K'naan The Beautiful Struggle
Published Jan 25, 2009You would be hard pressed to find a more apt descriptor for K'naan than his own name. K'naan means traveller and it could apply to any number of things concerning this Toronto-based artist. In a literal sense, it applies to K'naan's compelling globe-spanning story, which began in Mogadishu, Somalia. He's a musical traveller, bridging hip-hop and African inspiration with the reach of a poet and the ears of a global citizen. He's a Somali-born Canadian who's addressed the U.N., recorded his new album in Jamaica and whose career has only just started to reach its world-wide potential. K'naan released The Dusty Foot Philosopher in 2006, snagging a Juno Award for Best Rap Recording, a Polaris Prize nomination and plenty of critical acclaim.
But K'naan's journey is not merely based on geography. Indeed as Troubadour, his sophomore effort due on February 24 reveals, he's averse to being pinned down solely as a hip-hop artist. K'naan's musical palette demonstrates equal comfort plying rhymes next to rap luminaries like Mos Def as he is singing hypnotically alluring bilingual romantic songs.
K'naan was born Keinan Warsame in Somalia's capital Mogadishu in a respected artistic family. "This is the country known as the nation of poets," says K'naan. "Their very means of mass communication is a heightened poetry." K'naan's grandfather is a renowned poet, and his aunt Magool was one of Somalia's most famous singers. Known for her distinctive voice and dubbed "Hooyaadii Fanka" - "the mother of the Somali art of singers" - she lived in exile in the Middle East in the 1980s because of her political views, but often sang to K'naan when he was a child. But as Somalia became embroiled in civil war, the innocence of K'naan's childhood was enveloped by the spectre of violence. K'naan himself narrowly escaped a deadly fate when he and his friends played around with what they thought was a potato. It turned out to be a grenade, which K'naan tossed away in time to blow up a nearby school building; miraculously no one was hurt. K'naan's mother's relentless efforts to get her family out of the Wardhiigleey section of Mogadishu - known as the River of Blood - bore fruit at a critical juncture. They escaped on the last commercial flight out of the country before the airport closed, a civil war broke out and the government collapsed.
K'naan eventually moved to the Rexdale neighbourhood of Toronto, where many of the city's Somali community resides. After gaining a rep for poetry he often posted on Somali web sites, in 2001 he was invited to the 50th anniversary of the UN Commission for Refugees. K'naan caught those in attendance off-guard when his spoken word piece criticized policies toward Somalia. He got a standing ovation and an opportunity to work and tour with Senegalese star Youssou N'Dour.
While he's far away from his birthplace and has not returned since, Somalia is still close to his heart. On Troubadour's "Somalia" K'naan vividly describes his homeland and his own personal journey. He also challenges listeners about our knowledge of his birthplace. "So what you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?/ To never know a single day without a big commotion?" he asks in the chorus. "We are people without reason," K'naan says, describing the media perception of Somalis. "Every other group of people who are struggling with their environments, you see them with their struggle attached." Citing unrest in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iraq, K'naan says that the issue at hand, whether it be land or oil or some other issue, comes quickly to mind. "Somalia is really the only place that's void of that," he says. "You have pirates. Where did they come from? There is no why. You have war? Nobody knows why. We are the least investigated people. And part of that is that people just don't care. I think that the misconception about Somalia is that we are baseless, we are rebels without cause." From K'naan's perspective, it is the lack of context within which Somalis are perceived that is the most troublesome aspect of media coverage. "You cannot have some of the most eloquent people on earth not have a reason for what is going wrong with their lives. That doesn't make any sense." Yet K'naan wrestles with his role as someone with the access to speak about these issues, with being seen as representative of the issue, a tension likely fostered by his own personal narrative and freedom he craves from being an artist. "I always try and take the attention away from myself whenever I'm made to be this person that is the representative of such and such," says K'naan. "Also, whenever my story is talked about with such a powerful reverence, like this guy has been through this, blah blah, I always say, well, I'm really not the only one in that. My story isn't so unique, but it's the Somali story."
