FannBoy Friday: Iliana Hagenah, Journalist, Producer and Harpist

FannBoy Friday: Iliana Hagenah, Journalist, Producer and Harpist

It’s a tough business. …you get a lot of people who say that the average viewer shouldn’t necessarily care about stories in Somalia.

– Iliana Hagenah

Iliana Hagenah is a journalist and documentary producer who works at AJ+. Her work has brought her across the globe, covering stories like the Sudan revolution to voter suppression in Tennessee for publications including Elle, CBS News, Teen Vogue and VICE.

I came across Iliana during Rifelion’s recent call for scripted shorts. She was one of the awesome folks that scheduled a one-on-one meeting with me to tell me about her work, and I’m so excited that we connected.

(Iliana’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Shahjehan: What project(s) are you excited about this year?

Iliana: At AJ+ I’ve been working on these explainer videos. I love watching explainer videos, so the process of making them has been really fun for me. I recently worked on this piece about the royal family’s ties to slavery, which went out during the coronation. And I’m also going to be working on stories about colonialism and how it affects the present day, [like] thinking about exploitation of minerals such as lithium for our phone batteries, and how we use forced labor. I like to make people think about how these things affect people in their everyday lives. So that’s really fun that I get paid to do that.

And then I’m also currently writing my first script for this article that’s being optioned that I wrote right after the Sudanese revolution when I was doing a lot of reporting on what was going on. It’s about this Facebook group that originally started to catch men who were cheating on women, but then it slowly became this really important part of the revolution where a lot of the women during the revolution were talking about how the officers were hurting them, beating them, harassing them in different ways. But those officers — because Khartoum especially is so small — those officers were also people’s brothers and people’s husbands that they knew. So they ended up using that Facebook page that was originally used to blame and shame cheating men to blame and shame the officers who were hurting them during the revolution. So I wanted to create a story that dealt with firsthand accounts, narratives of the women who are part of this revolution. … It’s really a story about sisterhood and the backdrop is the revolution. It’s my first time writing a script so I’m hoping that it can move forward this year as well. 

Shahjehan: What is the first time you did something you were really proud of, where you felt like a real journalist?

Iliana: I think what’s most important about being a creative, doing what you love doing, is being in love with the process. I remember [in] 2017 when I had a layover in Oslo for a couple of days just hanging out. I was staying at a hostel and I started just photographing the area. And I just really wanted to explore and try to see a side of Oslo that I normally wouldn’t see. I actually ended up meeting skateboarders in the area and they told me that skateboarding was actually banned in Norway in the ‘80s, so when they were kids, they weren’t allowed to skate. And so then I was like, “How did you skate? Because you’re all so good at skating.” So then they ended up showing me these secret skate parks in the woods. And I had this beautiful footage of them skating in these abandoned parks and there was this really interesting story there. I ended up interviewing some of them about their experiences, being a part of this sport that is really about helping each other, about connection and community. There’s so many great elements of this sport, but unfortunately even in the U.S. so many people looked at [skaters] as outcasts or they tried to play up a lot of the injuries. When you’re skateboarding, you unfortunately have to injure yourself in order to get better and better, however there was this sense of camaraderie through it all, and I think what they did was amazing.

So I got this footage and I had no idea what I was gonna do with [it] but I just fell in love with the process of gathering it, telling the story, having these great visuals. And I even taught myself basics of editing and Adobe Premiere, essentially making a documentary.

Shahjehan: Can you tell me about the interplay between your journalism side and your creator side, as a harp player as well?

Iliana: Not to sound cliche, but it’s really just about telling stories — I think just connecting people to a narrative. And I love telling narratives through music theory, through notes, through understanding how different notes connect. You have your tonic, which is like your home, and then you go in different directions [but] you always wanna get to that home base, and I just feel the same when I am telling a story. I feel like you always have to bring people into a certain perspective, a certain narrative, and once you have that perspective, then everything comes together. So in terms of the storytelling process for me, telling stories through music is the same kind of process as telling a story through video or through the kind of journalism and work that I do. 

I [also] play for a lot of Somali and East African gatherings. I actually got to play with an Ethiopian jazz band recently, which was really fun. I felt like I was really able to connect different audiences to the harp and I was able to show people how they can see the harp in different cultures, and again, connect them to that story. Ethiopian jazz is interesting because there’s so many different elements and you get to see all these elements play out — even in Somali music [from] the ‘70s [when] there was this huge funk period. I actually once got to play the Somali event and I got to play some funk music as well. I just played some of the melodies on my harp from that period, and people didn’t even know that was from the Somali funk period in the ‘70s. So I just love to tell those kinds of stories and have people see different cultures in a different way. 

I think it all comes from the same place. It’s just using a different kind of language. 

Shahjehan: That a perfect segue into my next question: I wanted to know how your work helps you straddle all your different identities. That’s always been a struggle for me, but I feel like I’m finally beginning to understand how it’s all related.

Iliana: I mean it’s crazy because whenever I feel like I am not doing enough, or I feel like I’m not able to get to the level that I want to or really create the things that I wanna create, I always remember that there really aren’t a lot of Somalis who are able to do what I’m doing. It’s a tough business. You get a lot of “no”s, first of all, for every story that you wanna tell [about Somalia], especially happy stories that show people in a different light … you get a lot of people who say that the average viewer shouldn’t necessarily care about stories in Somalia. I just have this idea of myself as doing something different and going against barriers, and that always makes me feel like what I’m doing is worthwhile and important no matter how many people say no one’s gonna care about this story or whatever you’re working on. 

I also connect with a lot of East African creatives and we’re very supportive of each other. I feel like we all want to see each other thrive and that’s also something that really pushes me to be able to work together to try to change these narratives, especially for the next generation.

Shahjehan:  Last question: who are other American Muslim creators that inspire you?

Iliana: My work luckily connects me to a lot of Muslim female creatives, and I’m really thankful for that. There’s so many independent artists out there who I think people should check out. I think if you look at Sundance or Tribeca and those films, you’ll find so much more [of] the kind of Muslim content [we] want to see than on Netflix or any kind of bigger streaming platform. I’ve always been inspired by Muslim women who are trying to change their own narratives in any medium that they can. 

There’s so many obstacles, so every time I see a Muslim, especially a Muslim woman creative who made something that they wanted us to see and they were able to get that out, I always think about the story that they’re trying to have us see, and also the story behind how they were able to get their work seen the way that they want it to. 

I’m inspired by Shirin Neshat, who’s this Iranian artist who does a lot of that. Nijla Mu’min: She is a writer and filmmaker and she talks a lot about the Black Muslim experience in the U.S. in a really funny way. I recently saw this film called “For Sama,” and it’s by Waad Al-Kateab a Syrian filmmaker [who] talks about the female experience of the war in Aleppo. And it made me realize how so many war reporters are male, so we only see a small sliver of the stories, and that’s really what we talk about and experience when we think about war.


You can find Iliana on Instagram @harptastik and on Twitter @ilianahagenah.

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