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.