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K’Naan wraps HBO series pilot set in Somali community




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.”


Arts & Culture

David Bowie’s Widow Iman attends Black Panther premiere



DAILY MAIL — She has made a gradual return to the social scene, after taking some time away from the limelight, following the January 2016 death of her husband David Bowie.

And Iman showed off the supermodel prowess that first caught the eye of her late rocker husband, when she attended a special screening of Black Panther of Tuesday.

The 62-year-old beauty looked radiant as she arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in a shimmering silver floor-length gown, which she teamed with a stylish head wrap.

She has made a gradual return to the social scene, after taking some time away from the limelight, following the January 2016 death of her husband David Bowie.

And Iman showed off the supermodel prowess that first caught the eye of her late rocker husband, when she attended a special screening of Black Panther of Tuesday.

The 62-year-old beauty looked radiant as she arrived at the Museum of Modern Art in a shimmering silver floor-length gown, which she teamed with a stylish head wrap.

Iman made a triumphant return to the spotlight last year, following the death of her beloved husband David in January 2016.

Last summer, she paid a moving tribute to the late musical icon on what would have been the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary.

The Somalia-born beauty shared a post to remember her singer love, who tragically died aged 69 after a secret battle with liver cancer.

Alongside a black and white picture of the pair, a short piece of text read: ‘I would walk forever, just to be in your arms again.’

The image was captioned by Iman with the simple words: ‘June 6th #BowieForever’.

Bowie and Iman officially married in Switzerland in April 1992, but held a church ceremony in Italy on June 6 of that year.

They had one daughter together, Alexandria, who’s now 17. She is also the mother of 39-year-old daughter Zulekha, from her marriage to marriage to former basketball star Spencer Haywood.

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Arts & Culture

History Theatre’s ‘Crack in the Sky’ shows the struggles immigrants face



Jim Walsh

Last Sunday afternoon, as most of America was fixated on downtown Minneapolis and the Super Bowl, a group of Somali-American and African-American actors quietly milled about the History Theatre stage in downtown St. Paul and talked about the importance of storytelling and their own families’ immigration tales.

It was one of the last rehearsals for “Crack in the Sky,” a new play based on Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s life story and his 2013 book, “Somalis in Minnesota,” that makes its world premiere Saturday at the History Theatre. And while Yusuf’s story of a young shepherd boy’s journey from Mogadishu to Minneapolis is getting the full theatrical treatment, the focus of the play is on the power of the written word.

“A book can change your life, and teachers are not your enemies; they are your best friends,” said Yusuf, who learned to read and speak English when he came to the United States from Somalia as a high school dropout in the late 1980s. He discovered Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and devoured it over two weeks, using the Somali-English dictionary to translate Angelou’s poetic words about overcoming hardship and seizing the day.

“Ahmed is really interesting, because a lot of Somalia people today travel here to seek refuge in Minneapolis,” said Ashwanti Ford, the actress who plays both Yusuf’s mother and Angelou. “Ahmed moved to the States before all the terror and the war broke out in Somalia. He came here to seek an education, and when he was here the horrible things started happening in his country. So this is taking place in the ‘90s, when he hasn’t seen his family in years or months, versus today, when we can be a Facebook click away from seeing someone.

“He’s inspired by Maya Angelou to write, because he read her books and he said to himself, ‘If she has overcome all of this stuff in America, then I can overcome what I’m going through now and I can write my story.’ So it’s him, coming to America and seeking an education, and learning that he wants to be a writer. Through teachers and family members, he learns that he wants to tell his story, a really significant story that is so empowering, and inspire people to keep pushing forward and remain resilient. When I got the call to audition, I was so excited because I’ve always loved Maya Angelou. My mother was a poet; she has all her books.”

‘So many hoops to go through’
“A Crack in the Sky” is being staged at a time in America when Donald Trump — who disparaged the Somali community in Minnesota when he said, “Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota” just before he won the White House — has issued travel bans and made immigration difficult at best.

Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

“The play is not exactly confronting it, but it shows the struggles an immigrant faces,” said Yusuf. “There are so many hoops to go through that maybe a normal American, an ordinary person, might not even notice it. But it is just quite out there for an immigrant. An immigrant is not exactly the leeches that Donald Trump has painted them to be. They are people who are contributing; they are people who are appreciative of the opportunities they have when they are here.”

