War & Beats

Somalian-born hip-hop artist K’naan wants his music to have purpose.

photo Tory Zimmerman

Some philosophers judge their worth by the number of degrees behind their name, or the number of textbooks they’ve authored. And then there are the dusty foot philosophers; those whose innate wisdom is drawn from experiences in the real world.

On Toronto hip-hopper K’naan’s debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, he pays tribute to those who share that soulful approach to life, including his best friend Mohamoud who was killed when he was young: “One that’s poor, lives in poverty, but lives in a dignified manner and philosophizes about the universe. They talk about things that well-read people do and they’ve never read. They’ve never been on a plane but they can tell you what’s beyond the clouds.”

In Somalia, where 27-year-old K’naan Warsame entered the world, philosophers (and death) are not a rare find. K’naan’s grandfather, his mother’s father, was a renowned poet credited with a stopping a war by standing in the middle of opposing clans—and with his poetic words alone—ending the bloodshed. His late aunt, known as Magool, was one of east Africa’s most famous and beloved singers; her nickname “Hooyaadii Fanka” roughly translates to “the mother of the Somali art of singers.”

In speaking to K’naan over the phone in Montreal where he’s playing that city’s Pop festival, it’s easy to slip into dreaming that this soft-spoken musician with the gentle laugh and the notable heritage was put on the earth with some sort of divine purpose.

(Pronounced Kay-nan, K’naan means “the traveller” and his surname translates to “one who carries the words of peace.”) Don’t get carried away: K’naan’s down-to-earth manner and honest recognition of his own shortcomings plant him firmly on the dusty ground.

“I’m not unique—it’s not the most unique story—Somalis are traditionally known for poetry,” he explains. “The ancient Greeks dubbed it the nation of poets. By the likelihood of nature, you would find a poet, a really good one, in a household. That’s something very normal in Somalia.”

What’s not normal is Somalia’s history of corruption and bloodshed, mostly ignored by western media. This unavoidable violence propels the lyrics and sounds of K’naan’s stunning mix of hip-hop, African rhythms, pop, rap and rock. To understand the Somali experience is to understand the soul centre of K’naan’s music. As Bob Marley, who wrote songs rooted in the spirit of his home country of Jamaica, sang, “If you know your history, then you would know where you coming from.”

K’naan made a unique decision as an artist: to allocate space on his website (thedustyfoot.com) usually reserved for a bio, to the history, beliefs and language of his culture. “I want things to be of purpose. That’s what people wanted me to do, is to put up a bio, because that’s what people do. And I didn’t feel like that would be at all purposeful,” he says. “It’s nice to know about me but there’s so much more to know about. That’s just a part of my art too—to expose those things, the need to expose them as part of art. Why not do my art in all forms?”

Like many other war-torn areas, political strife masks Somalia’s physical beauty. K’naan reminisces about the white-walled and blue-tin-roofed buildings that used to reflect the colours of Africa’s longest shoreline—before they were destroyed by civil wars. “For me, more than anything else, I remember the serenity of the physical nature of the country and the poetry of the people.”

K’naan grew up in the capital city of Mogadishu, in what’s considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. One day after school, at age 10, during the daily ritual of washing the Qur’an lessons off an ancient wooden slate, he uncovered a live grenade that exploded and destroyed half of his school. At 11, K’naan escaped from gunmen. Three of his young friends were shot to death. His 13-year-old brother Liban was arrested for blowing up a federal court building, but escaped the night before facing the firing squad. Right before the embassy closed it doors, his family escaped unharmed on the last commercial flight to leave Somalia.

After a brief stay in Harlem, where his father, Abdi, already lived and worked as a cab driver, the family moved to the Rexdale area of Toronto, a transition which K’naan refers to as intense: “There was so much concrete, so spacious and distant. The architecture, you could tell, was designed around the car, rather than around the human.”

But K’naan had at least one thing in common with his new Canadian schoolmates: hip-hop. While still living in Mogadishu, K’naan’s father mailed him copies of hip-hop records, devoured by the kids who memorized the foreign English rhymes. After leaving school in grade 10, he travelled, gaining a reputation for his sharp skills as an MC and a spoken-word poet. In 2001, through a connection with politically like-minded manager Sol Guy, K’naan was invited to Geneva to perform at the 50th anniversary of the UN Commission for Refugees, where he directly confronted the UN’s failure in Somalia. For his bravery, K’naan received a standing ovation and an invitation to record with Senegalese icon Youssou N’Dour.

