Race The World Inequality

K’naan’s show perpetuates stereotypes in my community we don’t need

In December of 2015, Rolling Stones announced K’naan, a Somali rapper best known for his song Waving Flag, and Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty, would be collaborating with HBO on a television show on jihadi recruitment in the Somali community. The show would be based in Minnesota, home to a large Somali population, and was originally titled The Recruiters. That name has now changed to Mogadishu, Minnesota

This past Sunday, at a block party in Minneapolis, K’naan -originally poised to perform a free concert in support of his new show- was interrupted by a number of young protesters carrying signs that read “K’naan and Bigelow — stop exploiting the Somali community”. They chanted “Shut It Down!”, referring to his HBO collaboration, and eventually the music stopped, K’naan left the stage, chaos erupted, police arrested two protesters, and people have been talking ever since.

Black Hawk Down. Captain Philips. This is Dixon. The quality of Somali representation in our media is dismal at best. With a reputation best known for piracy, terrorism and famine (in that order) it should come as no surprise that our youth are concerned about another endeavour to criminalize us in the public eye. Speaking to the Star Tribune, K’naan addressed his intentions for this show, claiming it “[addresses radicalization]… 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 spoke further to sooth the fears of the community, saying he “always set out to represent [his] culture and [his] people in a true light and a good light. [His] hope is that [he] will spend time with the community and relieve their fears, by letting them hear from [him] firsthand what [he’s] up to and that [he’s] working on their behalf.”

What this event brings to light is the importance of media representation, particularly for communities that do not enjoy the luxury of varied and complex narratives. One of the foundational sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) is that “actions are according to their intentions”. Intentionality and consciousness of our decision making allows us to accomplish tasks fully aware of our reasoning, faulty or not.

Essentially, intentions are for us; they’re a measure of our own heart, our own soul, and our own desires.

However, when individuals represent entire communities, it’s not their intentions but their actions – laudable or reprehensible- that have consequences for us all. In this case, when you have an entire population of first generation Somalis with only one major celebrity representative, his actions matter.

This conversation strikes at the heart of any minority’s experience: how to adapt to a new culture, preserve your own, and avoid caricature.

Here’s an idea: don’t make a TV show on a major network about Somali jihadists.

At this moment, you have before you the opportunity to make a television show on a people who exist at the complex and multifaceted crossroads of Muslim and Black identities. You have one of the most matriarchal societies, where immigrant mothers pool money to feed and clothe their children, where fathers dream of returning home, sons (whose fathers were trapped by the same system) cannot find jobs , and daughters, afraid of falling into the same cycle as their mothers, dream of marrying ajnabi. There’s Dahabshiil culture, where we created one of the largest expat funded communities in our own land.

If you’re looking for a compelling story, there are Kadra Mohammed and Zahra Abu, from Minnesota and Portland respectively, who are the first Somali women to enter their police forces. In Minnesota, if that’s where we’re basing this story, you have the first Somali woman elected to public office. Not to mention the eloquent and articulate children raised by hooyos who cannot speak a word of English.  You represent a people so poetic our artistry crosses language barriers.

Somali culture is on the rise, escaping the welfare system, with people striving to work their way up the ladder, and hoping to make something of themselves. We’re a community emerging from obscurity, and your biggest priority is jihadism? If radicalization is going to be addressed in proportion to its existence in the Somali community, it should be a blip in a larger, more accurate story. 

When I was young, when he was still only known in Somali circles, my Abo would bring home tapes of K’naan’s music. In his songs he’d sing of a land ravaged by war. A beautiful, complex place that needs and deserves redemption. Where is redemption in our portrayal as jihadists? In this first foray into Somali representation on the small screen, do not damn us with the stamp of eternal criminality.

In Soobax, K’naan raps “I work for the struggle/ I don’t work for dough /I mean what I say/ I don’t do it for show/ Somalia needs all gunmen right out the door”. If those lyrics are still true, we have a new struggle now: saying no to networks that want to capitalize on our vulnerability.

By Amina Mohamed

Amina Mohamed is a writer and editor from Toronto. She carries a BA from the University of Toronto specializing in Comparative, English and French literature. Navigating the space between Western and Eastern cultures, you will often find her discussing racial politics and the commodification of belonging over tea, an activity otherwise known as ‘shaah iyo sheeko’.