Crashing Through Borders
The circumstances of K’naan’s life have been bound up by contradictions and extremes. Maybe that’s why K’naan’s music so recklessly abandons circumstance and safety. Playing it safe isn’t an option for somebody whose upbringing was marred by grenades and AK-47s. Driven by love and a profound desire for change, he is an artist in that intense and unassailable kind of way. Something like a revolutionary, K’naan kicks down the ladder, then stands ready to catch the innocents. K’naan’s debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, teems with the pain of his particular past, but he still manages to universalize his struggles. K’naan is an artist who would keep making music, if only for one single person. Thankfully, there’s a good chance that a lot more people are going to tune in.
The last half of K’naan’s life has been spent in North America. He has called Toronto home for more than a decade, and before that he had begun a new life in Harlem. You see, K’naan fled his native Somalia at the age of 11 as civil war began to explode in his home country. The innocence and serenity of his childhood was torn apart by the extreme violence that ravishes Somalia to this day. 14 years have gone by since he boarded that plane to the States, and not much has changed in his hometown of Mogadishu, but much has changed in K’naan. Choking from the guilt of fallen friends and a homeland left behind, he had to come to terms with life in its new form. “For a long time I thought: How do I justify my day, my life?” But now, thanks in part to his music, K’naan is able to flesh out his history while not letting it determine who he will become. “I am fueled by love. Why should I punish myself or let circumstances in the world punish me?”
The Dusty Foot Philosopher is one of those rare albums that enlightens as much as it entertains. K’naan is a poet as much as a musician and, like Dylan, his social conscience runs concomitantly with his musical sensibilities. In the wake of an overwhelming sense of purpose, he frees himself of generic conventions and unites the dissonant traditions of rap, rock, folk, reggae, and African music. K’naan switches back and forth between different templates seamlessly, and it works thanks to a devastating lyrical potency. When he’s not spitting ferocious, he’s riding poignantly on an African folk guitar line. Incredibly, he bridges the divide between Public Enemy and Ali Farka Toure, Ben Harper and Eminem.
K’naan’s music belongs to our new world of complication and absurdity. He’s one of the few pop musicians around who’s reflecting the contradictory world our generation has inherited—the type of world where kids in America weren’t given a chance to care about genocide in Rwanda, but instead were watching coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial 24/7. After being brought up in this surreality, this generation is reaching for something more, for change. There’s no more room for cynicism and there’s no point in holding anything back anymore.
For his part, K’naan is fearless. Whether calling out Somali War Lords in “Soobax”, or mocking 50 Cent’s gangster chic on “What’s Hardcore?”, he definitely isn’t holding anything back. He couldn’t care less about the potential for the genre bounding to alienate staunch hip-hop heads, and, on the whole, he seems incapable of censoring his instincts. Musically or lyrically, K’naan is going for broke and people are taking notice. Even before his new album had hit stores, K’naan was an experienced stadium performer, having played at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the Canadian Live 8 concert. Apparently, K’naan has got serious mass appeal to go along with some noteworthy fans. He has received support from artists including Youssou N’Dour, Tricky, and the Digable Planets, and The Dusty Foot Philosopher was primarily produced by Track & Field, the team behind Nelly Furtado. Nelly didn’t make it for a rumored surprise duet with K’naan at the Live 8 show, but he still managed to follow Bryan Adams. Although relegated to a one-song set, he got 35,000 people waving their arms along to “Soobox”. Warm receptions are the norm for K’naan lately. As he says, “Whether it’s hip-hop audiences or high school students, everybody seems to get it”.
So while Somalia remains the only country in the world without a government, K’naan is defying the odds and making some noise in North America. With brazen honesty and oral acrobatics, he’s fusing some of the gaps that exist between two realities, and tuning people into our one chaotic world. Like he says of his musical and socio-cultural incongruities, “Such different universes, that wouldn’t have ever met, have collided into me.” That’s the sound of The Dusty Foot Philosopher: K’naan’s soundtrack to collision.