| Issue 374
and Regional Affairs |
From the streets of Mogadishu to a "N.Y. State of Mind"
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
Hip hop has effectively
risen to be the dominant global youth culture and now the sounds of the
world at large have begun to assert their influence on the music in
return. Artists from
Kardinal Offishall are
infusing their styles with the international flavors of their heritage
and expanding the palette of rap expression in the process. Add to this
list Somlia-born, Canadian MC
K'naan who has just released
his sophomore collection of globe-trotting beats,
Having already earned a Juno award for
best rap album for
his 2006 debut,
The Dusty Foot Philosopher,
he's back with a set of songs that firmly establishes him as an artist
unafraid to meld sounds from disparate countries and cultures on his
sonic canvas. His profile is on the rise based on the infectious quality
of the music and his confident lyricism, so we tracked him down to
discuss the recent success. He talked to us about everything from his
early days on the war-torn streets of Mogadishu to cultivating a "New
York State of Mind."
As a hip hop fan I knew you from Dusty Foot Philosopher, but I
feel like you're getting a much bigger push from the label on this
album. What's it's like to be taking that next step up in the public
It's really great man. I felt like the music deserved to be heard by a
lot of people. People who are hearing Troubadour are
investigating and finding Dusty Foot Philosopher. Which is great
because I felt like that should have been heard as well.
One thing that I think definitely helped raise your profile amongst
rap heads was the BET Cypher performance that you put down. Even if
people didnít know you could rap before they saw that, they knew
afterwards. How did you get called on to do that and how was the
It was great man. BET just reached out. Word was getting around to
different artists who were like, "yo, we're checking for him." So
eventually the program directors called me up. It was amazing to be in
that room because we did like four rounds. Each time we did something
new, and each time
Bun B would stop and be like,
"Yo! You're crazy." I remember one round they didn't use. I did this
rhyme. Then Bun B went after me and did his rhyme about how I did my
rhyme. It was a massive compliment.
They also invited
Hime, the Japanese female MC
to the Cypher. That goes to show the global nature of hip hop now. It's
touches every corner of the globe. Growing up in Somalia, did you have
access to hip hop music back in the day?
Not at all actually. I did have the rare privilege of getting
Paid In Full when it
came out though. I was the only kid anywhere near the vicinity of the
neighborhood I lived in that had that. Hip hop wasnít a known form in
Somalia like it is now. To be truthful, the thing that hip hop suffers
from when you talk about the "global nature" is that it can be a little
corny. Meaning, it doesnít really consider all of the cultural elements.
Sometimes it's not culturally sensitive and not lyrically representative
of the way the streets are set up. But my fortune was that I lived in
Somalia and when I came to America as a teenager, I could only live in
the hood. So I got the perfect middle ground of the two worlds.
It's interesting that you say that, because when hip hop started in
New York in the late '70s it was a revolutionary sound made by a
distressed population who were essentially at war. So those
revolutionary roots are perfectly suited to provide an outlet for
regions who are unfortunately touched by warfare today.
There is no place more defined by warfare than Somalia or in more dire
need of that representation that hip hop can give. The country and
Mogadishu, where I'm from, is more dangerous than Iraq. That level of
violence, and that kind of poverty and struggle needs some kind of
I like to think of myself as somewhat informed, but everything I know
about conflict in Africa comes secondhand through the prism of news
media. As someone with firsthand knowledge, do you think news agencies
under-represent or over-represent who bad things are?
It's pretty difficult to over-represent how bad it is. But what is
missing in the Western representation when it comes to Somalia is that
they present us as struggle minus dignity. Which is untrue. Our struggle
continues to maintain and uphold its dignity. We are not a people
without dignity. That's the difference. When they aim cameras into our
lives they just donít know how to represent us. I feel like the music I
make is a good mediator between the Black experience in North America
and the Black experience in Africa.
The same way I have my secondhand conception of
what's going on in Africa, people there must be forming their own ideas
of what life is like here. Do you have any concept of how people there
view North America?
The same way I have my secondhand conception of what's
going on in Africa, people there must be forming their own ideas of what
life is like here. Do you have any concept of how people there view
course everything has its stereotypes connected to it. I remember when I
was young growing up in Somalia, we'd be sitting on top of buildings
with kids with guns tucked under their shirts just taking about life.
They'd look at me like, "K'Naan, your Dad is an American. One day you're
going to go to America." All that we could think was that it was a place
where all the problems of the world disappeared when you went. Untrue
when you got here. You found out real quick that you were relegated to
the parts of America that kind of reminded you of Africa.
But with even less sense of community. Here, if you're poor, you're
poor by yourself.
That is the perfect description [laughs]! Back home if you were poor,
you were poor with everybody. And if you eat, you eat with everybody.
Here you eat alone. It's funny, because itís so apparent in music
videos. I donít know what it is with artist who are from the hood, but
make videos like they're mad at the hood. They're like, "I'll show you!"
Why? Nobody was mad at you in the hood when you were poor. Then you come
back to the hood with a Bentley screaming, "In your face motherfuckers!
I hate you!" I donít understand. If I make money and I'm going back to
Somalia, I'm damn sure not trying to show off. I'm going to try and
You hinted at your journey to America earlier. For you fans who donít
know, can you break down the story of how you made your way to Toronto?
I was in Somalia until I was 14-years-old in the capital, Mogadishu. I
had some peaceful years over there, but still the neighborhood I grew up
in translated to "The River of Blood." It was a place where people from
the outside avoided. It was always a little rougher that everywhere
else, but when the war broke out it was incredibly difficult. After
that, you spent your time just surviving block-to-block. Cats were
getting shot on a day-to-day basis, so you never could imagine a future.
That was life until my mother in her audacity decided she was going to
get us out of there. Sure enough she got us out. We were one of the last
people to leave before the country completely collapsed and shut down.
We made it to New York, then had some immigration issues and had to
continue on to Toronto.
At 14 I donít imagine you spoke much English. Did hip hop help you
integrate yourself into Western culture?
I actually didnít speak any English at all. I couldnít construct one
sentence. I picked up a lot of hip hop albums because it was the only
thing about America that was remotely relatable to me at all. So I would
listen to music to learn the language, and more than that, the culture.
Lyricists would make references to things that I would later go and
research to learn more about.
When did you decide that rap was going to be your career?
I never really thought about it as a career, but I thought the
possibility was there after I heard "New York State of Mind" from
Illmatic. I heard that
song and was floored. I wondered how he could paint visuals like a film
using the English language. I knew how to do that in Somali, but in
English I didnít think it was possible to be that poetic and expressive.
I thought, if Nas could do that about the Black experience in America, I
could do that about the slum experience back home.
Did the fact that you employed some more left-field sounds in your
music make it harder for you to get put on at first.
I was never really looking to get put on. You have to understand how
accidental my whole shit is. Everybody I knew from the hood I was living
in was trying to rap. I remember them doing demos and going to the open
mics. I had skills that were surpassing most of those cats, but I never
wanted to go that route. It wasnít about trying to get on, it was about
refining my sound so much that it becomes necessary to people.
Speaking of refining your sound. I feel like you're spitting from a
position of power on this new album. You're in your zone and feeling
You're exactly right. I wanted this record to be about the clear
position that I occupy in the world of music. The Dusty Foot
Philosopher hinted at that. Now I'm here. On Troubadour, this
is my spot.