K'naan: Time-Tested Troubadour

By: Jim Welte

K'naan by James Minchin
Hip-hop has always been built on sonic autobiography. Whether it's 50 Cent boasting about getting shot nine times as a pre-stardom gangster, Jay-Z's chronicles of hustlin' his way out of Brooklyn's Marcy Projects or the astonishing rise and fall of Notorious B.I.G. - currently playing at a theater near you - hip-hop is memoir on wax.

But modern hip-hop is also the bastion of posturing, with rappers taking on personas without the bio to back it up. In the most recent case, Rick Ross, the self-professed former Miami drug kingpin turned MC, was revealed by The Smoking Gun in July 2008 to be a former correctional officer.

K'naan (born Kaynaan Warsame) never needed such dramatic license. The 30-year-old rapper, whose sophomore album, Troubadour, hits stores February 24 on A&M/Octone , was born and raised in Mogadishu, Somalia, widely regarded as the most dangerous city on the planet. It was immortalized by Blackhawk Down, the tale of a military effort gone awry that saw the bodies of dead U.S. soldiers paraded through the streets. The city has been the epicenter of a murderous, bloody civil war for more than 17 years. And just last November, brazen Somali pirates seized a monstrous Saudi Arabian tanker carrying $100 million in oil.

Despite learning the English language in his teens, K'naan's gift of gab is razor-sharp. On "What's Hardcore," a track from his 2005 debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, he summed up his standing in the hip-hop world with an immortal line: "If I rapped about home and got descriptive/ I'd make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit."

When K'naan was seven, his father Abdi sent him hip-hop CDs from New York, where he'd moved to take a job as a cabbie in order to send money back home to his family. One of them was Eric B. & Rakim's Eric B. for President, which K'naan learned to mimic perfectly despite not speaking English yet.

K'naan by James Minchin
By the age of 12, after watching some of his best friends get murdered by gun-toting thugs, K'naan fled Somalia with his mother, Marian Mohamed, in search of a safer life. They would spend one year in Harlem before moving to Toronto, home of the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia. Twenty-three years later, K'naan might just be the most gifted wordsmith in hip-hop, with a blockbuster new record to prove it.

While The Dusty Foot Philosopher suffered from limited distribution and few club-friendly beats, Troubadour has major label backing and manages to both feed the mind and shake the ass. The mostly self-produced beats are big, funky and fast, interwoven with Ethiopian jazz samples and Somali chanting.

The soft-spoken K'naan credits his beefed-up approach to life experience. "Because I'm so autobiographical in my sound, I seem to backpack my music along within my own personal growth," he says. "So, the music becomes different as I change through time."

Given K'naan's self reflective style and keen ability to sum up a lifetime of struggle in a single verse, the lyrics to his new songs offer the ideal map to his story.


While K'naan told the story of his homeland on Dusty Foot, he's done so by name on Troubadour: "So what you know about the pirates terrorizing the oceans/ to never know a single day without a big commotion/ it can't be healthy just to live with such a steep emotion/ and when I try and sleep, I see coffins closing."

The late 2008 hijacking of the Sirius Star, the largest vessel ever seized by pirates, captured the world's attention. Somalia's proximity to the Gulf of Aden shipping route has played a part in the country becoming a den of pirates, but so has the lawlessness resulting from its seemingly endless civil war. Although he left in 1991, K'naan saw some horrific things in his 12 years there, and says that tragedy has struck his family in Mogadishu since then. The conversation and the lyrics never stray far from the home he hasn't visited since he left.

"I want to go back," he says. "I need to go back. But it's just kind of impossible. It's no joke over there." Mogadishu isn't safe for anyone, let alone a musician who won BBC Radio 3's Newcomer Of The Year award in 2007 and has toured the world. As he raps in the 2005 song "Soo'bax," "My skin needs to feel the sand/ the sun/ I'm tired of the cold, goddamn."

Continue reading for more on K'naan...

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