Ask HBO to Pull Drama Stereotyping Somali Minnesotans
Ask HBO to Pull Drama Stereotyping Somali Minnesotans
A few weeks ago, Somali community activists disrupted K’naan’s concert at a Cedar-Riverside block party to protest his participation in a new HBO series on “jihadi recruitment” in Minnesota. Originally titled “The Recruiters,” the series is now called “Mogadishu, Minnesota.” The network ordered the pilot from Kathryn Bigelow – the renowned Islamophobe whose productions “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” added more venom to an already toxic national environment for Muslims. As members of the Somali community, we feel this series ultimately contributes to a troubling body of entertainment that diminishes our humanity and makes us vulnerable to greater bias. And during a time when scholars at the Center for Hate and Extremism in San Bernardino say violence against Muslims is at the highest since September 11th, it is reckless to stroke the flames of Islamophobia.
To address community concerns, K’naan met with several community members to answer questions about the series. About 15 of us huddled around a community room of a Saint Paul apartment complex to discuss the series. But instead of getting answers, many of us left the conversation with more questions and enduring concerns. Consider these contradictions:
- On funding: K’naan offered a number answers to questions related to the series’ financing. He initially noted that HBO series are different from movies and network television shows, which rely on financers and advertisers – explaining that HBO does not. He then said that 100% of the series’ $50-$60M funding is coming from HBO. He subsequently noted that Kathryn Bigelow is executive producer of the series, and that this person’s role is to fundraise. When pressed on the question of influence again, he clarified that Bigelow was only responsible for securing funds and that she has no creative control over the series’ content whatsoever. As participants, we struggle to make sense of the contradictory information K’naan shared regarding funding, and our concern remains: we do not know who is funding the show and what agenda/perspective they may have on its production.
- On roles: When we tried to get clarity on the various collaboratives involved in the series, K’naan said that Bigelow is the executive producer of the series and that he was the sole writer, director and producer. When asked about others in the “writers’ room,” he said it’d be easier to write the entire script himself rather than explain cultural/religious nuances to prospective non-Somali writers. Meanwhile, “The Minnesota Daily” said K’naan “co-wrote” the piece. “Variety” noted that “HBO Orders Drama Pilots from Kathryn Bigelow.” A basic understanding of how Hollywood operates leads us to think that HBO would not burden an emerging director/screenwriter with the task of exclusively writing for a series, or at the very least, they would not do so without the clout and power of a major directing force like Bigelow.
- On the thematic focus: In an attempt to perhaps minimize the scope of “jihadi recruitment” in the series, K’naan shared various vignettes of the seemingly ordinary experiences of a Somali family. He noted on several occasions that recruitment played a statistically insignificant part of the series despite its initial title “The Recruiters.” Additionally, everything we have seen published in credible industry trade papers and media outlets suggest that “jihadi recruitment” is the common thread the weaves the series together, and is not merely a backdrop to a broader story about everyday life of Somali-Minnesotans. Moreover, it behooves a director to research the topic of his/her production. We are surprised that K’naan has not spent meaningful time in this community to know its people, or to adequately write a smart, nuanced series.
In the same conversation, K’naan made vague references to an economic boom that would result from this series. To date, we are not aware of any community conversations related to how the production of this series will impact public transit, small businesses, residents, etc. At this point, it’s difficult to gauge how this project will impact the community (adversely or positively), nor the remedies to potential profit loss or issues. Our concern is that those who will benefit from the series are those who have the privilege to weather disruption/crisis.
”Write what you know” is a common refrain in creative writing and manuals, and this situation sheds light on what happens when someone attempts to write a story based on a reality they do not fully understand. K’Naan is Somali, but there is no universal Somali diasporic experience; he comes to this community as a fellow Somali and wishes to yield that shared ethnic identity in order to gain access and power. K’Naan knows nothing of this community, what we have endured and what we encounter on a daily basis, given the focus for the series, the way he approached this community and the manner with which he has interacted with us since his arrival. Our aim for these questions and discussions is to prevent the Somali community of Minneapolis from enduring a public shaming at the hands of the media, and to share more publicly, what we collectively heard last week.
Given the lack of clarity around some basic questions coupled with ongoing concerns, a broad swath of the Somali community remains enraged about this series, which does not reflect us despite being based on our community. It seems like HBO and K’naan think that we’re an amorphous mass that is unable to distinguish thoughtful, nuanced TV from sensationalist garbage. This community has lived under the constant threat of media scrutiny and Islamophobia for years. We have endured enough and want to be seen for our humanity without disproportionately being labeled violent – and without HBO and K’naan building their fortunes on our suffering or an irrational fear of Somalis and Muslims.
- Sign the petition to HBO and K’naan.
- Share this letter with your network.
- Call Minnesota Public Housing Authority, (612) 342-1400 and let them know that filming in predominantly Somali public housing is inappropriate and an exploitation of Somalis who rely on Public Housing.
- Call Governor Dayton, 651-201-3400 or 1-800-657-3717 and thank him for his strong support of Minnesota’s Somali and Muslim communities. Ask him to continue that support by ensuring that no public resources are spent on a project that will further stigmatize Somali Minnesotans.
- Tweet to Governor Dayton, HBO, K'Naan and let them know why you are opposed to this project using the hashtag #DearHBO
- Support existing Somali community initiatives that push back against criminalization and state-sanctioned violence, including initiatives such as #CmeNotCVE, #CVESpeakOUT, Somali youth groups, Young Muslim Collective. Actively engage with Somali-American communities and find ways to leverage your privilege to amplify Somali voices.