Mo-Man is missing.I've sipped down four cups of sweet tea and watched half of a dismal L.A. Clippers game, and after 90 minutes I'm still waiting for the self-proclaimed pioneer of the Somali hip-hop underground. Through his promoter, Mo-Man had promised to meet me at the cramped food court in Karmel Square, a popular Somali shopping center just off Lake Street and Pillsbury Avenue in south Minneapolis. But by the final hour of a long Saturday afternoon vigil early in January, I figure the Clippers have better odds to win an NBA title than I've got to meet this rising local rap star for his first-ever interview.
Twenty minutes later, just before the day's fifth and final Muslim call to prayer, Mo-Man's promoter and longtime friend Khalid Sharif emerges through the bustling crowd of Somali men in the food court. Under the nickname KD, he also lays down the beats for many of the rap artist's songs. And he seems to be indispensable in tracking down the ever-evasive Mo-Man, who doesn't own a phone and rarely stays in the same place from night to night. After nearly a month of attempts, I have yet to meet him, and now KD explains that today, once again, is not my day: Mo-Man won't be able to make it.
I swig the last of my lukewarm tea and follow KD through a small poolroom, where a half-dozen young Somalis shoot 8-ball, and then through an entryway inhabited by a pack of smokers trying to stay out of January's deep freeze. Once outside and down the block, we enter a small Somali music shop called Zig-Zag Entertainment and Fashion, where a burly, affable man sits listening to traditional Somali music behind a glass counter full of dubbed tapes. As if offering me a consolation prize after the failed interview, he puts on the CD soundtrack of a Somali film that features two of Mo-Man's hit songs.
Rajo was actually made in Columbus, Ohio; it screened at the Riverview Theater last year. And true to that dual background, the title track opens with melodious chanting in Somali, then moves smoothly into a hip-hop beat. Mo-Man and another local rapper named Chase begin to trade rhymes in English. As the traditional East African singing continues, the duo's all-American lyrics cover the essentials: getting money, getting booty, and getting your freak on.
"This is all about hip hop. We are in love with this music," says KD in a phone interview a few weeks later. "If Mo breaks through into the big time, a lot of doors will open for Somali people. My whole point is to put Somali culture somewhere hot so people all over will know about us for real."
Rhyme for rhyme, the Somali-born KD has stood alongside Mo-Man as he's risen to near-celebrity status among Somalis in the Twin Cities. Over the past three years, he has also performed for various East African communities across the nation. KD says the duo plan to independently release his first album by this summer. Besides incorporating some traditional music into his songs, the 26-year-old has reached out to a growing second generation of Somali immigrants in America, whose cultural identity falls much closer to Manhattan than Mogadishu.
Wielding East Coast slang and flashing a gangsterlike image in his music, Mo-Man clearly has his mind on mo' money, dreaming about a mainstream stardom of million-dollar--or rather 50 Cent--proportions. But wrapping himself in the identity of the aspiring American rapper--like tens of thousands of young people in cities and suburbs everywhere--could prove counterproductive.
"He's a natural. He's got a grimy, take-over-the-crowd kind of voice, and I respect him," says former collaborator Chase, an African American and longtime Minneapolis resident who produced the tracks for Rajo. "But he's still young, and if he came out right now, people would see him just as a rapper. I told him that if he tapped that Somali image more, he may have more success. Then he can work on crossing over."
Chase says that KD's backing track for "Rajo," with its traditional Somali music, attracted him to the project. While the song that ended the soundtrack, "Get Money," did receive play on KMOJ-FM (89.9) and at some local dance clubs, it falls into more generic rap conventions.
The flow in "Get Money" says it all: "I'm straight from the gutter/hustle like no other. Never slipping on the street, no, I always stay clever....And the mission/is to be in better position. With good life is where I'm headin' dawg/not in prison."
A few weeks after I first heard those lyrics in the Somali music shop, they would turn prophetic, seemingly spinning Mo-Man's on-the-mic gangster style too far into his real life. For the third time, I had tried to meet him at the Somali mall and for the third time he hadn't arrived. But now he had a good excuse: Mo-Man had landed in the downtown Hennepin County jail.
For all Mo-Man's on-the-street lyrics, it's KD's behind-the-scenes hustle that's gradually putting the duo on the Twin Cities hip-hop map. During the day, the 28-year-old promoter works as a financial analyst for a mortgage company. Instead of sporting baggy pants and ball caps, like some younger Somali men, KD wears well-ironed slacks and a trim beard. And as in many a relationship between a business-minded manager and an unruly musician, he often acts as Mo-Man's big brother.