The Dusty Foot Philosopher Kicks Up America
K'Naan stood on stage, drum in hand, focused on the two instruments that comprise and compose the totality of African storytelling: the voice and the drum.
It's rare that I can say that I'm walking to see a Radiohead show. In fact, the last time I attended any show without the assistance of a car, subway, or bus was in 2001, when Liberty State Park hosted its last concert: Radiohead. Seven years later and the state reopened the land -- a beautiful park edged on the cusp of Jersey City, overlooking Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Bayonne, as well as offering the closest view to the Statue of Liberty -- for the inaugural All Points West festival.
Seven years seems to be my cycle with the boys from Oxfordshire. In 1994 I saw them open for Belly at Rutgers; in 2001, they blew away 25,000 fans; again in '08, to 30,000. The year 2001 also marked my introduction to a Somalia-born refugee poet/emcee named K'Naan, also on the bill at All Points West, on a compilation called Building Bridges produced by the great Senegalese musician, Yossou N'Dour. It was a fundraiser for African refugees, and featured two tracks by K'Naan, the global-minded "This Is My World" and the sweet tribute to the female half of our species, "Drain My Grey Away".
Rooted in Toronto, K'Naan has made quite an impact on the Canadian music scene. When I first saw him perform in Winnipeg, he stood on stage, drum in hand, a full band accentuating his philosophical lyricism with an urban edge, focused on the two instruments that comprise and compose the totality of African storytelling: the voice and the drum. When his first American release compiled a number of older songs from his Canadian My Life Is a Movie earlier this year, The Dusty Foot Philosopher was eagerly embraced by hip-hop fans seeking something that feeds the world, lyrically, and does not simply rely on beats and inane verses to carry the music through.
"When you have music that has some message in it, a lot of the time people wonder if it works," K'Naan told me after his one-hour set at the festival. "Audiences are predominantly the same anywhere -- they're just people. It's how you say what you're saying that counts. It's also a responsibility. If you have music with a message, you still have to make it beautiful enough so that people appreciate it regardless of the message. It's not saying something first that counts."
He has never sacrificed the music for the message. The two are intertwined, and both hit you simultaneously and powerfully. Tracks like "What's Hardcore", which discusses those rappers who create an illusory lifestyle in order to sell albums and image, and the uplifting "Smile" -- "Never let them you down / Smile while you're bleeding" -- offer the listener an inside look at a life that began worrying about the guns of warlords, not the obtuse fights about dime bag marijuana deals gone wrong.
K'Naan maintains a strong connection to his African heritage. Whether it's filming a video for the dancehall inflected "Soobax" or remembering the blues foundation in his homeland on "Hoobaale" and the griot tradition on "Until the Lion Learns to Speak", he has found a heartfelt and intelligent means to tell the story of his people forward. And this involves actively engaging in the conversation of politics, even if, as he says, "I see our work as an artistic antidote, not a solution."
"The reason I speak about Somalia the most is not only because I come from there," he continues. "It is also because it is in the most dire position. The UN said that there is deeper humanitarian crisis in Somalia than Darfur. This is one of the reasons why I choose to say something on the subject."
The current crisis took the international stage in 2006 during the Battle of Mogadishu, where a clan of local warlords known as the ARPCT battled a militia formed by the Islamic Courts Union for Somalia's capital city. The United States has been criticized for allegedly funding the ARPCT to block totalitarian Islamic rule, a claim the CIA denies though it has been reported upon overseas. K'Naan sees America's involvement as feeding the war currently raging in his homeland.
"I do not think that an actual change can take place in Somalia unless there is an administrative change in America," he says. "I think it's that connected. What I foresee happening that might be helpful, that might change the more dire scenarios in Somalia, is that if someone like Barack Obama becomes president, he can recognize that the current administration has been a part of funding the hands of warlords in Somalia. What they do on their ground is supported by this administration. I think if Obama is the president, and his foreign policy team reviews what is happening in Africa, they might be able to stop giving money to some of the wrong people."
The poet makes an important comparison with Darfur, showing us how essential media attention is to global politics. Millions upon millions of dollars have thankfully gone to relief in Sudan; Somalia remains, for the most part, a footnote. K'Naan's "artistic antidote" is important, as the more he spreads his wings as an artist, the more people become awakened to the topic. What matters most -- and what he touches upon when he keeps referring to it in his songs -- is longevity. Think of the consciousness-raising work of a band like Rage Against the Machine, and then recall that Leonard Peltier is still imprisoned, and that Che Guevara is for the most part an overused T-shirt image. Media can enlighten, but it can also dilute, and, what's worse, forget.
K'Naan has no plans on forgetting. Somalia remains the central topic on his forthcoming album this October, one that, as he said on stage, is heavily influenced by Ethiopian jazz from the '60s and '70s. Turns out that BBC "Sound of the World" DJ Charlie Gillett turned him onto Buda Musique's Ethiopiques series -- an incredible collection that is now up to Volume 23 -- a few years back, and he was captivated. Songs like "15 Minutes Away", regarding the art of sending money overseas to those in need, continue his ability to wrap the everyday into the miraculous, while pulling from a hip-hopped African jazz template.
Another song worth mentioning is "People Like Me", which "takes you through the lives of three different people. First an American solider in Iraq, who doesn't have an opinion of the war and is there because it is a job and he is supporting his family, like many soldiers; the second is a woman in Ohio whose husband left her and she can no longer pay her mortgage; the third is about me and my cousin, who back home in Somalia was my closest friend. When my mother finally got the money to get us out of Somalia, she could only get one of us out, and it's the story of having to choose."
The song that hit me hardest that day in Jersey City, however, was "I Come Prepared", a track that features Damian Marley. K'Naan's profile has been raised quite a bit lately, as he has collaborated with Mos Def and Nelly Furtado, as well as joining Junior Gong on a recent tour. The two hit it off so much, in fact, that the Marleys let him spend three months living in Bob Marley's house in Jamaica ("It was as stereotypically amazing as you can imagine"), which could help account for the depth and seriousness of these new songs -- the irie inspiration of the beats and words.
It could be just a hunch, but I have a feeling that K'Naan's name will become as circulated in America as it has been in Canada with this album. As he said, audiences are pretty much the same everywhere, and if you feed them, they arrive hungry. As a poet first, though, his political and social commentaries are needed, to remind us that an entire world of suffering is going on. While we deal with our own economic woes, we must remember our commitment to creating a global culture, if of nothing else than understanding and dialogue. As he so ingeniously rapped on "Hoobaale", "How come they only fix the bridge after somebody has fallen?" K'Naan is speaking now so we won't have to jump.