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Mankato DJ Mohamed Alsadig plays to prisoners' hearts

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Mohamed Alsadig at the microphone
Mohamed Alsadig hosts "The Quiet Storm" radio show every Wednesday from 7 to 10 p.m on KMSU in Mankato, Minn. He started the show seven years ago when he suggested a soul and R&B show to the station manager at a coffee shop.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Every Wednesday night, a telecommunications engineer carries his hard drive of music to the campus radio station at Minnesota State University-Mankato, opening a soulful window to southern Minnesota.

Listeners light up the phones with their requests, breaking down the barriers that separate them.

Mohamed Alsadig, 38, grew up playing Michael Jackson records by the Arabian Sea. "I was always the one who came up with music nobody had," said Alsadig, who deejayed school parties in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Sixteen years ago, he followed his two older brothers to college at MSU-Mankato.

"I enjoyed the town so much that I decided to stay," Alsadig said.

A girlfriend gave him his American nickname.

"She started introducing me as Mo' " Alsadig recalled. He reminded her that his name was Mohamed. "And she said, 'It's all right, people like short, fast names,' and I'm like, 'OK, I'm not going to fight it.' "

Cousin Mo at the boards
Mohamed Alsadig, also known to listeners as "Cousin Mo'," adjusts the levels of a song being played on air.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The girlfriend didn't last, but the nickname did.

Seven years ago, Alsadig launched the "The Mo' Lovin' Show" on KMSU. Two years later, he changed the name to "The Quiet Storm." It captured the feeling he wanted to convey to his audience.

"It's that mellow feeling," he said. "You're sitting with your partner... and you're playing melodies, maybe jazz, maybe r&b, maybe Motown, and there's a storm somewhere deep inside of you, surrounded by quietness."

He invites listeners to sit back with Cousin Mo', mix a drink, turn down the lights and put the kids to bed.

"IT'S A MAN'S MAN'S MAN'S WORLD"

In between songs, Mo' dishes out relationship advice.

"I say, 'Look nice for your partner,' " he said. "People get busy with life and school and work ... but once in a while it's OK to look nice."

Alsadig also has a heart-to-heart with the men in his audience.

"It's OK to express your feelings," he said. "Especially [to] men, I try to say don't leave it bottled in. ... We have that pride thing going for us that keeps us from actually saying something beautiful."

He also asks men to be gentlemen: pull the chair out for their lady, hold the door, and don't walk in front of them.

"It's like James Brown said, 'It's a Man's World, but without a woman, it's nothing,' " said Alsadig, a romantic who admits he's still searching for the right person in his own life.

AN "INSIDE" FOLLOWING

After "The Quiet Storm" caught on with listeners in the Mankato area, Alsadig began receiving a heavy volume of phone calls for song requests and dedications.

Then he learned he had a following at a place he'd never heard of: The Federal Correctional Facility in Waseca, Minn.

"All of a sudden I started receiving calls, telling me how they're enjoying the show and some people telling me how I took them back, a few years back with the music and they started remembering families," Alsadig said. "They started finding the connection that they were missing."

Family members from all over the country found the show online, and made dedications to loved ones on the inside.

KMSU's logo in Mankato
An office window displays KMSU's logo in Mankato, Minn. Mohamed Alsadig has been hosting the show The Quiet Storm at the station for seven years.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

"The whole joint used to listen to it," said Demarvis "Snap" Johnson who spent five years in the Waseca prison on a federal drug charge. "Everybody would be walking around with their headphones on, just singing."

Johnson is back living and working in his native Milwaukee. But during those years in prison, Mo's weekly show reminded him of home.

"I'd sit in my bed and close my eyes and think about the world," recalled Johnson. "When you're locked up for a long time, you can't listen to that type of music. You kind of get lost from the world."

Johnson didn't call in to The Quiet Storm himself, but asked his family to dedicate songs to him. When asked which songs, Johnson paused, and began to sing Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

A CHANGE COMES TO THE PRISON

In 2008, the men learned Waseca would become a women's facility, and they'd all be transferred to other federal prisons.

Johnson said one of the first things they thought of was the radio show.

"A lot of guys, they was like, 'Hey man, we've got to let the girls know so they can listen to it on Wednesdays,' " he said.

During the last show they heard at the prison, they called Alsadig to say their goodbyes.

"They said something very, very special," Alsadig said.

One letter signed by 15 inmates informed him of the plan they'd made. "We actually engraved the call letters for the station," they wrote, "so when it's the women's prison, they can dial in and listen to your show."

The men also left messages on walls, inside lockers, in law books and by the telephone.

"WOMENSVILLE"

Terri Edwards, who was serving time for drug conspiracy and money laundering, was among the first women transferred to the Waseca prison in early 2009. She and the other women soon found the notes the men had left.

"They left the information on how you could call in and make dedications every week and told us how they used to make dedications and [how] it was uplifting and soothing and they wished they could get the radio station on everyday," Edwards said. "You know, things like that."

Alsadig takes a request
Mohamed Alsadig takes a request call during his show The Quiet Storm at KMSU in Mankato, Minn. Alsadig said he tries to take as many calls as he can, but he still averages 120 missed calls per show.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Edwards was released from Waseca in January of this year, and moved home to Milwaukee where she found a job as a home health aide. But she remembers how every Wednesday night when Cousin Mo' took the airwaves, the women would dance or sing along in their cells, or walk around the track listening on headphones.

"Me and one of my closest friends, we would take our headphones off — we had the large headphones — we would take them off and try to make a little surround sound while we would play chess or knit," Edwards said.

Last month, when singer Whitney Houston died, Edwards sent a text message to Cousin Mo' asking him to dedicate songs to "the girls" — her friends back in prison.

Alsadig, who tries to be discreet about his listeners' circumstances, was happy to oblige.

"I try to make it a little bit less painful," he said. "I don't want to say 'the women's prison' or 'the men's prison,' so the women's prison, I did come up with the name 'Womensville.' "

A MUSLIM IN MANKATO

If Alsadig is discreet about his audience, he's also is a little guarded about his own identity. He's Muslim and a middle easterner, living in a town that's 90 percent white, and predominantly Christian.

"I tend to not let people know what my background is and let them figure the whole thing out," he said. "And what I'm trying to prove by that is, if you look at me, what do you see? I want to know how you feel about me after I tell you where I come from, and my background, just to try to see if people still have that [anti-Muslim] mentality.

"If you think all of us are the same way, well, surprise."