While Somalia has played a pivotal role in the music that K'naan makes, it is North American hip-hop culture he uses to articulate those experiences. When K'naan's family left Somalia, they stayed in New York for about a year, reunited with K'naan's father Abdi. It was his father who'd first introduced him to hip-hop. Working as a cab driver he sent money back home to his family, along with hip-hop music. K'naan was hooked by the music's forthright orality, particularly gravitating to Eric B & Rakim's "Eric B is President" years before he fully understood the lyrics. "It was rhythmic poetry," that caught his ear. "You were allowed to explore analogies, metaphors and so on - that was actually cool to do. In other music you were actually too smart if you used too many similes. You can't sing and use a lot of similes. It's just like, why are you doing it? Why are you complicating it? Just say 'I love you, baby.' But with hip-hop, you've got to explore all the incredible artistic wordplay that you can. For me, coming out of a poetic life, that was normal. That was natural rap." When The Dusty Foot Philosopher emerged in 2005, it culled some tracks from a very limited release entitled My Life Is a Movie that had heightened the buzz around him, as well as songs that recalled and drew on his experiences and cultural background. While plenty of attention was directed towards his critique of the so-called "gangsta rap" aesthetic on tracks such as "What's Hardcore," because of its convenient overlapping with the violent backdrop of his life in Mogadishu, The Dusty Foot Philosopher mainly focuses on bringing K'naan's own diasporic approach to hip-hop to the fore. "Soobax" an infectiously stern protest song ordering Somali warlords to leave civilians in the country alone, was perhaps the most foremost example of this, identifying K'naan as an MC whose representation was an elusive synthesis on linguistic and musical levels that could not be restricted to a specific location. A similar approach underpins Troubadour's first single "ABCs," yet expands the geographic space even further.
"ABCs" overtly invokes the unbridled party-starting spirit of The Chubbster's classic "Treat Em Right" single and even invites the long-lost MC, now a teacher in Brooklyn, from the back of hip-hop's imaginary milk carton to participate on the track. In the song's video, Rock pulls up in a car with a giant pair of speakers in the back, nodding to the iconic archival footage of hip-hop godfather DJ Kool Herc driving around the South Bronx. Despite all of these New York signifiers that pay homage to the origins of hip-hop culture, K'naan seamlessly weaves in his own approach to the sonic mosaic. The track samples revered Ethiopian jazz artist Mulatu Astatke and K'naan's lyrics probe an environment in which children in Somalia are exposed to guns at an early age. A chillingly cheery children's choir chants: "They don't teach us the ABCs/ We play on the hard concrete/ All we got is life on the streets." Yet the oppositional cultural, musical, geographical and emotional elements are served up in a satisfying diasporic gumbo. "Music is not regional," says K'naan. "It might have a specific regional sound but the feeling of music? It's huge, it's humane, it's universal, it's kind of what the negotiation is about."
K'naan's music implicitly critiques and interrogates the issues of space and representation that often inform the self-identification of hi-hop practitioners. For K'naan, a Somali-born MC who happened to record his latest album in Jamaica and lives in Canada, an approach that demarcates boundaries can provoke tension, but can also re-affirm self-definition.
"It's territorial," says K'naan. "It's kind of gang mentality, like you feel you need to belong to something local in order to have an identity. Part of me lyrically represents Somalia. In that sense, I am hip-hop in that kind of regional [way]. But I think what I open up is different than what they open up. Usually hip-hop stays regional in the sense that they'll say that's where they're from - there's no opening from there. There's just that. My music says I'm from this, but I belong to nothing."
After the release of The Dusty Foot Philosopher K'naan's profile abroad eclipsed his popularity in Canada, and his reputation quickly spread through live shows he has been playing for the past three years. "I play Toronto the least," K'naan says of his home base, where he lives with his wife and two children. "The amount of times I've played New York City is incomparable already." K'naan won BBC Radio 3's best newcomer in World Music in the UK, and most of his shows are in Europe; his notoriety is solidified in his birthplace of Somalia and his profile continues to rise in the U.S. where The Dusty Foot Philosopher was given a belated official release last year. "There's a well-rounded scenario," says K'naan. "I don't think I represent an angel or something in my music or that because it has smart lyrics it doesn't relate to people in the streets," says K'naan. "In fact, it does and that's the real truth in that my music is listened to by college kids who are well read. It's also being heard in the slums, that is what a lot of people don't get."
