Somali-American Candidate Combats Alt-Right Attacks With Youtube Song
By: Iliana Hagenah, Freelance Community Journalist
At the start of the year, Minneapolis resident Suud Olat announced his candidacy for city council without the clairvoyance of knowing that much of his campaign would focus on clever ways to combat alt-right attacks amid a global pandemic.
Ward 6 councilmember Abdi Warsame, after making history as the first Somali-American in the nation to win a municipal election, decided to leave his role halfway through his second term to be the executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. As the ward hosts the largest concentration of East Africans in Minnesota, a large influx of fellow Somali-Americans announced their candidacy to fill his seat. The pandemic halted the usual in-person events, leaving candidates to get creative online, hosting forums on Facebook and even using TikTok to get their message across. As Olat began receiving alt-right attacks during his campaign’s second month, he tried using an “inspirational” Youtube music video to counter the false information.
In Feb. 2020, Olat shared an article from his friend’s Facebook group praising the Somalis who are running for office. He joked, “we going to take over,” and The Washington Standard, an alt-right media outlet that has advocated for slavery, wrote an article about Olat’s post distorting his words into a candid warning to America. A chorus of alt-right media outlets chimed in, calling Olat an “America-hating Somali.”
“They twisted my words to promote their agenda and that’s an Islamaphobic attack against me and the wider Muslim community in the city of Minneapolis,”said Olat.
Olat decided to make a campaign song directed to the white community, hoping it would gain some traction online to compete with the alt-right headlines. Through a friend, he found a musician at a Methodist church in Minneapolis who was interested in the idea, Howard Kranz. Kranz is a local musician who has been making videos on Youtube from his house since the pandemic. Though he says he wasn’t paid a “princely sum,” to make the song, he looked on Olat’s campaign website which talks about Olat’s refugee story and campaign message of “hope” and Kranz says the song began to write itself.
“People want to hope. People want to build. People want to be a part of this community,” he sang. Kranz said that he was not aware of the alt-right attacks against Olat, but hopes that the song can help turn around the negativity.
The alt-right media has a history of reporting on Minnesotta Somalis with a casual relationship to accuracy. Breitbart media, which garners millions of readers, consistently attacks Somalis in Minnesota, branding them as “terrorists,” and “rapists.” The Washington Standard’s coverage is cut from the same cloth, consistently describing Ilhan Omar as a criminal who is an “enemy of America.” Alt-right media outlets tend to promote the idea that Somalis are trying to take over American laws and replace them with their own “Sharia” laws.
In the early 2010s as ISIS emerged, there was a wave of anti-Sharia legislation in America that continues on today. The term “Sharia,” refers to a traditional system of Muslim beliefs that varies upon interpretation and culture, but in US politics it is often interpreted through the lens of terrorist organizations. A 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 30 percent of Americans believed Muslims want to establish Sharia in the United States. As misinformation about Muslim intentions spread at a national scale, interaction between the old and new communities of Minnesota became heated at commissioner meetings. Citizens occasionally voiced their own concerns about the growing Somali-American population that echoed the alt-right media. Olat’s words were met with intense scrutiny under this context.
In Feb., Olat began receiving hate texts from numbers outside of Minnesota’s area code. His family began worrying about his safety, urging him to drop out of the race and change his address. “It’s tough dealing with such constant stress,” Olat said.
Olat dealt with hard times, growing up in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya, Dadaab complex, due to the devastating war in Somalia which he says at times left him hopeless. In 2012, Olat became one of few from his camp who were able to resettle in America. He started his American life in Tennessee then eventually moved to Minnesota where he earned his college degree, to his own parents astonishment. In Minnesota, Olat saw misinformation and increased vitriol against the growing Somali refugee population and volunteered at churches, neighborhoods, and schools to tell his story to those who may not have met a refugee.
“Any president except Trump brings refugees,” Olat said, “some people talk as though the government brought us here with a hidden agenda, but if I tell my story and take the time to explain who I am I think I can change their minds.”
Olat says he became an activist for the Somali population in Minnesota, earning awards for his health and human rights work. He saw the vacant city council seat as a way for him to continue his work, which advocates for improving housing infrastructure and policing, among other vital concerns for the Somali populations’ well-being.
Though he has lived in Minnesota since the 70s, Kranz rarely talks to the Somali community he sees regularly.
“Naturally, the Somali community is kind of an entity in itself and crossing over could be a good thing,” he said.
Kranz recognizes that he and others live in their own bubbles and as a self-professed introvert, he was happy when Olat reached out to him with the idea. Olat says that after the song came out, he received a much more positive response,
“From Canada to Nairobi to Somalia – people were so happy that I was able to tell my story in a way that would inspire others,” he said about the new texts he has received. “Music plays a role in how we live and that’s why I connect with people like Howard and tell my story.”
Howard Kranz, who lives one ward from Olat, says he can’t remember who his own city council members are, but thinks an apolitical message of hope can help build communities.
“We often think of hope as something that you try to have and make an effort to have, but this hope is very basic to people ,” he said about the song.
Kranz’s favorite song on his Youtube page, “Everybody’s Moon,” talks about the theme of “hope” and discouragement, telling viewers to look to the moon as a solution to universal encouragement. Kranz says that he cannot envision what it is like growing up in a refugee camp, but music can create feelings for others’ pain that is beyond words, “talking about it loses the edge of it and becomes just a triviality, but at one point I felt that deep connection, ” he said.
Olat believes the new campaign song by a local church-goer in the community may help him connect his message of hope to his constituency.
Olat has a short road ahead of him. The election for the Ward 6 city council seat will be held in less than a month, with mail-in ballots. Ward 6 hosts the biggest East African community in Minnesota, but the white population is about 42%, so candidates need to reach across different communities. The winner will take office at a time when the city is grappling with the economic fallout from the coronavirus, the building of a controversial African Village Project, and dealing with protests and civil unrest against the Minneapolis Police Department after the death of George Floyd.
It has been a tough year for all candidates, Olat says. Candidates have been campaigning without group gatherings to fundraise and spread ideas at local restaurants. Many have been using Facebook to promote themselves, but Olat, who has received 6 endorsements so far, says Facebook has been rejecting his ads because of the lengthy identification process. So far, candidates are finding creative ways to adjust.
“I will talk to (voters) through any means possible through music, through social media, and that’s what we are doing,” Olat said.
About the Author: Iliana Hagenah is a journalist who focuses on politics and race. Her work has appeared in CBS News, POLITICO, Teen Vogue, and Elle Magazine.