A year ago, there was buzz in the Twin Cities about a projected HBO series that would center on the lives of Somali refugees in Minnesota. It was to be called “Mogadishu, Minnesota” and was hailed as the possible savior of Minnesota’s moribund film industry. Well-known director Kathryn Bigelow, who made “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” was involved, but the main creative talent was a Somali-Canadian rapper named K’naan Warsame, who was listed as director, writer and executive producer.
The project was controversial in Minneapolis’s Somali community. Last September, K’naan Warsame hosted a block party in the heart of Somali Minneapolis, Cedar-Riverside. But the event was shut down by Somali protesters:
People young and old swayed and mouthed the words to his songs at the free concert. Then the signs started popping up: “K’naan and Bigelow — stop exploiting the Somali community.” At least a dozen protesters started chanting, “Shut it down.” People started pushing and shoving. A large police officer wrestled with a young female protester who jumped on stage. Soon there was no more music — only angry voices. “Let me explain,” K’naan pleaded.
But after two songs, it was over. The singer left the stage. Police pepper-sprayed the crowd after some hurled plastic bottles.
What was the problem? One might think that local Somalis would be pleased to be highlighted in an HBO series conceived by a fellow Somali refugee.
Many Somali-Americans in Minnesota fear it will depict them as terrorists, reinforcing a stereotype and further marginalizing young people who already feel burdened by negative portrayals that they say prevent them from getting jobs and respect.
The hostile reception stunned K’naan, an artist known throughout the Somali diaspora for his songs in support of Somali people and social-justice causes.
Being a social justice warrior is a lot like being a French revolutionary. Don’t expect any respect from the warrior/revolutionaries who come behind you. For the protesters’ perspective, the Strib turned to professional activist Filsan Ibrahim:
Filsan Ibrahim, 27, a leading voice during the block party protest, said the demonstration was a collective neighborhood effort.
“We are against what K’naan and Kathryn Bigelow and HBO and anybody that’s a part of this and supporting this are doing,” she said on Saturday, at times leading “Shut it down” chants. “The whole goal for the movie series they’re doing is to portray Somalis as terrorists, and our community is more than that.”
One would hope so. Actually, though, that doesn’t seem to have been the producer’s intent:
K’naan described the project as a family drama, set within a Somali-American family and following a second-generation young man named Sameer.
“I would say that some of the most general themes of the show are addressing how the multigenerational immigrant family — between the second and the first generation — how they process the world through two very different lenses,” he said. “And how in particular, the second-generation young American processes his grievances with this country differently than his parents do.”
These Somalis have been admitted to the United States as refugees from one of the most violent, backward, chaotic, godforsaken places on Earth. One wonders how much patience a typical HBO viewer would have with a series that focuses on refugees’ “grievances with this country.” Not much, I suspect.
The news today is that HBO has pulled the plug on “Mogadishu, Minnesota.”
HBO announced that it would not take on the show, the making of which led to protests in Minneapolis over its depiction of the Somali-American community. The TV network confirmed the announcement in a statement Friday.
Organizer Filsan Ibrahim said Friday that she felt as if the protests paid off. “We were only fighting for us to be seen in a positive light,” she said.
Now Somalis won’t be seen in any light at all, at least on HBO.
Some from the community had been concerned that the show would stereotype Somalis as potential terrorists — an image the community has been fighting. “There is more to Somalis in America,” Ibrahim said.
K’naan had previously described the show as a family drama set within a Somali-American family and following a second-generation American named Sameer.
I have no idea why HBO killed “Mogadishu, Minnesota.” Presumably its motives were commercial: artistic quality was lacking, not enough viewers were likely to tune in, and so on. Perhaps HBO concluded that a show about refugees’ “grievances with this country,” focused on a community that describes itself as “more than [terrorists],” was unlikely to be the second coming of “Game of Thrones.” One way or another, this seems to be another instance where community organizers, social justice warriors and the like, have contributed to making the community they purport to serve more invisible.