By: Jim Welte
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.
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.
|K'naan by James Minchin|
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."
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Photo by: James Minchin
Why can't we be ambitious about everything and dream big? Why not? We've become too cynical as human beings and we don't really dream anymore. This is a time when optimism is beating cynicism. It's a real good moment here right now.
This explosively funky track from Troubadour continues the theme: "The boys from the hood are always hard/ let alone in Mogadishu it's a mastered art/ if you bring the world's hoods to a seminar/ we from the only place that's worse than Kandahar/ now that's kinda hard."
You don't get points for being the only rapper able to finger Kandahar on a map, but you do for using it in such a crisp, loaded verse. The song is celebratory, with K'naan reassuring the downtrodden around the world that "it's okay to feel good." In conversation, despite ample fuel for a full-fledged cynic, K'naan reveals himself to be an optimist, particularly with the election of Barack Obama.
"I love the beauty and the inspiration that comes from the 'Why Not,'" he says. "Why can't we be ambitious about everything and dream big? Why not? We’ve become too cynical as human beings and we don't really dream anymore. This is a time when optimism is beating cynicism. It's a real good moment here right now."
"I Come Prepared"
K'naan's optimism is fueled by a gift with words rare in modern hip-hop. He calls music his first love, but knows he has other creative outlets if his career falters. He's written two screenplays, one of which centers on the neighborhood where he grew up, Wardhiigleey, better known as the "River of Blood." He calls it the "story of a country disguised as someone's life," an attempt to show the world the full spectrum of Somali people, not just the warlords and pirates that dominate the headlines. As the grandson of the famous poet Haji Mohammed and the nephew of popular Somali singer Magool, K'naan is steeped in the traditions of poetic verse and rich imagery.
K'naan is also in the midst of writing a novel, wanting "to see if I could write something great," he says. "I love writing and being a writer. I'll only do music to the extent that I feel it is necessary to make music." That said, he's thrilled with the new record, and while he downplays his talents in conversation, he doesn't bite his tongue in the second verse of "I Come Prepared": "What was I on before this flow was sequel/ something about how I thought I was a Beatle/ I'm trippin but it was something lethal/ it was fresh but possessed something medieval."
As is often the case in the music business, pure talent guarantees nothing. Dusty Foot's limited distribution forced K'naan to tour incessantly for three years, opening up ears onstage since it was hard for him to reach them in stores. As he raps in the song, "Strugglin": "I feel like I'm 10 months pregnant or something/ I'm past due."
|K'naan by James Minchin|
He says the lack of success was, at times, difficult to handle. "I've never been the kind of artist that mixes the importance of music and the inspiration that you get from the creative work with commerce," he says. "I think everything has its place, but I am certainly more inclined to do music than commerce. It was disheartening to know that nothing is holy in this zone, but I learned through it."
One of the things that helped K'naan get through was a bond with Damian and Stephen Marley. He accompanied the former on his Welcome to Jamrock tour in 2006, and they formed an immediate friendship. On a European leg of the trek, Damian called Stephen and told him there was someone he had to meet. "He said, 'I have met one of us," K'naan recounts. Since then, Stephen Marley has taken on a big-brother role to K'naan, and most of Troubadour was recorded at Bob Marley's legendary Tuff Gong studios. "I'm the only person outside of his family who he's ever given the keys to Bob Marley's home," he says.
Damian Marley provided a guest verse for "I Come Prepared," and Troubadour also features heavy hitters like Mos Def, Maroon 5's Adam Levine and hip-hop veteran Chubb Rock. As a result of constant touring, K'naan has developed a stalwart live set with a tight band, and plans to spend the next several months on the road in North American and Europe.
In spite of - or perhaps because of - a childhood that would make even the most hardened gangster blush, K'naan remains focused on honoring his past and rejoicing in his emergence from it. On "Somalia," over a lilting "la-la-la-la-la" chant, he gives the listener some Cliff's Notes and makes a prediction: "Do you see why it's amazing/ when someone comes out of such a dire situation/ and learns the English language just to share his observation/ probably get a Grammy without a grammar education."
K'naan is on tour now; dates available here.
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