K’Naan wraps HBO series pilot set in Somali community

K'naan says his proposed HBO series Mogadishu, Minnesota is the story of an immigrant coming to America and trying to adjust. (JEFF BAENEN / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)


Rapper K’Naan has faced backlash over the pilot of his HBO Show Mogadishu, Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS—For Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan, the story he is trying to tell in his proposed HBO series Mogadishu, Minnesota is one he has lived: an immigrant coming to America and trying to adjust.

But the 39-year-old ran into vocal opposition from fellow Somalis as he prepared to film the series pilot in Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali community in the U.S. While K’naan envisions a family drama, critics worry the series will focus on young Somalis who have gone overseas to join terrorist groups, concerns raised by the series’ original title The Recruiters and the involvement of Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker).

“We don’t want Muslims being stereotyped,” K’naan says opponents tell him. “I say, ‘Me, too. That’s why I’m writing this.’”

Filming of the show’s pilot wrapped Friday after shooting at about 14 main locations in the Minneapolis area. K’naan, who lived in Minneapolis in his early 20s, said he wanted to shoot in a city he found “inherently cinematic.”

Born in Somalia, K’naan came to the U.S. when he was 13 and lived in New York and then Toronto, where he spent his teenage years. He said he is “trying to tell a story that reorganizes in the public consciousness how they see Muslim-Americans,” and wants to move away from stereotypes and tell a tale about “people’s lives and how they really live them.”
“The Somalis living here are a summer people against a winter backdrop,” K’naan told The Associated Press. He called Minneapolis “a new American experiment, a place where America is negotiating its differences and its commonalities.”

“It’s a new Ellis Island, in a way,” said K’naan, who said he came up with the idea for the series — named after the capital of Somalia — about three years ago. “And I thought, what a great place to set a story, to dispel the myth about Somalis and immigrant threats and Muslims in general.”

An estimated 57,000 Somalis live in Minnesota. While K’naan emphasizes the true-life aspects of his characters -Sameer, described by HBO as “the Somali all-American boy” planning to go to college, and his father, Afrah, a former professor in Somalia now working at a rental car company in the U.S. — and his desire to tell a nuanced story, opponents worry that the show will focus on the recruitment of young, disaffected Somalis to join terrorist groups and stoke Islamophobia.

More than 20 young Minnesota men have joined the militant group al-Shabab in Somalia since 2007, while about a dozen people have left to join militants in Syria. Nine Minnesota men are to be sentenced later this month on terror charges for plotting to join Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL).

Ayaan Dahir, 24, a student at the University of Minnesota, criticized the involvement of Bigelow, whose films include Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

“When the dust clears, we’re the ones (who are) going to be left to pick up the pieces and continue to live here and be concerned about our safety,” Dahir said.

But K’naan, who is making his directorial debut, insists the writing on Mogadishu, Minnesota is his alone and that Bigelow is only an executive producer.

“This was my idea,” said K’naan, who hopes the pilot leads to a 10-episode inaugural season.

K’naan has met some resistance in Minnesota’s largest city. In September, K’naan had to cut short a free performance in the Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood — in the heart of Minneapolis’s Somali community — when a protest over the upcoming pilot broke out. Police used a chemical irritant on the crowd and arrested two people.

The owners of Riverside Plaza, the colourful towers that are home to many Somalis, rejected a request to film the series there. And a resident group at a public housing complex unanimously denied a request to film exterior shots.

But the project has support from city leaders including Mayor Betsy Hodges and city council member Abdi Warsame, who is Somali.

In a statement, Hodges said the show, which if accepted would be the first HBO series ever filmed in Minnesota, “represents a significant investment in Minneapolis” and is “an exciting opportunity to reflect the diversity of our Somali community.”

Besides using professional actors, K’naan said he is mixing in Somali actors and has mandated that every department in his team — from accounting to wardrobe — hire a Somali to train the next generation of filmmakers.

Some Somalis who are fans of K’naan embrace the idea of a series on the premium channel showcasing Somali-Americans.

“I’m pretty proud of it,” said Mahdi Mohamed, 51, of Minneapolis, who came to the U.S. in 1984. “All America can see it now.”

After a month of post-production, a decision on whether HBO will green-light Mogadishu, Minnesota as a series is expected next year. While filming the series would be cheaper in Toronto, K’naan said he has tried to make a case for shooting in Minneapolis.

“It’s been a challenge here,” K’naan acknowledged. But he adds: “This is the place to do it.”


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