Word of the philosopher spread. He received a call from Mos Def—now a good friend—and they’ve played several shows together. An appearance on Live8 resulted in at least one tow-truck driver recognizing him on the street. Along the road, K’naan also connected with producers Gerald Eaton and Brian West, whose Track & Field Productions mixed the ambient sounds of Nelly Furtado’s Portuguese roots into the international smash Whoa Nelly. The creative partnership between Track & Field and K’naan resulted in his first full-length album; its genre-busting 18 tracks are perhaps best summed up in his singalong anthem, “If Rap Gets Jealous.”

You see, K’naan loves melodies. He loves a good guitar line and he loves protest percussion. He doesn’t have a dream list of musicians he’d like to work with: “It’s just nice to not impose yourself on something that is already good.” He hates boundaries and labels. In fact, K’naan hopes that people are slightly confused by what to call his music, so that in the future, he is free to pursue any direction that he wants.

“I have the philosophy of people like Duke Ellington who when asked about genres, said ‘It seems to me that there are two genres of music; one that is agreeable to the ear and one that is not agreeable to the ear.’ That is really the philosophy that I live by with my music,” he explains, laughing. “That’s it, you know—you’re a musician and people always want to say ‘Well, you can’t do a catchy tune,’ because that’s not very hip-hop. Or you can’t do this kind of singing thing—or this kind of hip-hop. It may sound arrogant, but I feel I’ve got a passport to do that, having come from where I come from, having lived in different parts of the world in a vivid way, that a lot of other people have not experienced.”

For his first single, “Soobax” (which means “come out”)—a direct musical challenge to the warlords—K’naan shot the video in Nairobi and Kenya among communities of displaced Somali refugees. There’s a surprisingly tangible air of joy in both the song and the faces to whom the song is dedicated; a surprise that, according to K’naan, is exclusively western in nature: “Struggle in the western hemisphere is quite misunderstood to be something that holds the people hostage, and sentences them to this form of depression or something, but struggle for us includes celebration. It includes the opportunity for change and that’s what people celebrate. That’s why you see the power of that video being people who are struggling, but people who are doing it in a dignified way, and are able to rejoice about possible change.”

Lately, K’naan is optimistic that world events, specifically reaction to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in New Orleans, may result in positive changes to a hip-hop scene that’s far moved from its politically conscious roots.

“If you’d asked me that a month ago, or two months ago, I would have probably had a different answer,” he muses. “I do think that some things are shifting. They’re not necessarily shifting to a more conscious level—and I don’t necessarily think that’s what we need—and I don’t think it’s shifting back to Afro-centricity, but I think that hip-hop is now shifting to a new position where you may not find the difference between mainstream and conscious music. Where people may now blur the line because of the issues that are affecting everyone.”

To someone who grew up sharing the air with machine guns, gangsta posturing seems artificial; an emotion he expresses directly in “What’s Hardcore?”: “I’m-a spit these verses because I feel annoyed/And I’m not going to quit until I fill the void/If I rhyme about home and got descriptive /I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit.” Still, K’naan’s hopeful that the current unity of artists will shift focus from crunk cups to real issues.

“With events like what happened with New Orleans, it will greatly shift things to that direction where you will see the need for artists who resemble more Tupac than anything else. He was not necessarily who you say ‘this is something my kids should listen to’ but he spoke about real things as well. And sometimes he spoke about being thugged out.” K’naan gives a small laugh. “And so that is where now things must go for people to relate entirely to a real, well-rounded form in hip-hop.”

As long as he’s breathing, this poet’s work is never finished. K’naan estimates that he writes a new song about every two weeks. These days he’s focused on multinationals, who—with the local warlords’ permission—have been illegally dumping nuclear and toxic waste into Somalia for the past 15 years. After the tsunami hit last December, some of the chemicals were unearthed, causing disease and radiation illnesses in nearby villages. Amnesty International and Greenpeace are screaming, but no one seems to be listening. Sounds like a job for the dusty foot philosopher.

K’naan w/Universal Soul, Fax 4 and Jesse Dangerously, october 15 at the Marquee, $11-$13.

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