Mo Money, Mo Problems
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.
"I'm frustrated with him because sometimes he just doesn't follow what he is supposed to do," says KD. "I'm trying to help him stay out of trouble. He is like part of my family, though, and he has been dealing with a lot in his life right now. I have to stick with him no matter what."
As if reciting a hip-hop fairy tale, KD tells of Mo-Man's modest beginnings at a Minneapolis park on Portland Avenue and 14th Street where the two would often go to shoot hoops in the late 1990s. One day, instead of just listening to the group of young black men who would often gather courtside and rap freestyle, Mo-Man stepped into the circle and started "spittin' out rhymes." Several people in the crowd were surprised that a Somali had such skills, and the experience inspired Mo-Man and KD to start working together and get serious about hip hop.
Talking to Mo-Man's friends and fans, it's easier to piece together the last several years of his life than the past few weeks. A recent Saturday found KD at Karmel Square, hitting up people for bail money for his wayward friend. Mo-Man, it seemed, may have been arrested for marijuana possession, though KD remained tight-lipped about the matter.
Less than a week after spending some 36 hours in jail for reasons that remain mysterious, Mo-Man is scheduled to perform at an East African music extravaganza that showcases a couple of Toronto-based stars of traditional Somali music. These monthly concerts regularly draw some 500 young Somalis to the New Hall in the Profile Music building on University Avenue SE.
When I step into the spacious, red-curtained hall an hour before midnight, I feel like I've stepped into a kind of Somali high school dance. On the makeshift dance floor a group of 25 or so young women groove in a circle to a DJ mix of Missy Elliot, the Young Gunz, and Kelis's "Milkshake." Along the walls, the young men mill about, giving each other high fives and, in general, doing their utmost to look tough and cool. My own role here feels all too familiar: Mo-Man is MIA and I seem to have wasted another Saturday.
When I inquire about the absentee rapper with one aspiring Somali bad boy named Brohan, he blurts out, "Yo, Mo-Man, that's my nigga!" He shifts his cigarette from one hand to the other, which is also holding a can of Red Bull, and we slap hands. As we talk about Brohan's passion for hip hop, a popular traditional Somali singer, Omar Shariif, takes the stage and the growing crowd moves in to dance. "I like some of this music, too. This is my culture and I'm here trying to support it," Brohan says. "Really, though, I'm here just trying to get a girl."
With the open mixing of young and unmarried Somali men and women still strongly discouraged in the community, the New Hall gathering must seem like a veritable Gomorrah to many Somali elders. They may not take offense at the men's do-rags and throwback baseball caps cocked to the side, but some of the women's tight jeans and skirts would certainly provoke ire.
Before I can ask anyone what her parents might make of the bump-'n'-grind, a man steps up to the mic and shouts, "All my thugs out there put your hands in the air!" Mo-Man, at last, is in the house. And after an opening number, he starts flowing with a little ditty called "Sexy Mama."
Immediately he engages the crowd, standing at the edge of the stage, giving his shout-outs, moving his body to his own groove. With a medium build and handsome kisser, Mo-Man takes time to pose and look into the camera of the City Pages photographer just below the stage. And the crowd bounces to the beat.
A half-hour after his short-lived set, my time has finally come. Even though I feel I've earned the right to an exclusive interview with Method Man and a fat blunt, I'm instead sitting next to Mo-Man in a vacant hallway backstage, and we've only got my half-empty flask of Jim Beam between us.
He first apologizes for missing yet another interview that morning, recounting how he woke up in a hotel room next to a naked woman. "I'm a ladies' man. You know what I'm saying?" Mo-Man declares. "If I see the green light it's like boom-boom, I gotta go."
He goes on to express his frustration at only being able to perform about three songs because, he says, the DJ "messed up" the CD with all of his beats. (KD later claims that Mo-Man just forgot to pick up his backing tracks from the studio before the show.) Mo-Man seems even more irked, however, that he wasn't able to change out of his current threads--sagging jeans, a black cargo vest, a Raiders hat--into more suitable onstage attire.
Eventually, the conversation rolls around to the subject of Mo-Man's recent arrest, although he's sketchy on the details. Apparently, he had been hanging out with some friends on the street in north Minneapolis when a police officer pulled up in a squad car and asked to see all of their IDs. Checking his record, the cops discovered that Mo-Man had a number of unpaid traffic violations from 2002. And so they hauled him downtown. After a day and a half behind bars, Mo-Man reports, he was simply ordered to pay off his traffic fines. Furthering the mystery, a search of Minneapolis and St. Paul criminal records will turn up nothing about the man at all.
He laughs when I suggest that the jail time was just a PR stunt to bolster his gangster image.
"Naw, I ain't into that gun and gangsta shit--just like I don't have anything to do with that bullshit war in Somalia," he says in an easygoing tone. "I just do my thing. I'm a peaceful person. For me, the gangster thing is only a style and part of the music."
American style was part of the performer's consciousness long before he arrived on its shores. Born Malik Mohamed (or, according to others, Mohamed Farah), Mo-Man first heard rap music in Kismaayo, a southern city in Somalia. His father owned a video and electronics store that also carried pirated tapes of Western musicians, including the likes of Rakim and Run-DMC. Under this influence, Mo-Man took up breakdancing, once attempting to rap in Somali over the backing track of Salt 'N Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex." Not long after moving to Mogadishu, he and his family left Somalia altogether for Kenya. In the early '90s, they emigrated again, this time to the U.S. Mo-Man would spend most of the next decade moving from city to city, living with relatives across the country: New York City; Alexandria, Virginia; San Jose, California. He finally landed in Minneapolis in 1997.
His wide travels and early listening habits help explain a lot about the rapper: his noticeable lack of a strong Somali accent, his constant use of African American urban slang, and even his free-spirited ways. Mo-Man has a darker skin tone than many Somalis and different facial features, too; it wouldn't be hard to mistake him for a native-born African American. Mo-Man explains that while most people believe his stage name comes from "Mohamed," it actually has a less pious origin. While clubbing at places like the Quest, he would so often order bottles of Moët champagne that the bartenders and his friends started calling him Mo-Man.
"If you want to drink, then drink," he says. (To our dismay, we've already finished off the Jim Beam.) "I'm a Muslim, but I'm just living in my feet and being free. You know what I'm saying? It is the second generation and you can't stop them. I don't represent them, all these cats, but I look up to all of them. You know, these are my people."
After a little more than a half-hour of talking, Mo-Man becomes restless, shifting in his chair. I still have a lot I want to ask him: Does he study Arabic poetry for inspiration? How does he afford his fast-lane lifestyle when his main means of support seems to be an assembly-line job that he found through a temp service? Will he ever join forces with rappers Brother Ali and Musab to form a Minneapolis Muslim supergroup? But before I can get to any of those questions, Mo-Man says, "Yo, J. I need to get back to this party before it's over."
And in a minute he's up and off, soon disappearing into the mass on the dance floor.
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