Like a lot of things that we Americans complain about, Minnesota winters aren’t so bad in the view of Somalian hip-hop star K’Naan.
“I remember it being like 40-below or something crazy like that,” the rapper and activist recalled of the nine months he spent in the Twin Cities a decade ago, a time he called “pretty monumental in shaping me.”
“But winter is really a breeze when you think about those less fortunate than yourself,” added K’Naan. “We Somalians compare winter to other scenarios we could be stuck in.”
Now based in Toronto—when he’s not recording with the Marleys in Jamaica or Mos Def in Los Angeles—K’Naan has brought this kind of reality-check perspective to hip-hop.
This guy knows hardship. When he was 11 and living in the Mogadishu neighborhood Wardhiigleey (“River of Blood”), he saw two friends gunned down. At 13, his family fled Somalia on the last commercial flight out as civil war intensified in 1991.
Even now at age 30, with yet more unrest plaguing his homeland, he is haunted by the violence.
With all that in mind, it should have been no surprise when K’Naan mocked 50 Cent and other American thug rappers in “What’s Hardcore?,” a 2006 track with such lines as: “If I rhymed about home and got descriptive/ I’d make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit.”
Asked about the controversial song in a phone interview two weeks ago from Los Angeles—where he was finishing up his second album—K’Naan did not back down.
“America has places like New Orleans with real struggles, and I respect those struggles,” he said. “But I’m talking about Mogadishu. It’s a different level.
“That song is me talking to rappers who glorify their ‘hood like it’s the end of the world. Somalians are happy if we even get to live in their ‘hood. Their ‘hood is our salvation.”
K’Naan (last name: Warsame; his first name fittingly means “traveler”) discovered hip-hop when his father moved to New York City to earn money as a cabdriver. He sent home a few rap albums for his son. The biggest was Eric B. & Rakim’s 1987 classic “Paid in Full.”
“Even though I didn’t understand the language, just the fact that I was listening to foreign music gave me a place to dream,” he recalled.
Minneapolis rapper Manifest, himself an immigrant from Ghana, praised K’Naan as “the rare rapper who doesn’t exploit—or more accurately glorify—his difficult past. His music and words mean a lot to me as an African because it has truth and dignity. And it’s extremely funky.”
The songs on K’Naan’s 2006 debut, “The Dusty Foot Philosopher”—which won a Juno Award (the Canadian Grammy) for best rap album—preached peace and smarter reasoning. One of its most telling lines was, “I’d rather be gunned down than dumbed down.”
K’Naan promises more of the same on “Troubadour,” which he called “more expressive and musical” than “Dusty Foot.” Due in September, the album’s guests include Mos Def and Blur/Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn. Much of the album was made in Jamaica with Stephen and Damian Marley, with whom he toured last year.
“I used the B-3 Hammond organ that Bob Marley actually used on ‘Exodus,’” he said excitedly.
The Marley tour was K’Naan’s first time back in the Twin Cities, which has the United States’ largest Somali immigrant population.
“I’d say I sketched out my first ideas of what I wanted to do musically when I lived there,” he said, pointing to “Blues for the Horn” as a song he wrote in that era (1997-98).
At the time, his dreams of being a performer were mostly just fantasy. “I was in the scenario that most Somalian people are living in there, which is just kind of struggling it out,” he said.
“In Minneapolis, when you see the Somalian community, it’s clear the lack of representation in the media. That was the thing I most thought about when I was there. I saw something was missing, so I’d come home and write, which started me down this path.”
After he wound up back in Toronto, where his family had settled, K’Naan had his big coming-out. He was invited to perform a spoken-word piece for 1999’s United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Instead of focusing on life as a refugee, his piece sharply criticized the U.N.‘s policies in Somalia.
“I thought, ‘This is the end of my career,’” he recounted with a hard laugh. “I could’ve just been the good entertainer and everybody would have been happy, but I had to say something. How many kids who came from where I did, the streets of Mogadishu, would ever get that kind of chance?”
One of the biggest stars of African music, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, was part of the U.N. commission that year and was so impressed that he invited the 20-year-old to perform on his next album.
K’Naan has carried over his attitude from the U.N. commission into the mainstream hip-hop scene, via further support from the likes of Mos Def, the Roots and Nelly Furtado.
“I could say nothing about the Somalian experience and still live pretty well, make my money,” he said. “But I have a true passion for my country and my people, and for justice. That’s what keeps me from being quiet.”
K’Naan said it’s difficult to discuss Somalia’s most recent bout of bloodshed (from different factions seeking control), but he did criticize American media for ignoring it. He also stated that he favors withdrawal of Ethiopian troops.
“Somalians are very divided on that issue,” he said. “As an artist who wants to speak for all the people, it’s hard to say anything or to take a side. Even my mother would like for me to not talk about it.”
He paused, then added, “But, of course, I do.”