Already gaining firm support from respected figures such as M1 from Dead Prez and Talib Kweli, Somali rapper K-Naan is currently spreading his message over these shores…
K-Naan is a rapper with a difference. Born Keinan Warsame, he fled war torn Somalia at the age of 14, on what turned out to be the very last commercial flight out the country. He then found himself in the alien surroundings of Harlem, New York, before shortly relocating to Toronto, Canada. Here he perfected his craft and realised his extraordinary lyrical talent, gaining local notoriety, as well as respect from extremely established artists such as Mos Def, who he counts as a close friend.
He is now signed to Sony BMG in Canada and earlier this year won the Canadian Grammy (Juno Award) for best rap recording. He recently signed to Red Ink as well, and will be releasing a UK version of his highly acclaimed album early 2007.
Having survived so much, the MC has very different ideas on what he considers to be ‘hard core’. Here he shares his thoughts and wisdom, giving a unique insight into his psyche and forthcoming album ‘The Dusty Foot Philosopher’.
How do you differ from the hip hop norm?
There’s no story like mine that’s been told in modern day music. It was written in frustration but I’ve reached far and wide with it. I hope that it will become commonplace for people to express their true stories and be proud of where they’re from, and not continue to be sucked in by the American ideal.
Tell us more…
My life experiences and outlook are different from a lot of Western rappers out there, as I didn’t grow up like them. I don’t talk about the things they do. Your job as an artist is to portray things in an honest way, and that’s what I’m doing. I was raised in Somalia and spent half of my life there and the other half in North America, and what I try and do is make sense of my experiences through music.
What were your experiences in Somalia like?
I had two very different kinds of experiences, my childhood was unique and intense and it’s given me a lot to write about. The first part of my life was very happy, but then the Civil War engulfed the country, and this was the troubling part. All in all my experiences made me who I am today and I feel very fortunate to have lived through it all.
What was it like moving to America? Did you experience much of a culture shock?
The biggest thing for me was not being able to speak the language. It’s a trying thing not being able to communicate. In Somalia there’s a magical feel to language and the way people speak, and a lot of importance is attached to that. There were also race issues to contend with, and I definitely wasn’t used to the weather!
All this must have been quite traumatic for you?
The idea is to transform difficult experiences into beautiful art so that they cease to be difficult experiences and just end up being beautiful art. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part. All of what I write about is personal but it’s no longer painful, now they’re just songs. I’m fortunate enough to be able to honestly reflect on the past and put it into my music.
You have a song on your new album called ‘Hardcore’, which criticises rappers who think their experiences are hardcore. What’s hardcore to you?
What I see as hardcore is people going through environmental disaster, people being held captive in prisons with no justice and underprivileged children. People who have poisoned water supplies, children who are orphaned at a young age; these are hardcore conditions. Not the American idea of what hardcore is; people who have a lot who continue to go on about how bad off they are in comparison to the rest of the world when the majority of the world wants to move to the USA.
In the song you particularly single out 50 Cent…
The line in that song tries to put things into perspective, it’s not a personal thing; I’m not really talking about him but the culture as a whole. The line people have jumped on goes; “If I rhymed about home and got descriptive/I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit”. This isn’t anything about him personally; I’m just comparing the different lifestyles and struggles. Everyone’s got they’re own struggle and you’ve got to respect that. I mean my gunshot wound is never going to seem as harsh as your headache. But the problem arises when you start to glorify a certain lifestyle. Where I’m coming from you have kids that don’t have a choice but to carry weapons, and they’re not bragging about it.
What do you hope your music will achieve?
I want to try and make a change for the better in my country and other struggling countries around the world. I don’t have aspirations to be really famous. People who dream of being famous seem to loose sight of their intentions to make things happen, I want to do this whether I’m famous or not. I can see that people are starting to connect to my music now, but fame is not something that dominates my thinking. My music is free from the desire to acquire success.
So you don’t want to be famous?
The perceived idea of success is not something that tempts me, no. I have my own ideas of life and success, and in that sense I feel like I’m successful already. Anything else is a plus.
What’s your idea of success?
Success is to be respected for something you create. And that you’ve produced that with respect for your own self and that you haven’t compromised your own self to achieve that.
Has your growing success in the music industry come as a shock?
No because it’s been a long process, it hasn’t happened overnight. I have friends who were in the music industry before me and they already had experience of the complications, the injustices and greed that exists within it, so I was well aware of all of that.
Who were some of the people you grew up listening to in Somalia?
I grew up listening to people like Nas, Rakim and Biggie. I’m lucky enough to have met some of my heroes and amazingly enough they are turning to my music for inspiration. That’s a great thing for me, for an artist that you’ve grown up respecting to turn around and say; “your music inspires me”. Mos Def is a close friend and has been a great champion of my career. The same goes for Dead Prez and Talib Kweli.
Tell us a bit more about the album…
I think it’s a strong album; it’s well rounded, but it doesn’t overwhelm you. It’s an invitation to experience the personal but it can also be connected to. I’ve been writing what needs to be said without thinking about how it’s received. I’d really appreciate it if it was well received, but it’s not something I worry about. I don’t make music of escapism, it’s saying something important and for that reason I can justify the attention I’ve received so far.
Where do you hope you’ll be in five years time?
I hope that I’m healthy and continue to be expressive. If I feel that I don’t have anything left to say I really hope that I’ll realise this, as I don’t want to force it. I don’t want to create music that’s made for a purposeless reason.
K-Naan’s album ‘The Dusty Foot Philosopher’ is out next year
By Anna Nathanson