K'Naan - Somalian Rapper

topic posted Fri, December 2, 2005 - 7:31 AM by  Donna
K'Naan in his own words

The twice-nominated Toronto rapper talks to us about the state of his art

By MARY DICKIE -- Toronto Sun

American hip-hop stars can brag as much as they like about how hardcore they are, but it's not going to mean much to someone who grew up in war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, the most dangerous city in the world.

So for a long time it was frustrating for Toronto rapper K'naan to listen to well-fed Americans rap about surviving drive-by shootings or struggles with the police. As he points out in his dazzling debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, "Where I'm from there are no police, ambulance or firefighters/ We start riots by burning car tires ... You don't pay at the roadblock, you get your throat shot/ I make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit, so what's hardcore, really?"

But since the release of the album gave K'naan the opportunity to tell his own story, the 28-year-old has mellowed somewhat toward his hip-hop peers.

"Sometimes it's entertaining to listen to them, sometimes it's kinda funny," he said in a recent interview. "Sometimes the way they put together what they say is interesting. If they're not good at what they do and they're still bragging, that's when it's annoying.

"But what's interesting is struggle, and people's ideas of struggle are really the same no matter where they are. I mean, take someone who feels a headache -- their pain feels greater to them than someone who's been shot. Everyone believes that their particular perspective is the thing."

K'naan's Somali childhood may have been nightmarish, but it was also full of warmth and creativity, thanks to a family full of poets and singers in a country with a rich literary tradition. He first learned to rap by phonetically imitating American hip-hop records sent home by his father, a New York City taxi driver, and his music is a fascinating mixture of African and Western musical traditions, with the emphasis on the lyrics.

"The focus has always been the message, the words, what you've got to say," he explained. "In Somalia you don't necessarily have to be a good singer or have a good sound, but you have to have something moving to say. That's what a successful musician is in Somalia.

"And there have been times when words have literally caused the condition of the whole country to shift. When colonialism was ousted from my country, that revolution was not led by a militant guy but by a poet, whose words caused people to take up arms. And in the '40s my grandfather was credited with stopping a war between two clans with one single poem. That's the way it is there."

K'naan left Mogadishu with his mother and brother in 1991, on what turned out to be the last commercial flight out of the country. After a brief period in Harlem they settled in Rexdale, which hosts a large Somali community. He continued to rap, and lived up to his name, which means "traveller" in Somali, by roaming all over North America. His participation in spoken-word battles in New York and Washington, D.C., blew away influential American hip-hop promoters, and in 2001 he was invited to address the UN in honour of the 50th anniversary of the High Commission for Refugees.

K'naan's spoken-word piece sharply criticized the UN's failed relief effort in Somalia, but received a standing ovation anyway. In the audience was African singer Youssou N'Dour, who invited K'naan to record with him. He has since been invited back to the UN twice, including an appearance in South Africa last month at a hip-hop summit.

"Actually performing in South Africa was much more important for me than addressing the UN, because it was the first time I had gone back to Africa to perform my music," he said. "It was an incredible emotional journey, and probably my best feeling of a performance ever."

In 2002, while recording a benefit for War Child, K'naan met Jarvis Church from Nelly Furtado's production team Track And Field. They ended up producing The Dusty Foot Philosopher, which was released in June. It turned out to be an ideal combination. K'naan's frank, brutal and sometimes funny words are surrounded by a rich musical mix that changes on each track, incorporating African percussion and choirs, acoustic guitars, dancehall rhythms, whistles, Kenyan musicians, Peter Tosh samples and much more. On tour, a group of four tries to reproduce as much of the musical tapestry as possible.

"It's an interesting setup," K'naan said. "There's an acoustic guitarist, a percussionist, a computer at the back and me with percussion, and all of us are on vocals as well."

As for the current state of hip-hop, K'naan doesn't spend his time bemoaning its consumerism.

"I don't separate musicians from society, and society in general is not really focused on anything relevant," he said. "Hip-hop is a commodified art form. Our personal struggles and art have been linked to commerce, and when you do that, it starts to lose its connection to the community to satisfy a bigger machine. Most hip-hop artists are not really making music for the ghetto or the 'hood, they're making it for the suburbs. They're focused on the community with purchasing power, which in business makes a lot of sense."

K'naan's Dusty Foot Philosopher has earned him two Canadian Urban Music Award nominations, for best songwriter and best hip-hop recording.
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New York City
  • Re: K'Naan - Somalian Rapper

    Sat, December 3, 2005 - 8:49 PM
    Dont know the artist Donna but Evil is right, good post. I enjoy learning new things or learnin about new people who make a difference in educating people.

    I have been educated. Thank you :)
  • Re: K'Naan - Somalian Rapper

    Fri, December 30, 2005 - 9:28 AM
    I got the Dusty Foot Philosopher album and loved it!

    Fave tracks include Soobax and Hoobale which incorporate Somali rhythms and percussions.

    Thanks for posting the article.
    • Re: K'Naan - Somalian Rapper

      Tue, January 10, 2006 - 6:21 AM
      I met K'Naan in Kenya in 2003 when he came to shoot the video for Sobax. I mean he really is still in touch with the African situation inspite of being out there in Canada. He shot most of the video at some place called Eastleigh which is the hub of the Somali community in Kenya
      • Re: K'Naan - Somalian Rapper

        Sat, January 21, 2006 - 7:11 PM
        It looks like Kenya's status as East Africa's hub also applies to artists and musicians, thanx for that info on K'Naan and the Sobax track, Potash!

        I did get a sense of the convergence of music and musicians from, not just the Swahili-coast countries, but also from the Horn of Africa when I was in Nairobi last year. There was a music/record fair just days after I departed which I missed--rest assured, it will be on the agenda on my next visit, as well as the record shops and music venues :)