The Problem with the Upcoming HBO Drama 'Mogadishu, Minnesota'

K’Naan performing at a Cedar-Riverside block party, where many Somalis were not to eager to see him.
K’Naan performing at a Cedar-Riverside block party, where many Somalis were not to eager to see him.

I remember attending a Mogadishu, MN filming protest in November of last year. Posters in hand, determination in our hearts, we were greeted by a large crowd of (mostly white) onlookers upon reaching the site. It was an unusually warm Friday night, and it seemed a good number of the Cedar area bar-goers had gathered outside to watch the filming. K’naan was across the street, in his unmistakable dark hat. As soon as we began to chant, the crowd began to cheer, much to my surprise. Maybe they were cheering us on. Maybe, in their drunken state, they thought of us as entertainers. It was probably a bit of both. As we drew nearer to the crowd, a Somali officer stepped in between us and them. “Don’t go past here,” he said. He withdrew as a couple of young Somalis made their way towards us from within the crowd. They began to ridicule us, hurtling curses and dancing mockingly to the tune of our chants. They came really close at one point, but the imaginary line the officer drew proved a strong deterrent for protester and jester alike. Two members from the set crew looked at us smugly as they picked up their equipment. “We were done anyway.”

And they were done; I received news a few days later that filming for the pilot episode was complete. The crowd thinned as the crew members began to pack up, and K’naan drove off in his Toyota Camry. You would think someone who sold out his own people would drive something a little more extravagant, but I digress. He did not even do the slightest thing that would somehow indicate that he acknowledged our existence. We stood our ground until the crew trailer and all it’s accompanying vehicles slipped away into the night.

When I first heard that K’naan was making an HBO show that centered around the Somali American experience, I was ecstatic. The singer was, at the time, someone I had an immense amount of respect for. He has done great works of charity, and put Somalia on the map in a lot of ways. Auditions were held in the Brian Coyle center near the Cedar-Riverside apartments. I’ve even had friends audition for certain roles. All seemed well at first. It wasn’t until more details began to surface that I became less enthusiastic. It seems the show will portray Minnesota Somalis as primarily violent, particularly Somali men. “Petty thug,” “renowned gangster,” “mysterious,” “street-wise,” are words used to describe the male characters in the series, further perpetuating stereotypes the overwhelming majority of Somali Americans prove misleading daily. The truth of the matter is, K’naan thinks a realistic show on what he calls “the Somali American experience” will not be very exciting. He sincerely believes you would be hard pressed to find people willing to watch a show depicting hard-working, Black Muslim immigrant families doing their best to thrive in a system not built for them. But drama and controversy sells in his eyes.

In fact, many producers and directors seem to rationalize the false binary that a show can either have a Muslim in a non-terrorist role or be successful. Sadder still is the fact that many Muslims have internalized this dichotomy. For much of the past century, Hollywood and mainstream American TV shows have successfully painted an image of the ‘Muslim Villain.’ This painfully obvious fact is summarized by Melena Ryzik in her NYT article, ‘Can Television Be Fair To Muslims?’. Ryzik interviewed a number of Muslims in the show business, including Palestinian-American actress Cherien Dabis, who had the following to say:

“...When I took it [a developing TV show about a Muslim family] into the marketplace, every suggestion was that I needed to have some kind of terrorist component. Ultimately I ended up incorporating it in a way that looked at false accusations of terrorism. But I lost interest in the show because I was like, we can’t keep showing Muslims as terrorists, even if it’s just a false accusation.”

Indeed, we cannot. And it is quite sad to see an internationally renown Somali artist fall into this line of thinking. To add insult to injury, many Somalis who auditioned in Minnesota were not even aware that they did not get the role until the official cast was announced. No Somali from Minnesota was cast as a main or even a supporting actor. In fact, just 2 out of the 15 actors listed on the show’s IMDB page are Somali. One of which is a Somali-born comedian from London. The absurdity of a Somali-Canadian singer directing a show about Somali-Minnesotans and casting Somali-British actors is astounding. What’s makes it even more absurd, is the fact that one of the original clauses for green-lighting filming was to put money back into the local community. The second and last clause was that a council made up of local residents would have to approve before filming could commence in a housing complex. After an attempted block party at the Cedar-Riverside apartments was swiftly shut down by protesters, the HBO team was forced to switch locations.

Minneapolis police escalate a peaceful protest at K’Naan’s cedar block party.
Minneapolis police escalate a peaceful protest at K’Naan’s cedar block party.

A month after the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority gave the green light to begin filming, K'naan and co. introduced the idea of filming to residents of another apartment complex in the Cedar area. But the Cedar High Apartments residents were not having it, and a council made up of 51 residents voted unanimously against filming. With their tails between their legs, the HBO crew began to go directly to public housing authorities, going behind the backs of residents and completely violating the second clause of their original agreement. This method allowed for them to covertly complete filming for the pilot episode.

As if there wasn't enough red flags already, K'naan received help early on from Kathryn Bigelow to start up the show. Bigelow, the director/producer behind 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Zero Dark Thirty,' is notorious for portraying Muslims as bloodthirsty savages incapable of complex thoughts and emotions. City councilman Abdi Warsame and other pro-CVE entities are among the few Somalis who are backing the HBO show, so forgive me if I am not optimistic at all for this money-grabbing, self-depreciating media endeavor. Still, K'naan insists he will not portray Somali Minnesotans in a negative light. But his questionable actions and comments thus far point to the contrary. Not all press is good press, and there are other, more fruitful ways to tackle the issues in Somali-American communities. As the saying goes, "nothing about us without us is for us." If K'naan cannot begin to challenge his warped view of the very people he claims to represent and portray, then this show is not for us. Regardless of what message he is trying to send with it.