“I just hope that when people come to our play that they will realize that not everyone decides to wake up one day, pack up their bags and go, ‘OK, I’m going to emigrate. I’m going to leave everything I’ve known my whole life behind,’” said actor Mohammed Sheikh, who portrays the young Yusuf. “Nobody does that. It’s not an easy thing that you can just decide. It’s not a road trip, you know? It’s a decision that can cost you your life, that can cost you identity, that can cost you happiness, that can cost you just about everything.

“And I just hope that when people come, they will realize that regardless of our skin color, regardless of what we believe in, regardless of how we pray, we’re all fighting the same battle, which is to survive to see another day.”

A Somali proverb
“A Crack in the Sky” gets its title from the Somali proverb, “If people come together, they can even mend a crack in the sky.” Not only does the play detail Yusuf’s immigration tale, it tells the story of what many Somalians and Somali-Americans have faced coming to America over the last two decades. These days, however, daily headlines about deportation and racism provide a stark background to Yusuf’s mostly joyous tale of coming to America.

“I’m getting something more valuable than any prize” by being part of “A Crack in the Sky,” said Sheikh. “Lessons, motivations, and the determination to succeed as a first-generation immigrant in this beautiful country.”

Mohammed Sheikh

He continued his monologue animatedly, as if writing his own story for the stage.

“I’ve been in the United States for three years, and I’ve worked for six months now. I’m basically going through the roller-coaster right now that the character that I’m playing is going through: sending money back, being here, young in your 20s, having ambitions to accomplish a lot, but at the same time the little that you’re making, or the little that you’re getting, you have to divide it into many portions, you know?

“So my family is back in Africa, my mom and my siblings are back in Africa; my dad is here, so it saves me a lot of the trouble that my character experiences. I haven’t seen my youngest siblings or mom for three years. I want to see them, I want to touch them, I want to be with them, but hey, it is what it is. And that’s exactly the same thing Ahmed has dealt with. There are a lot of scenarios and plot twists that I can relate to.”

Angelou wrote, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible,” and, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Both truths will be brought to life through March 4 at the History Theater, which has been telling immigrant stories for 40 years.

Impact of travel bans
“I was hoping to have my family join me this year, but with the travel bans going on, I might not be able to for two or three years or until Trump leaves office,” said Sheikh. “It has a huge impact, to be honest with you. A lot of us are trying to bring our families over for the sake of giving them a safe sanctuary, for our kids to become someone, to study without worrying about gun violence or the city being overtaken by another militia.

Ashwanti Ford

“Trump is a hateful person, that’s all I have to say. He’s a hateful person and whoever agrees with him or sides with him, I would hope they would evaluate the humanity and look deep within because you can only imagine I haven’t seen my baby sister since she was 5. She turned 7 last month and she’s, ‘When are you going to come visit me? What are you bringing me?’

“She thinks it’s just a bus away or a simple plane ride, but it’s a lot more than that. Now I’m forced to wait until I get my citizenship because with everything that’s going on today. … You know, I’m Muslim, I’m young, I’m black, my country’s on the ban list, my grandmother’s 78 and I haven’t seen her for 17 years. My grandfather’s 91 and I haven’t seen him since I was born; he’s the last grandparent I have from my mother’s side.

“I have my green card, I could go. But my family keeps on telling me, ‘No, you don’t have to do that with everything, the FBI agents, the undercovers, the travel ban, everything, just wait until your citizenship.’ It’s painful, but I have to do it.

“I’m grateful, man. It could have been worse. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before we see another day.”

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Arts & Culture

Cherrie Is a Somali-Swedish R&B Queen With Style and Substance



VOGUE — Immigration is changing not only the way that Sweden looks, but also how it sounds. This country’s contributions to music are disproportionate to its small size and extend well beyond Abba’s cheery pop and the indie cool of bands like Peter Bjorn and John. A politicized hip-hop scene that first emerged in the early ’90s has blossomed, and now the honey-voiced Cherrie is putting Sweden on the R&B map with music so catchy, it needs no translation. “It’s kinda funny to hear British people try to sing in Swedish,” says the singer, who has spent the last year performing all around the world. And it’s not only music lovers lining up for Cherrie, she’s also collaborated with musicians in and out of Sweden, including grime king Stormzy, who contributed English lyrics to one of her Swedish songs.

