In 2015, Somali rapper/poet K’naan teamed up with HBO and director Kathryn Bigelow for a drama series that was to be titled The Recruiters, which K’naan was to write, direct and executive produce.
The series was to be set in Minnesota, and would “draw open an iron curtain behind which viewers will see the highly impenetrable world of Jihadi recruitment,” according to a press release at the time.
For those unaware, a significant number of Somali immigrants in the USA are settled in Minnesota, which, according to the Immigration Policy Center, has been home to the largest population of Somalis in North America since around 2012. The city of Minneapolis in particular hosts hundreds of Somali-owned and operated commercial ventures. Current estimates say that about one-third of Somali Americans live in Minnesota. Federal and Minnesota authorities have long struggled with the problem of Somali Americans leaving to join al-Shabab, with Islamic State becoming another destination for terrorist sympathizers in recent years.
The Recruiters project would eventually come to be known as Mogadishu, Minnesota, which HBO ordered a pilot for a year later, with a cast that included Elvis Nolasco, K.C. Collins, Rif Hutton, Ezana Alem, Hanad Abdirahman Abdi, Selam Tadese, Prince Abdi, Yusra Warsama and Liya Kebede. The pilot was filmed in Minneapolis soon after that commitment announcement.
Since the project was made public, many in the Somali American community have voiced concern that the potential series as described above (“draw open an iron curtain behind which viewers will see the highly impenetrable world of Jihadi recruitment”) would tell incomplete stories about the Somali American experience, and more broadly reinforce stereotypes of Muslims in America as possible terrorists, further increasing paranoia and discrimination against the community.
HBO hoped to calm those fears stating that it would be more of a family drama, centered on a Somali family living in Minneapolis grappling with what it means to be American, than a fictionalized investigation into recruitment by radical groups.
Speaking with the Minneapolis Star Tribune in June of this year (2017), Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of original programming, said that while there would be a “terrorism seed” in the plot of the series, it would only play a role in the first hour of the potential series, reaffirming that “it’s just a small part of the storyline.”
He added: “It’s more about how much do you assimilate yourself in becoming an American and how much do you hold on to your parents’ culture… The thing you want is a sense of place… Not knowing Minneapolis very well or the Somali community, I bought into it as feeling authentic… Whether you’re a Somali or a Mexican or whatever, the immigrant experience affects everybody… It’s interesting what he’s (K’naan) done. He’s hit on something that’s large, but made it specific. That’s what you want in a pilot.”
Bloys also told the Star Tribune that if it is ordered to series, it would be a 2018 affair.
But the network must not have been pleased with the pilot it eventually was presented with as it has now officially passed on it. Last week Friday, September 1, HBO released the following brief statement: “Mogadishu, Minnesota will not be moving forward as a series. We value the relationship we’ve built working with the talented K’Naan Warsame and hope to have a chance to work with him in the future.”
No specific reasons have been given, but the sustained criticism directed at the project from the first announcement of its development, might have been of some influence on HBO’s decision.
K’naan wrote and directed the pilot. No word on whether he and Bigelow plan to shop it elsewhere.