‘When I write about myself, I write about Somalia’ — Although he lives in Toronto now, rapper K’naan still speaks passionately about the constant trials facing his native Somalia
K’naan is arguably the hardest-hitting emcee in Canada right now. Yet, instead of subscribing to the usual gangster mentality that poisons commercial hip hop, K’naan ignores money, cars and girls for a politicized manifesto designed to bring attention to his native Somalia. After 17 years without a functioning government, Somalia has become a global pariah of sorts, ruled by bands of warlords and faulty transitional governments that just create more violence, famine and discrimination. Last year, an Islamic militia took over Mogadishu, the capitol, enforcing strict religious rule across much of the country and bringing a semblance of stability to the region. While the government was oppressive, the oppression was somewhat welcomed, as it brought down the violence plaguing the nation.
Weeks after the takeover, the songwriter remained optimistic that despite the human rights abuses, the country he was forced to flee was headed in a better direction. Since then, the Ethiopian military, with western backers, has invaded Somalia and continues to occupy the country today. To K’naan, this is neither a step forward nor backward, but he remains troubled that his country, once famous for peace, poets and an astounding array of culture, remains in chaos. After discovering that Somalia ranks dead last on the Ibraham Index of African Governance, a ranking of government quality, he entered the studio and began to write. The result, a steady stream of songs that will eventually form next year’s follow-up to his brilliant Dusty Foot Philosopher.
“When I write about myself, I write about Somalia,” says K’naan over the phone from his studio in Toronto. “Already, some of the harder songs I’ve ever written are on these new recordings. Yet, I really do not think about it all that much. This is because I have grown as a musician and an artist, alongside growing as a human being. Regardless, my country has always and will always be a big source of inspiration for me, and things have gotten worse since I’ve written the last album. Much worse.”
K’naan won’t say much about his next release, other than that he’s writing and recording the album bit by bit throughout the fall. Recently, he found time to collaborate with both Mos Def and Nelly Furtado and continues to play festival dates worldwide. Still, it is the excitement of writing new material, furthering his verbal fight to get people to notice Somalia and stand up for what is right, that dominates his day. That, and his two young children.
“Children change you in a huge way, in ways unimaginable until it happens,” he says. “I do not know if I have written songs specifically out of these experiences, but there is a certain shift in my personality and the way I approach the world because of having kids. It focuses me on writing about home and myself, in all aspects of both worlds. Imagine, when a place is dealing with these scenarios, like Somalia is, and we, the sons, daughters and children of the country know it’s a proud heritage but are forced into exile. It keeps us vocal. But it also makes me feel strongly about my ideals and those I want to pass on to my children.”
K’naan’s music, a combination of East-African tribal influences, dirty hip hop, pensive and piercing lyricism and brilliant musicianship, has seen him gain prominence in the world of hip hop, injecting some much needed discourse into the music. Through his rhymes, K’naan has become an outspoken critic of Somalia’s situation, prompting the musical community within Canada to rally around his message.
“My concern is to make the best music possible from within me,” he says. “The rest will be whatever it is. I record in the moment — whatever I am dealing with today, whatever new things, struggles or beautiful things they may be.… I have travelled quite a lot, and in the process, refined my sound and the ideals surrounding it. More than ever, I am clear about what I am trying to say — and I have a lot to say.”