It was supposed to be a special occasion. Sporting a Twins cap, the renowned rapper K'naan Warsame took the stage at a neighborhood block party to "share a little love" with Minneapolis' Cedar-Riverside area, the nerve center for local Somali community life.
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. Two people were arrested on suspicion of rioting, the Saturday event having turned from block party to block chaos.
Heated debate over K'naan's latest project — a TV pilot for an HBO series called "Mogadishu, Minnesota" — has reached a boiling point. 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.
But many other local Somali-Americans see the TV pilot as a rare chance to boost the community — both in the form of jobs related to the production and by presenting on-screen for the first time a story told from the Somali Muslim point of view. K'naan will do justice to the story, they say, because he is directing, writing and is executive producer.
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.
In an exclusive Star Tribune interview Tuesday, K'naan spoke publicly for the first time at length about the show and about the debate within the local Somali community about his project that was exposed at Saturday's block party.
He appeared mystified. He was surprised, he said, that "misinformation" about the show and his intentions could stoke such a reaction. And so for the past few nights, he has been meeting with the protest leaders in his apartment and at coffee shops to hear their concerns and explain his project.
"I've always set out to represent my culture and my people in a true light and a good light," K'naan said. "My hope is that I will spend time with the community and relieve their fears, by letting them hear from me firsthand what I'm up to and that I'm working on their behalf."
For the young Somali-American activists protesting the show, their fears about media portrayals should come as no surprise. They've grown tired of Hollywood movies that portray Somalis only as bad guys. They're tired of TV crews coming into the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, drawn to the image of "the Towers," and using the high-rise apartment complex as a backdrop for live shots about terrorism-related stories.
They argue that most of the young men who left to join terrorist groups didn't even live in the buildings, much less in the neighborhood.
Many are wary of any project that includes Kathryn Bigelow, the director whose films about conflict in the Middle East, including "The Hurt Locker,'' and "Zero Dark Thirty," have won awards but not many Muslim fans. She is an executive producer for the show.
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. If they want to portray Somalis as hardworking, new Americans who are integrating, we're all for that," she said. "There's enough press about us being pirates and being terrorists, and we don't want to feed that narrative."
The protest highlighted differing views within the Somali community.
Some who sympathized with the group's concerns questioned its tactics. Said concertgoer Zakariya Hassan, 23: "K'naan is one of my favorite artists. Some people just wanted to ruin this. At least let the guy explain. Don't ruin it for everyone."
Mohamud Noor, a community leader, is among those supporting the HBO show, because it was conceived and is being led by "one of our own." Amid Saturday's mayhem, he said: "The youth have every right to be angry about something they know nothing about. But it should not have escalated to this level."
"That's not what they wanted to do, but unfortunately it got a little bit out of control."
At his production office in northeast Minneapolis this week, K'naan said he learned some things by listening to the protest leaders.
"They actually opened my eyes to something," he said. "Stuck in my own point of view, I was not thinking of how the community could potentially see something like this be damaging.
"There is no precedence for a Muslim Somali man leading the charge, taking control of our narrative, and telling a story that is for them and not against them," he said. "So why should they feel that I can truly be in control of their narrative? When everything about them historically has always been against them. So I have a newfound empathy about that. ..."
Fueling the community apprehension is the fact that very little has been disclosed about the show — to be filmed in the Twin Cities beginning next month.
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."
For three years, the New York-based K'naan thought deeply about creating this family drama that reflects Somali expats. Little did he know that he would battle fellow Somalis to defend his work.
Originally titled "The Recruiters," the series talks about radicalization, but K'naan said that topic occupies a small part of the overall story line.
"It is not unaddressed," he said. "But it is addressed in proportion to what it is in life. And when it is addressed, it is addressed entirely from the point of view of a Somali family. There is no law enforcement point of view in the show."
He also explained that the title, which has been changed, was misunderstood. It was a poetic twist, he said, and "The Recruiters" referred to the FBI — not Muslims recruiting for terrorist groups.
He chose Minnesota as the setting for his story for several reasons, including its status as home to the largest Somali population in the nation and its visually arresting backdrop of winter juxtaposed against a summer people. It's also a place where the challenges for first- and second-generation Somali-Americans are in play.
"It's also for me the most in action of being in the negotiation of what it means to be an immigrant and second generation," he said. "The finding of the identities in that is most prevalent in Minnesota."
With casting nearly finished, the show is set to begin production next month.
Whether both local Somali-Americans and the broader public will embrace the show remains to be seen.
K'naan remains confident that the work will speak for itself.
"I believe in people at the end of the day."
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