K'naan: The Dusty Foot Philosopher

Photo: Uzo Oleh

In a market dominated by criminal sociopaths, this Somali-Canadian refugee rapper took the road less traveled.


The Dusty Foot Philosopher

Label: Interdependent Media
Canada release date: 2005-06-07
US Release Date: 2008-05-20
UK Release Date: 2006-03-27

Unless you willingly accept half-assed jobs, it's impossible to review this album and not give a lengthy rundown of K'naan Warsame's life. Most hip-hop artists use their childhood and formative teenage years as fuel for the bulk of their career's rhymes. That part is nothing new. Gangsta rappers speak of the "hood" as something they still exist in, committing horrible atrocities against their own people no matter how long ago they moved into multi-million dollar Orange County mansions. Privileged indie rappers often use their youth to paint pictures of social injustice or the quirky happenstance that made them the characters they are. K'naan is different.

Though he counts as a Canadian in the census these days, K'naan was born and raised in Mogadishu, Somalia. He lived there 'til the tender age of 13, when the civil war became too heated. His family was lucky enough to get a visa on the last day the US Embassy was open and snag a ticket on the last commercial flight out of the country. An original import to Harlem, the Warsame family quickly relocated to Ontario and they've stayed there ever since. Before all that, young K'naan (which means "traveler" in his native tongue) was already honing his mic skills as he memorized Nas and Rakim verses phonetically since he spoke no English at the time. His grandfather had been one of his country's most revered poets, so he came by the lyricist desire honestly.

With a flow often likened to a mix of a young Eminem (minus the mama done me wrong, kill my wife please bullshit) and poet of the people Bob Marley, Dusty Foot Philosopher hit the Canadian shelves in 2005. The Canuck version of the Grammys, the Juno's gave it Best Rap Album that year and it received a nomination for the Polaris Music Prize (similar to the UK's coveted Mercury Prize). It struck a chord with the socially conscious and resonated all the way back to Somalia, where several of the videos now included on the deluxe edition DVD were shot. Big fish K-os thought he was using the poor for commercial gain, but he really wants nothing more than to shed light on a troubled part of the world that developed countries find easy to ignore, a place that in many ways never left K'naan. That fact is evident in his words and in how he carries himself.

The opening track "Wash It Down" outlines his manifesto over a truly inspired instrumental, constructed purely out of splashing water. A disgustingly large percentage of the world does not have access to clean water and, working hand in hand with malnutrition, such contaminated supplies invariably cause a large portion of the illness in impoverished lands. Unbeknownst to most, water based diarrheal diseases actually lead to the death of around three-quarters of a million children under the age of five in sub-Saharan Africa and over half a million in south Asia every year. The gravity of this issue is alluded to by K'naan in stark contrast to the stress citizens of modern capitalist democracies live through, one based in bills, abusive advertising, unnecessarily overwhelming product selection, and warmongering governments.

As it fades, "Wash It Down" leads into the tribal rhythm of "Soobax" and the introduction of Track and Field's production, a team best known for its work on the first two Nelly Furtado albums. Mixing Somali and English words, the track is a lyrical disembowelment of the gangsters who man renegade roadblocks in Africa and gun down those who refuse to pay or simply don't live up to their fickle standards. In its own context, it's a song of empowerment for the meek, those who are always in dire need of hope. He may not live there any more, but K'naan clearly remembers what it was like to have three of his best friends shot in a single day, he understands the hope he desired at the time, and is doing his best to deliver it to the people who still need it. He is honestly trying to give back to the tragic birthplace of his soul, not merely profit from it like Fiddy Cent.

The subject of abusing the less fortunate for personal gain is given great elucidation by "What's Hardcore?" NWA and thousands of subsequent wannabe thugs have made careers from saying, "fuck da police." Far from living the dream, K'naan grew up where there were no police as well as ambulance, firefighters, or any semblance of a people-run government. As a child, playing around with what he thought was a potato, K'naan blew up half of his school when the pin fell out of the odd orb he dug from the ground, it started oddly ticking, he panicked, and tossed it as far as he could. Who do you call in that situation? Scientologists? With purpose, at the ripe age of 13, his brother blew up a federal court. All of those gangsters at the roadblocks, thieves, riot provokers, and the like are practically indistinguishable from anyone else. Can you imagine what that would be like to live in? Well, it existed 15 years ago and it's still going on today. The police may not be perfect, but once they're gone, human nature dictates that all you can fuck is yourself. In 2008, there are pre-teens with no food, water, or basic formal education walking around with AK47s, and we're supposed to think Curtis "P.I.M.P." Jackson is a bad mutha because he wears a bulletproof vest while driving an armored Hummer around his gated estate in Farmington, Connecticut. As K'naan says, "If I rhyme about home and got descriptive / I'd make 50 Cent look like Limp Bizkit". Strewth.

It's been three years since Dusty Foot Philosopher first appeared in the frozen North, and this is its proper US debut. The messages are as urgent as can be and the production -- mostly provided by Brian "Field" West and Gerald "Track" Eaton (a.k.a. Jarvis Church) -- is as memorable today as ever. World music fueled beats will never go out of style, though it takes a special breed to carry them off. Still, it's sad to say, but I can't see the album having much of an impact in the land of the sleeping giant. We live in a world where Fiddy sells millions of albums boasting about being one of the roadblock gangsters shooting his own people and the only antithesis the commercial market seems willing to embrace is a lil' pothead whoring lollipops and a guy in a glowing jacket who jams with Daft Punk.

America has spoken loud and clear about Somalia and Darfur, just like the poor in such cities as New Orleans and Detroit. It would rather party to some chump covered in African blood diamond-encrusted gold crosses who has nothing deeper to offer than "throw your hands up" than deal with the reality that affords their illusions. You can't blame them for not wanting to look behind the green curtain every day, it's not the most fun way to live, but I don't think it's out of line to hope for more. Despite my pessimism, there are still millions of unerringly fantastic people in America today, and one person can still change the world for the better. It's as easy as deciding to care and be aware that your actions have global repercussions. Even though the charts will likely never reflect your humanity, if all you ever do is throw away the selfish, chest-beating gangsta third-eye blindfolds and spread the good word to a few friends, the course of history will be grateful for such a small miracle. Any one of us has the ability to set in motion a domino effect of socially responsible positivism and at long last repeal the glorified lifestyle of woman-raping, drug-dealing, gay-bashing sociopaths with sideways hats. What you put out in the world comes back to you tenfold. K'naan has already done the hard work for us. All we have to do is walk a few steps in his shoes, walk away from what the corporate-strangled industry wants us to buy and towards something real. Take the path of the dusty foot philosopher.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.