What Happened When K’naan Came to Cedar?

By Ayaan Dahir, Engage Minnesota

What people fail to understand is that Somali youth have a right to discuss, question, organize, and protest.


As many of you know, on sunny Saturday afternoon, the West Bank Community Coalition held their annual block party. This year, musician K’naan Warsame would be in attendance. The event was set to take place in Cedar, a notable Somali community. K’naan was even scheduled to give a live performance.

His arrival in the Twin-Cities, which holds the largest amount of Somali diaspora worldwide, was met with concern. The Canadian rapper was promoting his new HBO drama series, which according to Rolling Stone, “will focus on Jihadi recruitment in the United States.” He is joined by the series executive producer Kathryn Bigelow.

Many are extremely concerned with the series potential portrayal of Somali folk, especially during the rise of hate crimes and surveillance. News of K’naan’s project comes on the eve of a historically unsuccessful initiative called Combating Violent Extremism(CVE). This program profiles Somali youth as “potential extremists” and uses institutions to surveil and monitor young kids. Nearly 50 Muslim organizations in the Twin-Cities issued the following statement in response: “It is our recommendation that the government stop investing in programs that will only stigmatize, divide, and marginalize our communities further.” The Somali community is largely against this program.

That is why it is no surprise that protesters attended this event to voice their concerns and show a united front against the deeply problematic CVE program. They were met with abuse from Minneapolis Police Department, who were seen using pepper spray on women and children. Some shop owners immediately locked down their stores and refused to give milk to the victims.  One protester was brutally slammed to the ground by an officer when she joined K’naan on stage. A West Bank Community Coalition organizer reportedly put his hands on a young woman protesting in an attempt to take her microphone and officers did not intervene. Attendees were told it was against the law to stand on the sidewalk and were rushed off. Police sanctioned violence ensued as two protesters were arrested. Adults were seen harassing and shoving youth.

Protester slammed off stage onto the ground by an officer

K’naan previously held a meeting with concerned community members and assured them the show that was once titled “The Recruiters” was really about intimate family struggles and relationships. Further concerns were nonchalantly dismissed by K’naan and brushed community members off as “excitable”. What K’naan and his supporters fail to understand is that the concern for the community’s well-being is not unsubstantiated. Reports of FBI agents harassing tenants at Cedar have been occurring for some time. During the summer, Somali youth were shot at by a white supremacist who was angry to see them in khamis. Reports of hate crimes and assaults continue to rise with the political climate our country.

Historically, American films about Somalis have portrayed us as unreasonable and violent extremists. Somalis in Minneapolis remember not too long ago auditions that were held for Tom Hank’s Captain Phillips. Like it or not, pop culture is a huge influence of the public opinion. Before we were seen as pirates, the only time people could reference Somalis was from Black Hawk Down. It is not simply that a glossy new TV show about Somalis being portrayed as future terrorists will hurt our feelings. It has been shown that time and time again, these stereotypes of Somali people fuel a climate in which safety is a major concern. Public perception also influences law and legislation that supports CVE could very well be commonplace and acceptable thanks to one-dimensional narratives.

What the proponents of CVE further ignore is that there is no quantitative data that proves that Somalis are more likely to be extremists than anyone else. Times like these are reminiscent of the McCarthy witch hunts, where fear ruled the majority and the innocent paid the price.

The Right to Protest

In the aftermath that followed the botched block party, rumors ran rampant on social media sites. People who had never stepped foot in Cedar, much less Minnesota, chimed in with helpful tips to uncover the reasoning of the dubious protesters (never mind the signs they held, the videos posted all over the same sites, and the consistent activism from the community).

Some asked “How can people protest when the show hasn’t even come out?” and chalked up the concern as unfounded. One user followed a more paternalistic route and pleaded with K’naan that Cedar kids are just frustrated and need him to talk to them about the show, ending their plea with “lack of knowledge kills”. Yes, because the youth are too dumb to see what’s right in front of them. Others bitterly complained about how jealous Somali people are of their own and called them xasid. You won’t have to scroll far to find debates about qabil come up, with some saying that because K’naan is from one region, his opponents are obviously from the opposite. One person alleged that the protesters were paid to be there. The words “haters” and “buuq jeceela” were thrown around quite a bit.

Imagine being so desperate to have someone else share your narrative that you’re willing to be exploited.

Others argued that if someone were to “mess it up”, it ought to be a Somali person, so he can at least show a little sympathy to the characters. This was probably the most disheartening perspective I found that night. Imagine being so desperate to have someone else share your narrative that you’re willing to be exploited.

Some of K’naan’s fans argued that because the rapper waved the Somali flag around in the past, that he is entitled to some trust. Many argued that because K’naan is Somali, he is due benefit of the doubt in this case. Around Minneapolis, K’naan’s supporters seemed to be more upset at missing a selfie with the star than they were at the mistreatment of protesters.

Unsurprisingly, Somali elders and adults were soon gossiping over a “cedar mafia” and discussing the role qabil played in the day’s events. If most of the same people were asked about CVE, they would probably scratch their heads and change the subject.  That is the primary difference between elders and the youth. Elders can become jaded over time and have a hard time seeing past status quo. They are fixated on imagining change within the frame we exist in. This paradigm not only effects the rate of change but also the power of change.

The youth are able to envision a world not lived in oppression. The youth are able to mobilize and create change while the people they are around judge and patronize them. It would be foolish to underestimate the power of the youth. What people fail to understand is that Somali youth have a right to discuss, question, organize, and protest.

It is more important to get a juicy 10-second soundbite than it is to research the issues that affect us.

It pains me to see people actively fight against their own freedom. More people were interested in the manners and politeness of protesters than they were of the excessive and inexcusable force used by officers. Telling protesters to organize at a more convenient time is as ignorant as it is deplorable. Had any one of those dismissing the protesters spent a little time reading their signs or listening to them speak, the misinformed responses might have been different. This type of reckless commentary is unfortunately commonplace in our society. It is more important to get a juicy 10-second soundbite than it is to research the issues that affect us.

I am tired of justifying the activism of youth.

I was really disappointed to read all of those comments disparaging young people for daring to speak out. I am a firm believer in educating my brothers and sisters about the manner in which our behaviors can be problematic and hurtful. But I know I am not alone when I say I am tired. I am tired of people praising those who exploit them and letting celebrity blind their common sense. I am tired of seeing people rail against one another with no understanding of oppression. I am tired of justifying the activism of youth. And most of all I am tired of repeating myself to those who cannot see past their own perspective. If I have learned anything it is that we cannot allow fear to quell justice.

K’naan, if you’re reading this, there is just one thing you need to understand.

This is not about you.

This is about a community who is fed up with being mischaracterized and targeted by those who claim to have good intentions. This is about kids who are afraid to go back to school because they have been bullied for being Muslim and Black. This is about hooyoyin who live in fear when their children leave for school. This is about dugsi teachers who are afraid to do their calling. This is about young girls who are afraid to wear hijab. This is about young boys who are afraid to practice their religion. This is about a community who is not afraid to speak up even when they have every reason to be afraid.

We cannot afford to be exploited, not even by one of our own.

One of those arrested was a young Somali woman. Here is a facebook post by the Black Liberation Project on how to help.


Ayaan Dahir is a writer and student at the University of Minnesota. She is a certified sexual assault crisis counselor and Violence Prevention Educator as well as a member of the Young Muslim Collective. Find her work at arraweelo.wordpress.com


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A Voice for Minnesotan Muslims

Posted on September 13, 2016, in Engage Minnesota and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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