March 6th, 2009 5:33 pm | by Sara Moskovitz Music | Posted In: Columns, Columns

Passing Through: An Interview With K'Naan

knaanA native from one of the globe's most atrociously violent cities, Mogadishu, Somalia (nicknamed, "The Lake of Blood"), MC K'Naan has his own definition of struggle, one quite different than that of the average American rapper.

In 1991, amidst Somalia's civil war, K'Naan and his mother were granted an exit visa and boarded the last commercial flight out of their war torn country. After being reunited and staying with family in Harlem, New York for a short time, the potent rapper moved to his current residency in Toronto, Canada where he produces politically charged music and just released his second solo effort titled, Troubadour. Often breaking traditional hip-hop rules by combining classic rock sounds (the track "If Rap Gets Jealous" features Metallica's lead guitarist Kirk Hammett) and instruments unique to Africa, K'Naan's sonnets often reveal scenes from life back home, mock the street struggle spoken about by many 1st World rappers and attempt to illuminate the vast chasm of differences between places like Mogadishu and Toronto.

K'Naan's nasal pitch is distinct, and often compared to early Eminem. His full-sounding tracks like "ABCs" contain rhythms and choruses that are global and combine his dual-world experiences in Somalia and Canada. His music video for "Soobax"—which was shot in Africa—could be the opening credits to the Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire. K'Naan would have gelled fantastically with the film's soundtrack stars A.R. Rahman and Indian Bollywood sweetheart M.I.A.

WW squeezed 10 minutes of phone time with the busy MC, covering slums, George Bush and other life shenanigans.

WW: You taught yourself English by listening to American hip-hop albums. What's your favorite English word?

K'Naan: Shenanigans

You were backed by a very small label (Track & Field) for your first album. Since then, you've signed with A&M/Octone Records for Troubadour. What is the biggest difference of artist and album support and exposure being with A&M?

Well, I was independent before and now I'm on a major label. It's more concentrated and more far-reaching.

Your music video for "Soobax" looks like it could be the opening credits to Slumdog Millionaire. Do you feel like the portrayal of poverty in Slumdog mirrors life in your native city, Mogadishu, which is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world?

There are slums in Somalia but we come from a different version of it. The biggest criticism of our neighborhood and where we grew up was not the vastness of the slums but more the extent of the violence in the neighborhood. It [my hometown] more relates to City Of God.

Do you think that music has the power to make changes happen on a global scale?

I do but I don't even think that that's a question for me so much as it's a question for history. If you reflect on how music has shaped us, generation after generation—what has music meant for Vietnam? How did it change the conscious shift and what kind of role did it play? How did Bob Marley affect the world?

If you could sit down and talk with any world leader, who would it be and what would you discuss?

It would probably be Obama right now. I would want to talk with him about something really important that Eisenhower said in a speech a long time ago in which he warned Americans saying, “Beware of the military industrial complex.” I would kind of talk to Obama about his courage in which he began his humane efforts to the world. The velocity of his courage should remain so and not let the hungry military machine take precedence. Because sometimes, even with all the great intentions, that's a big machine to try and stop. And we already hear, in Obama's remarks about Afghanistan and having more impact there. It's just not necessary.

In your song "Dreamer" you say, “You have to be like Bush and take pre-emptive strikes.”

You know what that is? You have to look at the line before it to understand that line [recites "Dreamer" under his breath until he gets to the line he's looking for], ah! It's talking about malicious streets, it's saying, in these streets is how we have to live and then it says, “These streets pull your number like a phone display and you've got to be defensive with your life, you've got to be like Bush and take pre-emptive strikes.” So, to defend yourself, you have to take that step.

What would your life would look like had you not escaped Somalia when you did?

The slightest little corner that you turn has significant effect on life and changes. Fate is an interesting thing. I don't really know what things would look like if had it been this and that. I just know the experience of the people that I left behind who are my family and my friends—life just consistently got harder and more unbearable. I'm very fortunate.

What are you doing directly to help the situation back home?

I don't know what I'm doing directly, to be honest. I hear from people who are in those conditions that what I do musically is helpful. And in a place where culture is so prevalent, the effect of culture so real, that they appreciate my little thing that I'm doing.

What can other people do to help?

I think the most important thing is to restore dignity. That's kind of where I'm at with it. We deal with all of these things but we deal with our dignity intact. Even the issues of help, when we discuss it we have to discuss it in a certain way. No one over there, no matter how difficult life is, is with their hands out saying, Come on big Western world, help me.

Watch K'Naan's music video for "Soobax"


K'Naan plays Monday, March 9 at Berbati's Pan. 8 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. All ages.
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