K'naan's powerful live shows led to touring opportunities with hip-hop vets Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch, then to an opportunity opening for Bob Marley scion Damian, who was riding the worldwide success of his single "Welcome to Jamrock." Marley had heard about K'naan through a number of people in his circle and as they performed shows around the world, the two became close friends, and led to a close relationship with Damian's brother Stephen. "Steve has become like an older brother to me, that's really how he sees himself now," says K'naan. "He's been incredibly instrumental and a good friend. When Damian was telling Steve about me for the first time, Damian was like, 'I met one of us, guy - K'naan.'"
The kinship K'naan formed with the Marleys proved to be instrumental when it came time to record the follow-up to The Dusty Foot Philosopher. An invitation from Damian Marley to work alongside each other in a studio morphed into something much bigger. "Stephen invited me to come to Jamaica, kind of take over Bob [Marley]'s house and record for as long as I wanted. They actually gave me the keys."
For his part, K'naan says he resisted the urge to be overwhelmed by his surroundings while recording at the legendary Tuff Gong studios in Kingston. While K'naan insists he's a fan who has not consciously attempted to channel the legendary musician, it hasn't stopped others from drawing connections he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with. "Without ever trying, people have drawn up little things from my music to say, it kind of reminds them of that thing, of that feeling," says K'naan. "It's beautiful just to hear that people can draw small beauties from my music that remind them of the grandness that is Bob Marley."
During his three-month stay at Marley's house, K'naan jammed in the evenings with Damian and his band before walking back to Tuff Gong studios to work on Troubadour, which was virtually completed during his stay. While many artists would consider this an enviable position to be in, working in the living space once occupied by one of the 20th century's iconic figures created its own set of anxious circumstances for K'naan. "I was writing songs in [Bob Marley's] living room and when I went into the recording booth, the actual tapes of his recordings, the studio takes, they're all backed up to your right side," says K'naan. "So it really feels like there's a little bit of an imposition going on." A bit intimidating, perhaps? "A little bit," says the seemingly unflappable K'naan.
Yet K'naan remains rooted in his own experience, picking up where The Dusty Foot Philosopher left off. "The universality of struggle and the beautiful side of it all," K'naan says, reflecting on his approach to the album. "That's really what was the mode of my musicality [has been] for the past ten years." Indeed, Troubadour features "If Rap Gets Jealous," a track that originally appeared on his debut album. The updated version features Metallica axeman Kirk Hammett, whom K'naan met through Stephen Marley at the Bonnaroo festival. But Troubadour hardly features K'naan in creative stasis. While the release continues to showcase K'naan as an artist who is increasingly comfortable and proficient navigating between the beats and rhymes of straight up hip-hop and the diasporic rhythms that draw on his African roots, his approach has changed.
"My ability to use similes and analogies and so on were always there," he says, "but sometimes it's what you don't say. Knowing it and not doing it is the not-obvious part." On The Dusty Foot Philosopher, K'naan's high-pitched delivery and cadence was often understandably compared to Eminem, despite the fact their lyrical content couldn't be more different. But K'naan no longer feels a burning desire to prove himself solely as a wily mic wielder and any similarities to the mischievous Michigan MC have clearly been jettisoned on Troubadour.
"It's no longer 'Look what I can do, I can do it better than you.' It's just I am," he says. Treading a path that led further inward for his music led to some uncertainty for K'naan. "It's neither easy or hard," says K'naan of the process of channelling these experiences. "It's just some days the door is wide open and someday there's snow, it's colder and it's a little harder." These sentiments are entirely understandable when dealing with songs such as "Waving Flag." Anyone who has seen K'naan performing the song live, as he did at the 2008 Manifesto Festival in Toronto, can attest to its immediately rousing powers. But the song's celebratory performance belies the tragic first verse where K'naan recounts the experience when an 11-year-old K'naan and some childhood friends were attacked and fired on by gunmen in Mogadishu while they were playing. K'naan was not injured but his three friends were all shot dead. The song's chorus - "When I get older/ I will be stronger/ They'll call me freedom/ Just like a waving flag" - is a bold, self-affirming response to this unspeakable horror.
That K'naan could create anything, let alone a song as musically joy-inducing as "Waving Flag" out of those tragic circumstances, is remarkable and a testament to him as an artist: inextricably linked to his own story, but ultimately not defined or restricted by it. After all, he's a born traveller. "At some point it becomes a song," says K'naan. "There probably was a time when it was hard to look back on that experience, but then you write it and you make it a melody and all you have left is a beautiful melody and it's a song now. It's sculpted, it's made, it's art, so it's fine. I have redrawn my whole life that way."