K'naan: Time-Tested Troubadour

 
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.

-K'naan

 
Photo by: James Minchin

"Dreamer"

K'naan
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."

K'naan by James Minchin
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."

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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[Published on: 2/17/09]

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Comments

GratefulHokie Tue 2/17/2009 03:03PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

GratefulHokie

JamBase is floating on my brain waves maaaaan. Buddy of mine gave me K'naan's most recent CD JUST YESTERDAY! Had never even heard of him until then, and now here it is on JB. Def. going to have to check it out after work now.

gOdWesSaTaN Tue 2/17/2009 04:22PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
BrewCrew420 starstarstarstarstar Tue 2/17/2009 07:41PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

BrewCrew420

This guy can flow and it's conscience music which there is a real lack of in hip-hop these days. I recently just heard of him within the past few weeks and I really enjoy what he is putting out there!

lovemusical Sun 2/22/2009 05:35PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

I saw this guy a few years ago opening for Stephen and Damian Marley. I enjoyed the show quite a bit, very talented.

ALL FUNKY starstarstarstar Sat 3/7/2009 10:55PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

ALL FUNKY

Cool flow