Cherrie was born Sherihan Hersi in Oslo, Norway, to Somali immigrants and lived in Finland for about a decade before moving to Sweden where her family took up residence in the Rinkeby area of Stockholm, home to a large immigrant population. Cherrie took it upon herself to become a spokesperson for the area, representing some of the challenges its residents face, from broken hearts to gun violence. Melancholy chords suited the subject and Cherrie’s state of mind at the time. Partly to keep the attention on her message, the singer stayed mostly out of the spotlight. Having gained confidence and experience, Cherrie is now ready to take center stage. “I have this new narrative that goes together with the old one,” says the artist, who is currently in the studio recording her second album. “I don’t want people to box me in, like, ‘Oh, she’s the girl from the hood, that’s what she does,’ because I’m always going to evolve and I’m just now finding ways to show that visually.”

The best example of her evolution is the video “163 För Evigt” (“163 Forever”), which recently went viral (163 is the postal code for Rinkeby). In the video, which was styled by Wasima, Cherrie wears the same pink puffer by Ella Boucht, a Finnish designer, that made headlines when Rihanna wore it. The bright color was aligned with the hopeful message—essentially, if I can make it, you can, too. “I’m very in tune with what kind of energy I want to put out there. I think [that video] really did something for me, but also for our community, because we used our visual ability and did something that was positive and it really translated, even way outside of Sweden. I’m just now realizing people don’t even need to understand what you’re singing about; it can translate through true feelings and energy. And I’m just realizing how much fun I can have with fashion and using that to put out the positive energy as well.”

Cherrie’s sound and style are largely influenced by female R&B artists of the late ’90s and early ’00s, and she nods to them when she works some throwback style in the video, pairing an Adidas tracksuit with huge hoops. “When it comes to fashion and the visual aesthetics, you can tell Aaliyah’s been a huge inspiration,” Cherrie tells Vogue. “Aaliyah and Ciara from the early 2000s—the ‘Like a Boy’ video.” Another major influence on the artist’s look is her dance training. “I didn’t even wear makeup until I was 21 because I always used to sweat in my dance lessons, so I was like, I’d rather just not wear [any].” She still keeps her beauty routine to a minimum, relying on water and a pharmacy-bought moisturizer, eyeliner, mascara, and brow definer. “I think a lot of the way I look in the videos and how I like to dress comes from wanting to be comfortable because you have to be able to dance,” says Cherrie.

The singer also takes style cues from Rinkeby, where, she says, “People are just mixing and making their own sense of style and slang and culture.” One of her recent purchases was a pair of old-school Nike TN sneakers. “I always used to see people wearing them in Rinkeby, and then when I came to Paris, it was the same thing. European hoods,” Cherrie adds, “have their own style, and it’s always influenced by African and Middle Eastern culture.” The singer counts Iman, Waris Dirie, and Halima Aden as Somali women whom she admires, and credits social media with creating a platform that has helped her to connect with her heritage; in turn, she has been supported by people who have found her through the channel. Cherrie understands the importance of role models because, she explains, “I know what it did to me not having that.”

The “third culture” idea (referring to children who are raised in a culture different from their parents’ or different than the one on their passport) is one that Cherrie has built her career upon. “I remember being a young girl and having parents of African heritage but living in a Scandinavian white city with almost no black people: You’d be confused ’cause you’re not at home there, but if I went back to Africa, I wouldn’t be 100 percent home there—because I’ve never been there, right? So, the third culture concept comes from creating your own culture of what you do have.” Cherrie goes back to Rinkeby when she can. “Some of my best friends are people who used to do really bad stuff and now they’ve turned their lives around somehow. We’ve all inspired each other. If the people who I grew up with find strength or comfort in my music, and my song might be the one that they listen to when they are doing their SATs and that kind of helps them—do you know what that does for me? That’s what makes me. I’m just trying to do something that will help me through helping others.”

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