength, and just never give up.

OVERGAARD: And anyway, when it comes to Eurovision, it's as much about the performance as the song. And that is likely to be a major point in favor of the perhaps-not-so-ethereal Mo.

FARAH: My strength, being an artist, is that I'm real. And I just pour my heart out, Mo style.

(LAUGHTER)

OVERGAARD: For NPR News, I'm Sidsel Overgaard in Oslo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAL")

FARAH: (Singing) You're not afraid to let your feelings out. Let down your guard and share your doubts. Love is a battle. I can see those scars. He left your damaged, broke your heart. It doesn't scare me. I feel you are. But you've got to slow it down, slow it down. You're going too fast. You took it too far, pushing too hard. Take your time to heal. You know it's not going to take forever... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.